Sit, eat, stay a little while in the sukkah


We begin with a basic Hebrew language lesson.

The blessing recited in the Sukkah — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — does not mean “to sit in the sukkah.” One of the most common mistakes on Sukkot happens when people enter a sukkah, stand during Kiddush and, immediately after pronouncing the required blessing — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — feel compelled to sit down because they (mistakenly) believe that the blessing commands them to “sit down.”

I have seen rabbis, Hebrew school principals, and even (believe it or not) Hebrew-language teachers perpetuate this mistake by signaling their congregants or students to sit down upon reciting the blessing. If the mitzvah was really about “sitting,” the blessing would be “… la-shevet ba-sukkah,” for in Hebrew, “la-shevet” means “to sit.”

The mitzvah on Sukkot goes far beyond sitting. We are not commanded to “sit” (la-shevet) in the Sukkah, rather we are commanded to “live” (le-shev) in the sukkah.

“Ba-sukkot teshvu shivat yamim” — “You shall live in sukkot for seven days” (Leviticus 23:42).

In this verse, the Talmud (Sukkot 28b) teaches: “All seven days [of Sukkot], one should make the sukkah his temporary residence.”

What is the biblical basis for this?

Our rabbis taught: You shall live (teshvu). The word teshvu teaches that one lives in the sukkah in the same manner as one ordinarily lives. To “live” in the sukkah, according to the Talmud, is to eat all meals in the sukkah, to study Torah in the sukkah, and — yes — even to sleep in the sukkah.

Above all, the mitzvah of “le-shev ba-sukkah” is to live in the sukkah with great joy and happiness. This mitzvah of joy is rooted in the Torah’s reason for the commandment to live in sukkot: “In order that future generations may know that I [God] made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).

This verse teaches us that from a historical perspective, living in the sukkah is an expression of our joy and appreciation for the Exodus from Egypt, and especially for the shelter that God provided for us during our long journey in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

My father told me the story — perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal — that a baron of Rothschild invited the queen of England to his sukkah. In preparation for her visit, the queen asked one of her officials to research the history and meaning of Sukkot. He told her that it re-enacts and celebrates the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.

When the queen came to the baron’s sukkah, she was greeted with a red carpet and they ate a beautiful, multicourse meal with the finest china and silverware. During dinner, the baron asked the queen what her impressions of the sukkah were so far.

She remarked, “If this is the way your people lived in the wilderness for 40 years, they should have stayed in the wilderness forever.”

Beyond the 40 years of God’s shelter in the wilderness, living in the sukkah with joy is an expression of gratitude for the basics in life — food, water and a roof over our heads. In our own weeklong Thanksgiving festival, we live in simple structures whose roof must be naturally made, and through which we must be able to see the heavens, so that we remember that God who resides in heaven is our ultimate source for life, sustenance and shelter.

During Sukkot, we live in a sukkah to remind ourselves that no matter who we are, what position or title we hold in life, or how much material comfort we may have, the source for all blessing in life is God.

Sukkot is “zman simchateinu” — our season of rejoicing. It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy meals with guests, to sing, to study and to appreciate life. It is a time “le-shev ba-Sukkah,” to live life to its fullest — in the sukkah.

So remember, “leshev ba-Sukkah” does not mean “to sit.” After all, who would want to just sit through life?

Daniel Bouskila is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a Sephardic congregation in Westwood.


Questions, Prayers and Shabbat Lights


Interfaith Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.

The roundtable dialogue, “Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?” was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.

“We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God,” said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.

Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.

“Can God’s justice be defended and should one even try to do so?” asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it’s important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God’s will.

“If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors,” he said. “We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about…. Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice.”

Cohen agreed: “Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen.” He said that at other times, “the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse.”

But really, he added the question is not “why did God do this, but why did we do this?” When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can’t really answer the question of where God is. But “where am I is a question we have an answer to.”

Egalitarian but Spiritual

They say “two Jews, three shuls,” so why not one more alternative community?

That’s why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.

“The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing,” said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.

Modeled after New York’s Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don’t affiliate with a particular movement and don’t have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so “members” of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home — like Ikar, for example — PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.

“We’re not a one-stop shop for everyone,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available.”

In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.

“While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment,” Friedman said.

Just One Candle…

First it was Shabbat; now it’s candles…. What’s next? Kosher?

Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting “FridayLight,” a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles — that’s 2 million candles!

“By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace,” reads the Web site (www.fridaylight.org), which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle — definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.

“With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world,” it adds.

The New Four Questions

Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn’t the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?

These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in “From Sinai to Cyberspace,” a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.

“From Sinai To Cyberspace” examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.

The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.

For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail picoegal@gmail.com.

For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit www.myjli.com/courses.php.

 

Celebrating a Shpiel-Good Holiday


“Ramvetlh QonglaHbe’ voDleH,” Beth Chayim Chadashim congregant Maggie Anton Parkhurst will say as she begins Chapter 6 of the synagogue’s Megillah reading on Erev Purim.

What?

It’s Klingon, the invented language of the “Star Trek” TV series and films, for “That night the emperor could not sleep.” And she’ll continue, “‘ej ghaHvaD QonoS laDlu’ ‘e’ ra’pu’,” which translates to “And he commanded that someone read the log for him.”

Reading the Megillah in esoteric tongues is part of the Purim fun at this Los Angeles synagogue, and Parkhurst has chosen this infinitely tongue-tying imaginary language of the Trekkies to make her bid at hilarity.

This is Purim, after all, the one time of year in traditional Judaism when men are allowed to wear women’s clothing. A time when comedy is king as clergy and congregants strive to tell the story of Queen Esther saving the Jews from near-extermination in ancient Persia through laughter-provoking Megillah readings, shpiels (Yiddish for skits) and other innovative forms that range from ribald to ridiculous, satiric to sacrilegious. And that sometimes necessitates creative interpretations of the parody/fair-use exception to the U.S. copyright law.

At Beth Chayim Chadashim, the number of languages used has snowballed since 2002, when congregants volunteered to add to the already established English, Hebrew and Yiddish readings. Over the years, the most unusual have included American Sign, Afrikaans, Ladino, pig Latin, Esperanto and even auctioneer-style English.

“Haman’s name is understood in all the languages, so everyone can boo and hiss,” explains synagogue past president Davi Cheng, who always reads in Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese.

And while Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Megillah reading is geared to the entire family, not all Purim celebrations are such child-friendly affairs.

“Bring your IDs,” Rabbi Brett Krichiver warns those planning to attend Club Shushan at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It’s the Los Angeles’ synagogue’s first-ever part-shpiel-part-nightclub Purim celebration and it’s R-rated, including a DJ and dancing, a cash bar, free food and clergy dressed as go-go girls, bouncers and cocktail waiters and waitresses.

The Empty Stage Comedy Theatre, an improv group based in West Los Angeles, will provide entertainment, veering from the basic structure of the story in ad-libbed and audience-inspired directions. Empty Stage artistic director Stan Wells says these trajectories might include King Ahasuerus’ request for Vashti to dance naked and Haman’s “overblown and probably nonexistent” attempted seduction of Esther.

In preparation, Krichiver is doing text study on the Book of Esther with the group, which includes both Jewish and non-Jewish actors.

“We’re bringing Purim back to its roots, turning Judaism on its head for one day of the Jewish calendar,” Krichiver says, adding “but nothing obscene.”

Adat Ari El in Valley Village is hoping to turn Jewish gastronomy on its head in a change of pace from last year’s original Broadway-style, musical film noir parody, “The Maltese Megillah,” which was written by congregant Peter Levitan. This year, the synagogue will present a reading of “mock scholarly papers” on the merits of the latke vs. the hamantaschen, based on the original debate at the University of Chicago in 1947.

In this exchange, attorney Levitan, representing the latke, is squaring off against former radio reporter Barbara Dab, who will prevail upon her investigative journalistic skills to establish proof of the superiority of the hamantaschen, which she believes is the perfect self-contained treat.

“You’ve got your bread, your starches, your fruit and your dairy. The hamantaschen has almost all the food groups except the green leafy vegetable,” she says, refusing to discuss fat content and emphasizing that its “grab and go” nature shouldn’t detract from its designation as a gourmet food.

Levitan, however, is unimpressed.

“First, that’s not even its name; its real name is ‘oznei Haman [Haman’s ears],'” he insists. “We should be suspicious indeed of anything that makes its way into Jewish people’s stomachs under an assumed name.”

Both Levitan and Dab are hopeful that this inaugural debate will become an established part of Adat Ari El’s Purim celebration. But in many congregations, it’s the Purim shpiel, which dates back to Talmudic times, that continues to reign supreme.

America’s best-known shpiel-meister may well be a New York accountant named Norman Roth, who this year composed his 19th consecutive skit for his congregation, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. Titled “Purim Night Fever — the Disco Megillah,” the shpiel spotlights Queen Esther singing “Stayin’ Alive” dressed in a white suit like John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.”

Roth, 67, writes each shpiel in a different genre — including Broadway, Woodstock, Nashville and rock ‘n’ roll — always incorporating some version of the original Purim story and always completing the new script and lyrics before Labor Day. He estimates that his shpiels have been performed in more than 300 synagogues in the United States and Canada and one in Australia.

Roth grew up listening to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley music; he says he just wants to create an evening of joy: “I don’t even come down on Haman. We’re a politically liberal synagogue; we don’t believe in capital punishment.

Locally, for the third year running, Temple Akiba in Culver City will perform one of Roth’s scripts for its annual intergenerational shpiel. This year it’s Motown, with Little Mordechai Wonder and Haman Smokey Robinson and the Schmearacles.

“It’s therapeutic to get silly at least once a year in synagogue,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who once used a vacuum cleaner as a grogger, or noisemaker, to drown out Haman’s name during a Megillah reading. “Even on a day when the underlying message is very profound and very sobering.”

 

yeLAdim


Thank You!

The Navon family — Rebecca, Ariella, Eitan, Elisha and Asaf — gave us our pick for our new name: YeLAdim, which means children in Hebrew. The large L and A are in honor of where we live (good thing we aren’t in New York or it wouldn’t work). Thank you to all the kids who sent in ideas for a new name — you are really creative!

Kein v’ Lo:

Vashti

This section of the page will be a way for you as kids to sound off on an issue. This month’s kein v’ lo (yes and no) is about Queen Vashti. Is she, in the 21st century, a role model for women?

The Kein Side:

  • She stood up for what she believed in by refusing to dance in front of her drunk husband and his friends — wearing only her crown — during the royal feast. Even under penalty of death she stood by her convictions.
  • In earlier verses, she is referred to as “Vashti, the queen.” When she tells the king she won’t come, she is called “Queen Vashti,” to show that she has a mind of her own. The king’s advisers feared Vashti would start a trend. One adviser in particular (who some identify as Haman) told Ahashsuerus that he should issue a decree that women should obey their husbands, which he did.

The Lo Side:

  • She hosted a separate feast just for the women, but the sages say she held it in the same palace so the women would have a chance to flirt with the men. Some say she was incredibly vain and didn’t want to dance because she had a skin disease.
  • She was the great-granddaughter of the villainous King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had destroyed the sacred Temple. On Shabbat, she would summon Jewish women and children and force them to work and do humiliating tasks.

We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line Vashti. We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim. And whether you like poppy seed or cherry filling in your hamantaschen

— Happy Purim!

About…Purim

“Purim is when we celebrate Jews being free to have their way of life and live peacefully. It teaches fairness and kindness, because it said Haman needed to be kind to people that were not like him, and that Esther was very fair in how she got him to stop.

“But the most important thing about Purim is that it’s a lot of fun. You eat yummy foods and have a big carnival. For Purim, I plan to attend my religious school’s Purim carnival and hear the Megillah.” — Mimi Erlick, 10, Farragut Elementary School, Culver City, and Adat Shalom Religious School.

Do you want to share your opinion about something? Just e-mail kids@jewishjournal.com and put About…(your topic) in the subject line. We’ll print as many as we can.

 

Hey Kids!


It’s Your World

Welcome to your page in The Jewish Journal. The last Friday of every month belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles. In honor of the New Year and new look of this page, we want you to come up with a new name for it. Please send your ideas to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line New Name. We’ll pick the best one and make it the new name for the kids page (and you’ll get all the credit).

Kein v’ Lo

The Kein Side:

Many children use the evening to collect tzedakah for different charities instead of asking for candy — or they donate the candy to a food bank. For most people, the holiday has nothing to do with religion or real witches or saints. It’s more of a chance to go out with friends, have fun and decorate. Besides, it’s a great way to meet your neighbors.

The Lo Side:

It is a pagan holiday (a night when people believed the spirits of the dead would contact the living) and a Catholic holiday (candles are lit Nov. 1 on All Saints’ Day to honor the dead), but Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. Asking strangers for candy is rude; and tricks are mean. Jewish children have Purim as a day to dress up.

What do you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line

Kein V’Lo: Halloween. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Stump Your Parents

Enjoy these facts about autumn — test your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see who gets the right answers first.

1) Which Hebrew month do we welcome in November?

2) How many weeks of autumn are there?

3) What is the full moon that follows the beginning of autumn?

4) What were the first jack-o-lanterns made from?

5) Who first suggested using Daylight Saving Time?

6) Why do the leaves change color?

7) In the Torah Portion Noach (which we read Nov. 5), God put up what object to show that everything was OK after the flood?

Answers: 1) Cheshvan; 2) Thirteen; 3) Harvest Moon; 4) Turnips; 5) Ben Franklin; 6) As the leaves lose chlorophyll (which makes them green) their other pigments
are exposed.; 7) A Rainbow

Blind Faith


Jews often live in calendar dialectics. Annually, we oscillate between two Jewish New Years (Tishrei/Nissan) and two “Judgment Days” (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur). the Dubner Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, perhaps the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time, was once asked: Why do we celebrate both Simchat Torah and Shavuot? Why not condense them into one grand holiday?

Characteristically, he responded with a story: A king and queen were childless for many years. Desperate, they visited a sage who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family, however, must see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. When the queen gave birth to a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the princess. There she was raised in regal style with the finest female educators.

As the princess came of age, the king encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the king’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage — until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the king approached the final nobleman, who remarkably assented to marry without as much as a peek.

As the wedding date approached, the nobleman’s repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. He was for better, but probably for worse, stuck. On the wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety-stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, he braced for disaster — but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” But none was coming. Everyday he unveiled yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.

Months later, the nobleman approached his new father-in-law to admit his delight in his new bride and confide his disappointment — that he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The king decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.

Shavuot, the Dubner Maggid explained, marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jewish nation confidently proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (we will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah study, the Jew’s joy and ever expanding appreciation for the Torah’s pristine beauty and depth.

Is that not a metaphor for Jewish history? When we had nothing but faith — throughout the numerous darks spots, spanning from Babylonia through Rome to Medieval Europe and 20th century Germany — the Jew always celebrated deep Torah study. It was the study halls of Babylonia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lithuania and Poland that illuminated our blackest moments. And today — as we begin the “Lexus” period of the 21st century America Jewish community — where are we?

In May 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in this country. Since that dire prediction, Look has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All, however, is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub-zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52 percent intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry.

When historians will wonder what happened to all those American Jews, I believe they will reach the inescapable conclusion that many analysts of the classic 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have already reached: “Jewish day school was … the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors” (Elimor & Katz, 1993). In other words, only a consistent commitment to serious Torah will create the joy critical to ensure Jewish survival. Of course these historians will have only been echoing the words of the sweet singer of Israel, King David, who more than 2,500 years ago penned in his Psalms the sentiment: “Had the Torah not been my constant delight, long ago, I would have long since been lost”

Amid the wild craziness and the merriment (and the unfortunate alcohol) that often accompanies Simchat Torah, we may want to reflect upon the secret of our eternity.

After that reflection, I humbly submit, we might just do ourselves and our unborn grandchildren a favor and commit to attend one of the numerous deep (and often entertaining) Torah classes that can be found year-round in our local synagogues or kollels. The Torah is quite a bride — and marriage, after all, is a beautiful thing.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.

 

Right on Time


“I have to wait a month longer this year to eat apples and honey,” complains Jeremy, 16.

“No, the first of Tishrei is always the first of Tishrei,” I say, referring to the date on the Jewish calendar that marks our New Year.

“But it’s not till Oct. 4,” he answers.

Jewish time, to most people, means that Shabbat services and synagogue board meetings begin 15 to 30 minutes late. But true Jewish time means that our days and our holidays adhere to a primarily lunar calendar, corresponding to the waxing, waning and reappearance of the moon as it circles the earth. Jewish time also means that our days begin at sunset and our months begin when the crescent of the new moon is just visible. (It’s no mistake that the Hebrew word for month, chodesh, is related to the Hebrew word for new, chadash.)

And it means that our days don’t correspond — except every 19 years, give a day on either side — to the dates on our secular or Gregorian calendar, based on the earth’s orbit around the sun.

“Wait till 2043,” I say. “Rosh Hashanah will fall on Oct. 5, the latest it’s ever been.”

But the first of Tishrei will always be the first of Tishrei, whether it falls on Sept. 5 or Oct. 5. And around the world, all on the same day, we Jews will be carrying out God’s commandment, expressed in Leviticus 23:24, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

Devising this Jewish calendar, and celebrating sacred occasions at their appointed times, as God instructs in Leviticus, entails more than running outside at sunset and staring at the sky looking for the first appearance of stars.

“Which, in Los Angeles, you can’t even see,” my frustrated amateur astronomer husband, Larry, says.

Although that’s exactly what used to happen. In ancient times, when people saw the new moon, they would report their sighting to the Sanhedrin, the high court in Jerusalem. After the Sanhedrin confirmed their testimony, the religious court would declare a new month and alert the Jewish community — initially by lighting fires atop mountaintops and later by dispatching messengers.

But there were some complications. For starters, the mean lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 1/2 seconds, making a lunar year 354 days. That’s about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, which runs 365 1/4 days. And that’s problematic for the pilgrimage festivals — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — which are agricultural holidays and thus season-sensitive.

After all, you couldn’t very well celebrate Pesach, known as Chag Ha-Aviv (the Festival of Spring), in October.

“And you couldn’t celebrate Chanukah in August, right before school starts, because we’d get pencils and binders as gifts,” Jeremy notes. “How messed up would that be?”

So the ancient Jews had to intercalate their lunar year to correspond with the solar year.

“Intercalate? Is that even a word?” asks Gabe, 18.

“Ask Hillel the Second,” I answer.

Hillel the Second was a patriarch who, as head of the Sanhedrin, devised a fixed Jewish calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations that standardized the length of months to 29 or 30 days. He also cleverly inserted an extra month — seven times every 19 years, in the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle — to keep the holidays regulated according to seasons.

Maybe he was heeding the psalmist who said, in 90:12, “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” Or maybe he forgot his wife’s birthday one too many times.

A more informal form of intercalation probably appeared earlier, scholars surmise. For example, if the road to Jerusalem was too muddy to travel or if there were not enough baby lambs to sacrifice, the ancients waited another lunar cycle to celebrate Pesach. This leap month is Adar II, though technically Adar I is the extra month. And the month of Nisan, which contains the pivotal holiday of Pesach, remains the start of the calendar year.

“What Hillel and the other Jews didn’t do is make sure that all the Jewish holidays fall on the weekdays,” points out Danny, 14, always happy to miss a day of school.

But the ancient Jews did succeed in giving us, with their lunar/solar calendar, a way, despite our living in mostly urban and technological environments, to stay tuned to the natural rhythms of the universe.

And they did succeed in giving us, despite our living in a primarily secular world, a way to stay tuned to the natural rhythms of the Jewish universe, moving us forward through the cycles of the Jewish year, which provide a range of emotional and spiritual experiences while rooting us solidly in our traditions and history.

And so, at sunset on Oct. 3, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We celebrate a new moon, a new month and the new year of 5766. And as we reflect on the past year and commit to changes in the coming year, we know, as always, that Rosh Hashanah is right on time.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino with her husband and has four sons.

How Funny Is Passover?


Passover is not primarily known for being a funny holiday, but don’t tell that to Terry and Patty LaBan. The creators of “Edge City,” who have brought contemporary Jewish American suburban life to the funny pages since 2000, are giving the Ardin family the ultimate seder storyline — four panels at a time.

From April 11-30, the Ardins will confront a situation loosely based on something that happened one Passover to Terry and Patty LaBan, cartoonist and plot/character developer, respectively, when Patty’s mother decided to take a break on hosting a seder.

When responsibility for Passover shifts in the comic strip from Abby’s mother to Abby herself, she frantically copes with the numerous preparation tasks — such as paying her kids, Colin and Carly, $5 each to rid the house of chametz. Meanwhile, husband Len — a technophile — madly researches the Internet for how to lead a seder.

While Jewish comic characters have been around for decades, Terry LaBan said there’s a reason why there aren’t enough in today’s papers for a minyan.

“Syndicates have always wanted strips with characters that the maximum number of people will identify with, so there hasn’t been a lot of incentive to do a strip with characters who are Jewish,” he said. “We didn’t intend at the beginning they’d be explicitly Jewish, but having them celebrate Christmas just because it was the standard thing to do just didn’t seem right…. When we decided that our characters would be Jewish, we realized we had an opportunity to show how Judaism can be a normal — and positive — part of people’s lives.”

And if the feedback from their Jewish readers is any indication, the Ardin family might just start a two-dimensional trend.

“Many people have spoken or written, thanking us for portraying characters … in a way where their Jewishness isn’t always the main point, but just another aspect of their lives,” LaBan said.

To see what happens to the Ardins, visit www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/edgecity/about.htm.

Yeladim


 

Inch by Inch, Row by Row!

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, means: “If a woman gives birth,” but it can also mean “plant.” And so, being the beginning of spring, that is exactly what it is time to do!

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah – One Mitzvah Creates Another

It’s time to plant your mitzvah garden. Create a patch in your garden at home or at school and designate it The Mitzvah Garden. Plant flower seeds or bulbs, and then water and care for them. In about eight weeks, when your flowers have bloomed, clip them and take them as gifts to a hospital or senior center. What a beautiful spring gift.

A Bit of Earth Day

Earth Day is April 22. For ideas of what you can do to celebrate this day, visit www.earthdayla.com. Here are just two of the events:

Earth Day on the Promenade, Third Street Promenade,

April 16, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

WorldFest, Woodley Park, Van Nuys, April 17, 10 a.m-6:30 p.m. $5 (adults), free (kids 12 and younger).

Solve this puzzle to see what you will find there:

1. The largest mammal: (__) __ __ __ __

2. Has two wheels: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

3. Forest fire bear: __ __ __ __ __ (__)

4. Sun energy: (__) __ __ __ __

5. Makes magic: __ __ __ __ (__) __ __ __

6. Move with music: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

7. They have eight legs: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

Figure out what the word are. Then take the letters in the boxes and put them in order here:

__ A __ K __ __ __ I E __ T __ S T

Unscramble the words below for some of the cool things you can do

1. You can POTAD a TTIKEN

2. Help save an AGUTNORAN

3. Eat IOPETHINA food at the international food court.

 

Yeladim


 

We read the story of Queen Esther, Megillat Esther, twice – on Thursday evening and Friday morning. Let’s see if you know the story.

Put the parts in the right order.

__Mordechai tells Esther Haman’s plan.

__Mordechai will not bow to Haman. Haman decides to kill all the Jews on Adar.

__4. Mordechai saves the kings life by overhearing and exposing a plot to kill him.

__Haman is hanged along with his 10 sons.

__Vashti is canned. Esther becomes the new queen.

__Queen Vashti refuses to show up at the party.

__On the 13th day of Adar, the Jews outside the city of Shushan defend themselves. They win! They celebrate their victory on the 14th of Adar. That day becomes the holiday of Purim.

__The king can’t sleep. He reads his diary and remembers that Mordechai saved his life.

__Esther risks her life by going to Ahasuerus uninvited. She invites him and Haman to a banquet.

__At the banquet, Esther reveals that she is a Jew and that Haman wants to kill her people.

__King Ahasuerus throws a party.

__9. Haman visits the king. Ahasuerus calls Haman to take Mordechai around town in royal robes, riding a white horse.)

Now that you have put the story in order, find the hidden word by locating the letter in each sentence that matches the number below. (Hint: In the fourth sentence, the 11th letter is A.)

–  –  –  – –  –  –  – –  –  – –

6 7 2 1 1 1 2 1 2 4 1 2

 

Westside JCC Bash Celebrates 50 Years


 

Sol Marshall looked at the aging Westside Jewish Community Center and smiled.

“I think it looks great,” he said.

Marshall, 92, served as the center’s first public relations director five decades ago. For an instant, he allowed himself to become lost in remembrance of things past.

“There was always so much going on back then,” he said. “Never a dull moment.”

And so it was on Sunday, Dec. 12, when the Westside JCC threw a 50th anniversary party for itself, and 250 of its friends came. Septuagenarians and octogenarians who hadn’t seen each other for years reminisced about the good old days, when the Westside JCC was considered one of the country’s state-of-the-art Jewish community centers.

Preschoolers and kindergarteners ate ice cream, hot dogs and jumped around on an enormous moon bounce. Fathers and sons in kippot engaged in fiercely contested table tennis games, playing alongside secular Jews in T-shirts and jeans.

“I think this is a new and exciting time for this important communal institution,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “There’s a nice feeling here, a lot of energy.”

That the Westside JCC is still standing is itself a minor miracle. When the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) experienced a major crisis a few years back because of financial mismanagement, the organization threatened to shutter all nine local JCCs. A public outcry forced a reversal.

Although since then, the Southland has seen more centers permanently close than any other part of the country. The Bay Cities JCC no longer exists. Earlier this year, Conejo Valley’s center also disappeared. Valley Cities JCC, which JCCGLA had planned to shut down earlier this year, is actively trying to raise money or find a buyer to purchase the center. Its fate remains unclear.

JCCGLA’s problems spilled over into the Westside JCC, which found its funding slashed. Concerned about the center’s prospects, donors reduced contributions or held back altogether.

Over the past two and a half years, the Westside executives had to make some painful decisions to keep the center in business. They closed the unprofitable health and fitness center, the swimming pool where Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg once trained and cut staff by 50 percent.

Those hard choices staved off disaster, Westside JCC President Michael Kaminsky said. Now, the Westside JCC is in expansion mode, having recently hired a highly regarded executive director — Brian Greene, former executive director of Camp Ramah in California — and reopened some classrooms to accommodate the surging demand for its preschool and kindergarten programs. To generate income, empty spaces have been rented to several nonprofit and academic institutions, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Most important, the center has raised nearly half the $14 million needed for an ambitious renovation that Westside JCC leaders hope to begin within two years.

“When this center is outfitted with a brand-new swimming pool and health and fitness center, it’s going to bring in adults,” Kaminsky said. “So when a mother drops her kids off, she’ll go to the new gym.”

“Or, when a new person moves into the neighborhood and says he’s looking for place to workout, people will tell him there’s a real haimish center here,” he continued. “And then he’ll check out the adult programming. That’s how it all starts.”

The center appears in need of a facelift. Some shutters around the windows in the basketball arena are broken. The facility’s tile floor looks like something out of a 1950s hospital. The plumbing, heating and air conditioning are in dire need of upgrades.

But none of that seemed to matter to the revelers, who lent the occasion a levity and lightness.

For many, the highlight of the three-hour soiree occurred when children commandeered the stage and sang Chanukah songs in their high-pitched voices. First up was a group of 20 2- to 3-year-olds. Wearing paper hats decorated with Chanukah candles, they sang the “Dreidel Song” and the “Macabee March.”

Lest their parents miss anything, the sound of camcorders and digital cameras began before a single note was sung. A group of 3- and 4-year-olds and finally 5-year-olds followed.

David Berke and his wife, Wende, beamed as they watched their sons, Isaiah, 3 1/2, and Elijah, 5, perform. David Berke said Isaiah — whom he calls “our little cantor” — had gained such an appreciation of Hebrew songs at the Westside JCC that he recently broke out in a rendition of the Shema at a neighborhood Target.

“It’s important for us to have Jewish identity reinforced not just at home and at temple but also in their education, as well,” said Berke, adding that his boys might not get such an appreciation of Judaism at a public school.

American gold medalist Krayzelburg said he appreciated the Westside JCC for an entirely different reason. The four-time Olympic champion said he had fond memories of the three years in the early 1990s when he worked as a lifeguard at the center and was on the swim team.

At the center, Krayzelburg, then a new Ukrainian Jewish immigrant with a poor command of English, said he forged strong friendships and reveled in the center’s “family-like atmosphere.” Now a much-in-demand product endorser, the 29-year-old former Olympian said he attended the anniversary party to raise money for a place that “touches so many lives.”

Los Angeles Councilman Martin Ludlow presented Westside executives with a plaque commemorating the center’s 50 years. After a menorah-lighting ceremony, the African American politician said the Westside JCC’s revival mirrored another positive trend in his district, which includes the center’s greater Fairfax home.

“The [facility’s] renovation is a symbol of the renewal of the area and of its openness and diversity,” the councilman said. “Just a few miles east of here, you felt a dearth of energy. Now, businesses are moving back. Families are moving back in.”

 

Gifts Galore From Bubbe to Baby


When it’s time to celebrate Chanukah, nobody should be left out of the fun. We’ve scoured the holiday gift scene to find the perfect presents for Mom, Dad and the whole family. Count on any of these “candles” to light up the face of someone you love during this year’s Festival of Lights.

Candle No. 1.

Who says a baby is too young to light a menorah? As they say, practice makes perfect. So start with the huggable, colorful “My First Plush Menorah” ($13.95, oytoys.com). The best part: It comes with a special pouch holding nine candles that fit right into the menorah’s holders.

Candle No. 2.

Any young child would want to cuddle with the bright blue Mazel teddy bear by Russ Berrie & Co. ($12.99, amazon.com). But if you’re having trouble peeling a kid away from the computer, slip in the CD-ROM, “Who Stole Hanukkah?” ($19.95, davka.com). The interactive mystery game teaches the story of the Maccabees in five languages.

Candle No. 3.

When it comes to teenagers away at college, first thing’s first: send a menorah. A classic Chanukiah will do the job ($24.95, crateandbarrel.com). Then, it’s about what a teenage girl wants. A trendy T-shirt makes a statement. The “Famous Challah Bread” tee takes its cue from rap and hip-hop, sporting the words “Challah Bread” on the front and “Challah Back” on the back — as in, when someone gives a shout, you “challah” right back. The saucy “Kabballywood Tee” pokes fun at Hollywood stars like Madonna who can’t get enough of kabbalah. ($30-$40, chosencouture.com).

For an aspiring superhero teenage boy, pick up a copy of the “Jewish Super Hero Corps Comic Book” featuring Menorah Man and Dreidel Maidel ($3.95, jewcy.com). Throw in some classic, kosher Hebrew Bazooka Gum, which has comics inside its wrappers ($10.95 for 100 pieces, jewishsource.com). Another Jewish superhero, “The Hebrew Hammer,” saves Chanukah, this year out on DVD. ($16.99, thehebrewhammer.com)

Candle No. 4.

If Mom has all the menorahs she needs, give her an elegant dreidel she can display. Waterford makes a beautiful, crystal dreidel etched with Hebrew letters ($49, bloomingdales.com). If you want to splurge, buy a handcrafted, porcelain, Lladró dreidel. The detail makes these pieces unique. ($105-$130, macys.com).

Candle No. 5.

Nudge Dad into the miracle mood with music. The group, Safam, has a lively “Chanukah Collection” and “Passover Collection” two-CD set ($25, safam.com). Original and upbeat tunes like “Eight Little Candles,” “Maoz Tsur” and “Judah Maccabee” will get Dad — and the whole family — hopping. You can listen to some songs on the Web site before you buy, but you won’t go wrong with this one.

Candle No. 6.

Grandparents will love a gift they can share with their grandchildren. Those who speak a bissel of Yiddish are sure to get nachas from reading their grandchildren Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” — in Yiddish ($15, jewcy.com). But if the language of the Old World prompts an “oy vey,” go with a modern classic like “A Blue’s Clues Chanukah” by Jessica Lissy for preschoolers ($11.80, amazon.com) or “Festival of Lights: The Story of Hanukkah” by Maida Silverman, for children 4-8 years old ($5.99, amazon.com).

Candle No. 7.

There’s always the family friend or baby sitter who deserves some love. In this case, your best bet is an edible treat. For a cookie “monster,” get some chocolate-covered Oreo cookies topped with Chanukah decorations. Nine cookies come in a gold box, tied with a blue ribbon ($16.99, macys.com). Make a chocolate lover’s day with See’s Candies’ Star-of-David box. It’s filled with kosher goodies like milk chocolate coins, blue-and-white sugar sticks and lollipops that will satisfy any sweet tooth ($8, seescandy.com).

Candle No. 8.

Worried your pet will feel left out? Chanukah’s no time for ordinary ol’ bones. Throw a dog the blue and yellow “Squeaky Dreidel Dog Toy” ($8, jewishsource.com) and a give your cat some silver and blue “Chanukah Mice” ($7.99, petco.com).

Give Best, Sweetest to Hungry


For millions of American Jews, the official end of the summer season brings with it an important new beginning. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year,

ushers in the holiest period of the Jewish calendar.

Called the Days of Repentance, the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur allow Jews around the world to celebrate a fresh start by looking back on the year just ended and committing not to repeat past mistakes in the months ahead.

Recently, in preparation for the holidays, the Jewish nonprofit agency that I work for took part in its third annual Volunteer Day. Over the years, we have cooked lunches for homebound HIV/AIDS sufferers, packed grocery bags for poor and anxious families with young children and served hot meals to veterans and seniors.

This year, some of us went to work at a local food bank. As we unloaded crates of donated goods and prepared them for distribution to a network of pantries and soup kitchens, I was struck by the range and quality of food that people had seen fit to send. A bird’s eye view revealed little — from above, the crates were awash with bright-colored labels in multihued tones and there were cans and boxes and packages of every shape and texture.

But a closer look proved instructive. These were not just your typical donation offerings, not only the soups, rices and beans that seem to overpopulate the average consumer’s cupboard. The food I saw told a more interesting story.

There were dried plums, imported tuna and expensive Italian capers. I found gourmet pasta, fresh juices and can after can of pricey artichoke hearts. I even stumbled across bags of designer, hand-ground Colombian coffee and boxes of macadamia nuts.

In Judaism, the Torah commands us to feed the less fortunate. But our tradition doesn’t leave it at that; it urges us to adhere to a stricter standard.

"When you give food to a hungry person," we are told, "give him your best and sweetest food," and from what I could make out, people are listening. Surely these donations were not simply the result of excess purchases; after all, canned goods last a long time, and most people who enjoy capers once will likely have cause to use them again.

I felt humbled by the rich diversity we found at the food bank that day. To me, it clearly indicates the donors’ intuitive sense, both on a personal and communal level, of what is decent and right.

These donors understand the fleeting nature of financial security. They recognize that the families who receive their aid are no less sophisticated and no less deserving than they are — they simply have imported tuna palates on a kidney bean budget.

With the New Year upon us, once again, Jews struggle to unpack their hearts and open their minds. Once again, we affirm the people we are and imagine the people we wish to be.

This year, let us resolve to do better. When you meet someone to transact business, give her your best and sweetest deal. When you see someone you love, give him your best and sweetest kiss. And be sure that when you give your food to a hungry person, you give him your best and sweetest food.

I know you would hope for the same.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

When You Can’t Go Home Again


Ah, the High Holidays. Time to gather, celebrate, eat, fast, repent and eat some more. But before you can get to any of that, there’s another, perhaps less-ancient tradition that takes place a few weeks prior. It’s the High Holiday scramble, and anyone without deeply planted roots knows how the dance goes. Jewish New Year works much like Dec. 31: You don’t want to be alone; there’s pressure to have someplace to go; and for transplants, singles and others, the options are less obvious than a meal with the family and services at the synagogue where you grew up. A little originality is called for, and the industrious don’t miss a beat.

Witness the “orphan party.” The wandering Jew’s answer to family dinner involves the gathering of “orphans,” a.k.a., friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and anyone else who doesn’t have anywhere to go for the holiday.

“As a single person, I rally all my friends together,” longtime New York transplant Amy Levy said. “I want to make sure my friends have someplace to go…. For years I’ve had people to my home. I make fantastic pot roast, everybody brings something. I’ve created a new tradition with my friends. We celebrate the holidays together.”

Since taking on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be a big commitment, this year, when the repenting is done, “I’ll go to my friend, Joana’s Aunt Sandy’s,” Levy said. “My boyfriend and I are going there for break the fast.”

Services, too, can be a stress-inducing dilemma. At around $300 a head, standard synagogue membership can become a much less appealing consideration for those without families close by, and many synagogues don’t offer discounts for adults older than 25.

Some synagogues and Jewish organizations, like Sinai Temple (www.sinaitemple.org) and Aish (www.aish.com), offer reduced fees for those in their 20s and early 30s, and Jewish Singles Meet! (whose reservation line is (818) 780-4809) welcomes singles in their 30s and 40s to their services. A few other synagogues, like Temple Beth Zion-Sinai in Lakewood (www.tbzs.org), charge for tickets but will not turn people away because of an inability to pay. And then there’s always Chabad (www.chabad.com), the Chai Center (www.chaicenter.org) and the Laugh Factory (323) 656-1336), that offer completely free services and meals for the masses.

“We joined a temple because they had youth fees, so if you were under 34 it was like $100 for the year, and that got you tickets to the High Holidays,” said Karen Gilman, who moved to Los Angeles with her sister nearly five years ago. “But, I wasn’t wowed by their services, and when I turned 34 they were going to up my fees a lot. So I didn’t go to services last year.”

This year, Gilman will spend the holidays with her parents in New York. Financially, however, that’s not always an option. She and her sister have hosted Passover orphan parties for the last few years, with their penchant for hosting so acclaimed, that one friend nicknamed her sister the Pesach Queen.

Levy, on the other hand, will attend services at various synagogues around Los Angeles. She has said she likes to “explore the opportunities available to me on an a la carte basis.”

And while she admitted that the researching of prices, and the prices of services themselves, can seem overwhelming, she was equally quick to emphasize the value of it, at least to her.

“I really enjoy the holidays and as a person not married and without children, I don’t have a temple membership, but I’ve never missed a year of going to temple on the holidays,” Levy said. — Keren Engelberg,, Contributing Writer

For the Kids


Coming to America

How long has your family been in America? Where did it come from? Europe? Israel? Iran? Did you know that Jews have been in America for 350 years? Can you solve this history math problem? If 23 Jews arrived in New York 350 years ago, what year was it?

Contest Corner

Are you a budding author? If you are in preschool to eighth grade and live in Southern California, you can write on the Topic of “Celebrating 350 Years of Jews in America.”

You may submit picture books, poetry and/or essays. You can also enter with your whole class.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for children to express themselves as well as to learn about Jewish history in America,” said Leonard Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, which is the main sponsor of the Jewish Children’s Bookfest. Winners will be announced and will receive prizes at the Bookfest, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004. All submissions must be received by Oct. 8.

For more information and entry forms, contact (866)266-5731 or visit www.jewishchildrensbookfest.org .

Shavuot: A Link to God


"Why is the festival of Shavuot called ‘The time of the giving of our Torah’ and not the time of the receiving of our Torah? Because the giving of the Torah happened at one specified time, but the receiving of the Torah happens at every time and in every generation. — Rabbi Meir Alter of Ger

"Each generation must make its own way back to Sinai, must stand under the mountain and re-appropriate and re-interpret the revelation, in terms that are both classical and new. We recognize change as part of the continuing process of tradition itself." — Rabbi Gerson Cohen

The least-known of the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals) is Shavuot, the two-day Festival of Weeks. A victim of schedule,Shavuot

comes just before the beginning of summer — unable to fit into the vacation schedule of most contemporaries and lacking any special rituals to excite widespread observance.

In the biblical period, Shavuot celebrated the conclusion of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jews from all over Eretz Yisrael would bring their bikkurim (first-fruits or new grains) to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the priests would bake them into shtei ha-lehem (two loaves of bread), which they would offer on the altar, after which the people could eat their new grain. The two days were, consequently, feast days for the entire people.

By the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, some thousand years later, the rabbis declared Shavuot as the judgment day for fruit trees, just as Rosh Hashanah is for humanity, thereby building on the centrality of the harvest. Additionally, Shavuot expanded beyond its agricultural origin to incorporate a historical event as well. Since the festival comes exactly seven weeks (hence its name) after the second day of Pesach, which marks the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt and their wandering toward Mount Sinai, the rabbis saw Shavuot as celebrating z’man mattan Torateinu, (the season of the giving of our Torah) token and record of the special love between God and the Jewish people.

That link between Pesach and Shavuot, based on the Torah’s insistence that Shavuot occurs precisely 50 days after Pesach, follows a logic of human liberation, as well as the cycles of the calendar.

Pesach, however popular, is just a beginning: the initiation of Jewish freedom. As our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian slavery, they took their first halting steps toward freedom and independence.

No longer saddled with the burdens and oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, the Jews entered the wilderness of Sinai, experiencing their independence as little less than anarchy. Theirs was a freedom from control, a freedom from limits. Such liberty, by itself, is the freedom of adolescents, one which bridles at restraint.

Such a freedom is fine as a first step, but it ultimately cannot insure human growth, creativity and community. Rather than simply avoiding limits, mature freedom entails living up to one’s best potential, meeting responsibilities with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Freedom fulfilled is freedom to live productively and with meaning.Just as "freedom from" finds completion in "freedom to," so the festival of Pesach initiates a process of liberation that culminates in the festival of Shavuot. The second of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, Shavuot marks the coming of age and responsibility of the Jewish people, celebrating the encounter between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

That moment of Divine-human commitment resulted in a formal link between the two, a brit (covenant) that bound God and the Jewish people forever. That brit received its first expression in the writings of the Torah, which has formed the core of all subsequent Jewish identity.

Shavuot, then, marks the special relationship between God and the Jews, celebrates the biblical understanding of the Jews as God’s Chosen People — a concept essential to Jewish identity, and one which has been distorted both by Jews and by non-Jews.

What does it mean to be chosen? Chosen does not mean superior, and it does not mean that God loves the Jewish people better than other people. The Bible itself records God’s love for all humanity. Being chosen does, however, imply that God loved the Jewish people first. That love is a matter of historical record: Judaism gave birth to the two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, which have spread a commitment to biblical values and knowledge through much of the world.

"To be chosen" is really a grammatical fragment. A person is never simply chosen but always chosen for something. When we say that the Jews are chosen, we mean that the Jews were selected to embody the practices and values of Judaism as expressed in the Torah and subsequent Jewish writings.

God chose us to be a role model — to demonstrate that a society of people dedicated to ritual profundity, moral rigor and compassionate action could profoundly shape the world. Jews are chosen to live Torah, nothing more and nothing less.

In the words of the siddur, "You have chosen us from among all peoples by giving us Your Torah." To the extent that we make the practices and values of the Torah real in our daily lives and in our communal priorities, we, in turn, choose God. The Torah is given anew each time we allow it to live through our deeds.

Shavuot, then, is a recommitment to our founding purpose. Each year, we remember why there is a Jewish people, why there is Judaism. On this festival, we celebrate, as did our ancestors, in wonder, the fact that God chose our people to live the mitzvot, and we renew our commitment to walk in God’s ways.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and the author of “The Bedside Torah: Dreams, Visions & Wisdom,” (McGraw Hill).

Israel Needs Hope for Survival


Nearly 60 years ago, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, thousands of Jews came with not much more than the shirts on their backs to a land recognizable only as a collective and distant memory. There they found other Jews who had been there for several years, working to forge a new destiny for a people long beleaguered by suffering and hardship that culminated in the mass slaughter of roughly 30 percent of our entire population.

On May 14, 1948 (Iyar 5 on the Jewish calendar), after a journey begun nearly 1,900 years before, the Jews managed to find their way home. It had indeed been a long journey, one that involved an ancient and holy promise of a return to Eretz Yisrael, our ancient homeland.

For the first time in nearly two millennia, Jews had something we had lacked during the whole of the Diaspora — hope. Hope for a better life for us and for our children, and hope for survival of our faith and of our people, something that seemed impossible just a few years before.

Throughout our history, the world has not let us rest, and this certainly did not change upon the founding of the modern State of Israel. From the moment it was established, Israelis have been forced perpetually to defend the Jewish state from a multitude of adversaries, whether conventional armies, terrorist groups or a culture of incitement and hatred that spans the globe. These threats against Israel, much like the threats against the Jewish people throughout the centuries, have come about not because of anything we have done but because of who we are and what we represent.

Israel is a microcosm of the Jewish existence. On one hand, our nation is a model of freedom, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law in an otherwise enslaved, intolerant, totalitarian and lawless region of the globe. Given a chance, this could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East.

On the other hand, we still have many challenges to overcome. For the last three and a half years, Israel has been the target of a relentless campaign of terror and murder. Simple day-to-day activities — a bus ride, a trip to the supermarket, a night out at a cafe — have become cause for great anxiety among Israelis.

Nearly 1,000 innocent civilians have been tragically murdered, causing great pain throughout the nation. Anti-Semitism, masked as anti-Zionism, has become legitimate in many circles in Europe and even here in the United States — not to mention the Arab and Muslim worlds. On top of all that, we have witnessed an international propaganda campaign designed to undermine our legitimacy.

Israel is a democracy and a strong one at that. But we are also a democracy facing terrible dilemmas, trying to walk the thin line between defending our citizens on the one hand and defending morality and the rule of law on the other.

It is a difficult task. But just like we have done throughout our history, we shall emerge from these challenges wiser, stronger and with a better sense of ourselves and of our role in the world.

This year on Yom HaAtzmaut, we are celebrating not just our independence. We celebrate our survival, our prosperity and our accomplishments in the face of extraordinary adversity.

Despite the efforts to destroy us, we have not only survived but have transcended our own expectations. Despite living in a virtual war zone, Israel has managed to maintain its democracy.

We maintained and even enhanced civil rights for all, including more than 1 million Israeli Arabs. We have become a global leader in engineering, computer science, agriculture, medicine and biotechnology. And, most importantly, we have strengthened our resolve to one day achieve a just and lasting peace with those who would destroy us.

It is on this day that we reflect on the uniqueness of Israel. For centuries, the Jewish people had no territory, no land to call our own. We had only a book, a faith and a collective history.

Since then, as always, we Jews are still striving to find a sense of normalcy in an abnormal place. But through it all, we have not forgotten, nor will we forget, that our destiny as a people is to make the world more human.

This is the hope that fuels our identity and our pride in the State of Israel. It is a hope that is built upon the collective memory of nearly 2,000 years. It is our hope to live in freedom in our land — the land of hope, the land of peace the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Spiritual Cleaning


More than 3,300 years ago, God swept us out from our slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for more than 400 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter — the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews — so central, in fact, that we mention it in the “Shema” every single day, as well as in the “Kiddush” on Friday night.

And yet there’s something very ironic about Pesach. Why is it that getting ready to celebrate our liberation from slavery involves so much hard work? First, we need to remember that during Pesach we are not allowed to eat, own or even benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta and even wheat germ. Who enjoys wheat germ, you ask? Well, I do. It’s in my favorite shampoo, so during Pesach the bottle gets booted into the garage with all the other verboten chametz.

The haggadah is our Passover playbook, which tells us that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Pesach you’re going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid stashed a packet of Oreos a few months back.

While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder tired, yes, but serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but, more importantly, kosher for Pesach. Yet many women (who generally do the bulk of the Pesach cleaning) can get carried away with it all. In their zeal to create a kosher-for-Pesach home, they run themselves ragged and may be so exhausted by seder night they can barely stay awake past the soup. Frankly, women like this make me nervous. I’m just not willing to begin Pesach cleaning the day after Purim (besides, we need another week to finish the shalach manot) but I also don’t want to feel behind in the Pesach-cleaning Olympiad. I take comfort from the assurances I have received from several esteemed Orthodox rabbis who wish that the women would calm down about this. They say that one should be able to clean a home for Pesach (not including the kitchen) in just a day or two. If you insist on cleaning the ceiling, they say, it doesn’t make the home any more kosher, and if the cost to the woman and her family is needless stress, it’s surely not worth it.

In a way, our ancestors were lucky. When Moses gave them the green light to escape from their Egyptian taskmasters, there was no time to say, “Wait! I didn’t finish sweeping the floor yet! And the pots and pans still need to be put away!”

No siree.

When Pharaoh finally agreed to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn’t enter the Promised Land for another 40 years.

So why can’t we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like chicken chow mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah, which tastes stale even when it’s fresh, remind us of freedom?

The answer, I believe, is that freedom is not just a physical reality — it’s a spiritual condition. And without a structure to our lives, there’s no freedom; there’s only chaos. It’s kind of like how gravity works: without gravity, every thing and every one of us would just float up into the atmosphere, hither and thither. Similarly, our value system is our “spiritual gravity” — it’s the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we’ll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It’s no coincidence that God gave us the Torah — His blueprint for living — after our liberation from slavery. As slaves, we weren’t free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?

Similarly, the chametz that we search for before Pesach isn’t just physical. Our sages teach that the chametz is a metaphor for the “leavening” in our own personalities — the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That’s why preparing for Pesach means more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It means spring-cleaning our souls, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness and tunnel vision. We’re multitasking — vacuuming with one hand, but also taking an inventory of our character, and trying to refocus on the things that really matter: our families, our values, God and the Torah He gave us to help us live a meaningful life. Only when we have swept this spiritual chametz away can we really connect with the deeper meaning of Pesach.

If we can manage to take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders, we will be free — truly free — to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will be celebrating not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.

Who knows? Perhaps any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” humor column, available on her Web site, www.judygruen.com. She is also a columnist for Religion News Service.

Keeping Jews in the Flock


Brace yourselves, people: We’re about to celebrate a holiday that touts intermarriage. Yep, our beloved Queen Esther married a goy — minus the ol’ now-a-Jew sniparoo. According to today’s Jewish demographic reports, that puts Esther in the "Bad Jew" category.

We’re told repeatedly that intermarriage is the death knell of the Jewish people, but let’s face it: Jews have been intermarrying since the beginning of our tribe 4,000 years ago. Marrying "out" is precisely how we got Jews with looks covering the gamut from blonde hair and blue eyes to black skin and nappy hair. It’s also one of the reasons that Hitler hated us: We were at it again, blending with the local race, destroying its ethnic purity.

Even that sorely desired Messiah we’re always yappin’ about is going to be the descendant of King David, who in turn is the descendant of Ruth. Well lookie here: Ruth was a Moabite! If that’s not heaven’s approval of intermarriage, I don’t know what is.

True, Ruth took on the Jewish faith. But were she around these days, her children (that’s right folks, the ancestors of the Messiah) would not be allowed to enroll in any number of Orthodox Jewish schools. After all, Ruth never did the dunk. The way we’re looking at things today, her conversion was not kosher.

Another thought to consider: Until recently, conversion to Judaism was based on patriarchal concepts of marriage: A man "took" a wife, so he could "take" that wife from whatever tribe and religion he wanted. The woman automatically would be subsumed by her husband’s identity, religious affiliation and way of life. Not exactly what I would call a heartfelt, spiritually conscious entry into Judaism. Nonetheless, we consider the descendants of such a woman to be Jewish — including descendants of those women who predated the days of the mikvah, the ritual immersion bath.

The way I see things, we’re losing Jews not because of intermarriage today, but because of how we’re treating Jews who intermarry today. Our community is following the "I’m losing a daughter" routine, instead of the more pleasant and expansive option, "I’m gaining a son." As a result, we’re casting out interfaith couples and their children.

Rather than ostracize and sit shiva for someone who marries a non-Jew, why not invite the non-Jewish spouse to learn about and practice the wonders and joys of our precious heritage? Why not ensure that the couple’s children will grow up with Jewish holiday celebrations, religious teachings and values?

I have known plenty of Jewish youth who have given their hearts and souls to the Jewish community, just to be told they are not "really Jewish," because their mothers come from non-Jewish backgrounds. Only exceptionally strong youngsters have the spiritual wherewithal to continue to affiliate with the Jewish community, following such an onslaught of rejection. And

we wonder where all the Jews are going.

As for myself, I guess I should not have been shocked when I got hate mail several months back, following an article I published about my Arab Muslim boyfriend and me. I was especially struck by the letter of a woman who had admired my outstanding contributions to the Jewish community … until she read that article. Suddenly, she was ready to turn me into the authorities and publicly damn me to hell. Good thing my Judaism was stronger than her interfaith vitriol. Reactions like hers can, and have, sent Jews running away from us.

Ironically, interfaith relationships can bring Jews closer to our tradition. My friend Rebecca, for example, was a thoroughly secular Jew until she got involved with Jamal, a Muslim man. Inspired by his religious devotion, Rebecca began exploring her own religion. Not long after marrying Jamal, she began celebrating Shabbat, attending Orthodox services and moving toward keeping kosher.

True, interfaith coupledom is not the easiest path to take, especially when each person cares about her/his own religion, and even more especially when kids are involved. But that’s all the more reason for us to be a loving and embracing community — to help families pass on the Jewish torch.

There are so many factors involved in finding a partner, and finding one’s mate is such an individual decision. In a world of violence and decay, let’s congratulate those of us who have managed to find love, respect and laughter. Rather than spending our energy on condemning intermarriage, let’s put it into creating a Jewish community where all of us will want to stay.


Loolwa Khazzoom, the editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” (www.loolwa.com/anthology), will read from her new anthology, “Unveiling the Crossroads,” on Thursday, March 18, 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, $10 (general), $5 (members and students), call (323) 655-8587.

Lights Were Last to Go


My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know
more.

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â


Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

Eight Crazy Lights


A kosher menorah can be fashioned out of any material, so why
not get creative? During the Festival of Lights we light the Chanukah menorah —
a modern-day symbol of the candelabra used in the Temple, also known as a chanukiah
— to commemorate the miracle of the oil and to celebrate the victory of the Macabbees.
In the tradition of Pirsum Ha’ness, broadcasting the miracle of Chanukah, why
not place a menorah that speaks a little bit about you on your windowsill?

With these creative pieces you won’t sacrifice Jewish
ritual. The eight candleholders are equidistant and aligned, making them kosher
for lighting. So buy yourself some dripless candles, and instead of lighting
the traditional eight-branch, kindle one of these proudly from left to right
each and every Chanukah night!

1. A menorah made for the solider wanna-be. Show your
solidarity with the Israeli army and light this Israel Defense Forces menorah,
complete with tanks, helicopters and jets.

$50. “>www.anymenorah.com .

3. Now if you find yourself away for Chanukah, you don’t
have to take one of those disposable menorahs that might get dented in your
suitcase. Resembling a treasure chest, this solid pewter miniature menorah
travels like a miracle.

$60. “>www.mazaltovpages.com .

5. Even the babes can light the menorah (under adult
supervision, of course). The diorama-like menorah sets a scene of a Chanukah
party with Disney characters Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Donald and Pluto striking
up the band.

$84.95. “>www.alljudaism.com .

7. The da Vinci among you will appreciate this painter’s
palette-shaped menorah. Crafted in ceramic and hand-painted, this beautiful
piece boasts a dreidel as a shamash.

$35.95. “>www.traditionsjewishgifts.com .

Yiddishkayt for Yiddle Ones


Hey parents… Uneasy about plopping your toddlers on the
sofa to watch a puffy purple dinosaur? Think they need more Jewish culture?

The founders of “OyBaby” say it’s never too early to start
teaching your kids — 6 months and up — about Yiddishkayt.

The “OyBaby” DVD/VHS and accompanying CD educates the babes
in basics like the Hebrew alphabet, colors and numbers, with a backdrop of
colorful music. The collection features Jewish classics like “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,”
and “David Melech Yisrael” sung by vocalists Stephanie and Lisa Schneiderman
and Kim Palumbis. Loaded with Jewish rituals, the visual “OyBaby” has scenes of
a woman lighting Shabbat candles with a baby girl dutifully mimicking the act
of covering her eyes, and a recitation of “Hamotzi,” with the toddlers munching
on challah.

Just in time for Chanukah, the lovely trio sing the “Maoz Tzur”
with candles being lit and dreidel playing in the background.

“Growing up, our parents taught us to celebrate our Judaism,
and music was always a central part of that experience,” said Lisi Wolf, one of
the founders. “Now, as parents, we hope to do the same for our son. ‘OyBaby’
will be one of the first steps in his Jewish discovery, and we wish the same
for other Jewish babies around the world.”

For more information, visit

Trick or Treat?


I asked my long-time friend, "Are you a strict father?"

"Not really," he said, "but I wouldn’t let my daughter out for Halloween."

I asked why he had punished her.

"She wasn’t punished. I just couldn’t let her celebrate a Christian holiday."

Actually, Halloween is a 3,000-year-old Celtic holiday, which means it was invented long before Christianity. When the Christians gained power, they couldn’t get the Celts to forget about Halloween so they made a few changes and adopted it as their own.

"Halloween is a holiday for candy lovers," I told him. "And mimes." (A mime once told me that Halloween was the one night of the year he does not paint his face and speak to strangers.)

"It’s a Christian holiday," he said quietly but firmly.

Then I remembered something from our childhood: "I went trick-or-treating with you!"

"I didn’t know about it then," he admitted.

"Why not?"

"My parents never told me."

My best guess was that, as a child, he had mistakenly accepted and tasted about 1,000 pieces of Halloween candy.

Then I remembered something else from our childhood.

"Your uncle owned a candy factory," I said.

"The family candy factory had nothing to do with my parents allowing me to go out trick-or-treating," he insisted.

I began to fear for his 9-year-old daughter.

"The other Jewish kids will make fun of her," I said.

"Not all Jewish kids go out for Halloween," he retorted.

That much was growing clear. I had started out asking about his relationship with his little girl but now we were talking about which holidays were right or wrong in 21st century America.

"What about Thanksgiving?" I asked.

"Thanksgiving is fine," he replied. "And you’re invited."

"When I read about Thanksgiving in elementary school — and you were sitting next to me — I came across a bunch of Pilgrims," I continued, dismissing for the moment his wife’s sweet potato pie. "Pilgrims and Indians. Not one Jewish family in the bunch. Compare that to the Last Supper, where there were plenty of Jewish folks at the table."

"Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday," he claimed.

"Giving thanks to the Lord in prayer is what: nonreligious? A holiday for atheists, Pilgrims and Indians?"

I tried to explain to him that while religious holidays help preserve cultures within American society, national holidays relate to all Americans. Sharing holidays keeps us together, along with television.

"I don’t want my daughter relating to witches and ghosts," he explained.

The Celts believed that, on Halloween, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became so thin that spirits could pass through in either direction.

"Halloween used to be about witches and ghosts," I reminded. "Back when they arrested people for writing down their dreams."

"Suppose, one day," he argued, quietly but firmly, "Christmas isn’t known as a Christian holiday? Do you go out and get a Christmas tree?"

"Anything that’s still got strong religious meaning," I decided, "is a religious holiday. Some folks have Easter; some have Passover. Every U.S. citizen has Independence Day, Groundhog Day and April Fools’ Day."

"And your favorite one is …?" he asked.

"Independence Day, naturally."

"Because of your great patriotism."

"And the extra day at the beach."

"So you wouldn’t get a Christmas tree in, say 30 years, when religion is hardly mentioned?"

Christmas — reduced to a marketing holiday?

"In 30 years, the Chinese New Year and Cinco de Mayo may be the two biggest holidays. And, if traffic allows," I revealed, "I’ll be visiting my family."

"We’re moving to Israel," he countered.

"By the time you move to Israel," I told my friend, "they may be celebrating holidays they share with their Palestinian neighbors."

I knew that wasn’t likely, but maybe it helped convince him to stay and help his fellow American Jews figure out what’s right and what’s wrong.

Meanwhile, whenever a child knocks on my door and says, "Trick or treat!" he or she is going to get some candy, not a lecture.


Don Rutberg is a USC grad who writes and teaches in Philadelphia. His latest book, “A Writer’s Survival Guide,” will be published in 2004 by Pale Horse Publishing.

Mothers, Daughters Bond Over Torah


Netivot, the women’s Torah study institute, will begin a program next month on a subject not often associated with Orthodoxy: bat mitzvah.

Beginning Nov. 16, Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills will host a “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar,” in which girls ages 11-13 and their mothers are invited to explore aspects of being a Jewish woman through text study, creative expression and areas of social action.

Educator Marcie Meier will lead the six-week course, joined by specialists who will facilitate projects in music, drama, art and dance. In addition to female characters in the Bible, seminar participants will discuss historical and personal role models.

Although Meier recognizes that “there’s always been a more public role for young men … there’s no reason girls shouldn’t achieve as much as boys in Judaism.”

Attaining the age of bat mitzvah, Meier told The Journal, involves “growing into a more responsible role in Judaism” — not just fulfillment of commandments incumbent on women such as lighting Shabbat candles but also saying daily prayers and carrying out acts of chesed (lovingkindness), what Jews often refer to as tikkun olam (social action).

Text study, Meier said, allows girls to understand their responsibilities as adult Jews “on a deeper level.” Orthodox from birth, Meier embraced the importance of study for girls as a young adult after reading an essay in an Orthodox journal in which a woman wrote, “Women sometimes confuse motherhood with washing floors…. Anyone who can study should study.”

At Beth Jacob, girls celebrate their coming of age as Jewish adults by offering to the congregation a d’var Torah, or commentary, on the weekly Torah portion, though, consistent with traditional practice, they do not lead prayers or read from Scripture.

But Steven Weil, Beth Jacob’s rabbi, downplays the “public performance” component of bar mitzvah as a latter-day American phenomenon. For centuries, he said, bar mitzvah was nothing more than a boy being called to recite Torah blessings on a Thursday morning.

To Weil, the close study of text and Jewish values that leads to the d’var Torah is the core of the rite of passage for girls and boys.

“Our goal is that the focus is on a real, substantive intellectual growth experience,” he told The Journal, “learning for six to 12 months with a first-rate mentor.”

Weil cites Meier as such a mentor, someone knowledgeable in Bible, rabbinic texts and traditional practice. A product of Los Angeles Jewish day schools, Meier, 51, attended Stern College for Women in New York and UCLA. She has prepared girls to deliver divrei Torah at Orthodox congregations and at non-Orthodox synagogues such as Temple Beth Am.

Michelle Rothstein, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson, has been working with Meier since last year to prepare divrei Torah for her bat mitzvah celebrations this month at Beth Jacob and at Beth Am, where she will also lead a weekday service.

With Meier, Rothstein explored Torah in both Hebrew and English.

“She knows a lot, and she’s really nice,” Rothstein said of her teacher.

Meier is looking forward to working with mothers and daughters together.

“For some mothers, it will be a first opportunity to study things they didn’t have an opportunity to study as they grew up,” she said.

She also sees it as a chance for women to spend “quality time” with their middle-school daughters.

Netivot (Hebrew for “paths”), founded in 2000, opens its fall schedule on Nov. 2 with “Weaving Beauty Into Our Everyday Lives,” an afternoon-long program combining Torah study with interactive arts workshops. All of Netivot’s programs are open to women at all levels of knowledge and from all Jewish denominations.

The seminar is “really going to be able to reach all levels,” Meier said. “It’s such a positive thing to bring our girls into the next step of Judaism.”

To find out more about the “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah
Seminar” or Netivot’s other fall offerings, call (310) 286-2346, visit www.netivot.org or e-mail info@netivot.org .

A Cold Wind Blows


It is cold here this Sukkot in Jerusalem. The fan in the corner of this brightly lit sukkah lies still. The makeshift green plastic window flaps, cut last year to alleviate the heat, this year shudder in the heavy winds. Instead of the fan, the space heater is on, giving off that faint burning smell, the way Israeli heaters always do. Although it is bigger than the adjacent apartment, this porch sukkah structure certainly feels temporary — and tropical, with wild palm tree fronds covering the top just enough to see the stars, although in this case only the moon peeks through the clouds.

It is colder this Sukkot, certainly colder than last year, but not much is different this year in Jerusalem. And still the festival is celebrated around the city.

During the intermediary days, thousands gather at the Western Wall to make the priestly blessing. The crowd of black in the white morning sun is peppered by the green lulav stalks in front of the Kotel.

Many people who leave the Western Wall plaza are American students heading to their yeshivas nearby. Here for the year, or maybe for two, they come to the Wall at Sukkot for one of the must-sees of the Israel experience. Others are religious tourists who come most years for the holidays. Perhaps they haven’t been in the last two years — but now they’re back, mostly. They trek back to their hotels, all pretty full.

At the King David Hotel, a group of 100 neoconservatives gather for the Jerusalem Summit, a conference aimed at organizing and galvanizing right-wing thinkers, media and activists. Conferees draft an agenda to halt the peace process and provide alternate solutions ranging from enforcing President Bush’s June 24 speech, to calling for Jordan to be the Palestinian state. The summit aims to be for Israeli politics what Fox is to news.

As the wind blows the temperate day into night, I find myself on a bus. Although I’d promised countless people that I’d be careful here in Israel, and that of course I wouldn’t take a bus, here I am, waiting to head toward the bus station. The bus is empty for the most part, except for a soldier in civvies. He shows the driver his ID card, and he gets on for free.

The Israel Defense Forces has forbidden hitchhiking, so all soldiers now ride free. Not many people are on the bus. Me, the soldier, two Russian ladies, an Ethiopian and an old Moroccan man talking loudly on his cell phone. I head to the entrance of Jerusalem, at the international Conference Center, where some 5,000 Christians gather at to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This annual International nondenominational gathering takes place every Sukkot, when believers from some 80 countries meet in Israel for a week to celebrate the holiday, show support for Israel and learn about the land where their Lord was born, the land to which he will return in the End of Days.

Standing onstage under bright lights before this massive two-tiered theater, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has probably never received such an enthusiastic reception, as people crammed the aisles craning for a view like he was a rock star. And they are stomping feet, clapping wildly, waving flags and giving a good old Midwestern welcome.

"Dear Friends," the prime minister began, his speech punctuated by a roar, "you are here because your hearts and souls brought you here to the land of the Bible. Thank you so much for coming here to show solidarity. Your friendship is very important to us."

Sharon squinted as he looked into the audience and told them how much he enjoyed their support. "I’m sorry but I cannot see you, but I can hear you."

Is it important to see who is supporting you? Does it matter?

The only visitors I have seen this Sukkot week in Jerusalem are Christians, yeshiva students and neoconservatives. It seems that the only people to come are those with convictions strong enough to disregard the changing weather of politics and world affairs. Will they be the only foreigners to shore up the country? Will they be the only ones to influence the final say?

We’ll just have to see how the wind blows.

A Tabernacle Full of Knickknacks and Love


Sukkot, the eight-day festival that begins Oct. 11, commemorates a central event in Jewish history: the 40-year desert trek that followed the exodus from Egypt when Jews lived in portable shelters or booths.

People celebrate the holiday by building, eating in — and sometimes sleeping in — a temporary structure topped by a "natural" covering, such as tree branches or a bamboo mat which allows star-gazing. The structure is a show of trust in God’s protection. During the festival — sometimes called "Tabernacles" and "The Harvest Festival" — we also say a blessing over the four species: the lulav, etrog, hadas and arava.

Around town, people celebrate the holiday in extraordinary ways.

One is the raucous potluck party thrown annually on Sukkot by Joan Kaye, director of O.C.’s Bureau of Jewish Education. Equal parts barn-raising and decorator open-house, she suffuses the event with a seasoning of religious meaning.

At a previous sukkot party hosted by Kaye, Polaroid pictures were snapped of arriving guests. Each then puttered at a craft table to fashion the image into a decorative ornament.

Taking a cue from the immigrant anniversary, this year Kaye asked guests to string up an item that represents the melding of Jewish and American values. A kippah with a soccer-ball design may be Kaye’s own contribution to the sukkah’s current motif.

"It’s a great party with a purpose," said Kathleen Canter, 38, of Aliso Viejo, who has attended more than one of Kaye’s sukkah-raisings with her husband and two children.

The holiday is Kaye’s personal favorite. But since moving here seven years ago from Boston, her celebration has taken a new direction.

"It’s a mitzvah to dwell in a sukkah," said Kaye, who for seven days spends as much time as possible — with the exception of sleeping — on the patio her guests transform. Outfitted with a clock, lamp and table, she holds meetings there. She also entertains guests under its shelter. "You couldn’t do that in Boston," she said.

Like Christmas trees that remain decorated long past Jan. 1, Kaye hates to pack away the sukkah’s strands of lights, ceramic fruit and leafy garlands. "I’ve left the everyday world and moved into holy space for a week," she said.

Her Sukkot event begins with a chaotic sukkah-raising that is both a communal event and learning opportunity. The patio of Kaye’s condo is conveniently three-sided and partially covered with open beams, which meet the de facto booth-making requirements without effort. But guests, including some bearing palm fronds, soon are fully employed stringing colored lights and festooning the beams with decorations, including the guest-created theme ornaments. Open beams are reached by crawling out upstairs windows.

Most people don’t erect a sukkah at all or mark the holiday by relying on their synagogue-built sukkah, said Larry Kaplan, 48, of Irvine, who brought his family. He said Kaye’s event is special, "because many more hands are doing it. It’s the sense of a disparate community coming together for a repetitive communal event."

"It doesn’t reek of being a religious event," added Rosalie Holub, 71, of Tustin, who helps Kaye organize craft materials. "It’s a multi-generational party where adults do kid stuff."

Decorating aesthetics are not the point. By taking part in beautifying the sukkah, children not only take pride in their individual contributions, but the event itself becomes more meaningful, said Holub, a primary grade teacher at Adat Chavarim in Los Alamitos.

Kaye’s guest list includes her 11-person havarua, the bureau’s staff and new board members, and people who have missed a sukkah experience. Last year, that included her Christian classmates from a doctoral program. This year, will include Kaye’s two daughters and four grandchildren. The event began out of pure necessity as more than one of Kaye’s Boston-built sukkahs collapsed.

Another American-stamped Sukkot experience is the Oct. 18 men’s campout organized by Matthew Keces of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El.

About 25 members are expected to participate in the fourth Sukkot trip to Escondido’s Lake Dixon. On these occasions, the tents function as the traditional sukkah, Keces said. Providing a religious component will be Rabbi Michael Churgel, who intends to say the blessings over the four species, the lulav and etrog.

"It’s very relaxed and everyone puts aside any demeanor they have to maintain in the real world," Keces said. Besides boating and fishing, last year everyone in the group ranging in age from 30 to 70 joined in a whiffle ball game. "Everyone was 17 again," he said.

For $50 per person, the synagogue rents camping equipment and supplies food, and Keces organizes carpools that caravan from his home.

"We make it as easy as possible," he said. Member Ken Roane, a former Ritz-Carlton chef, prepares meals.

"Food is a treat," Keces said. "It certainly is not camp-out style food."

No, it’s Sukkot "American style."

Kids Page


RUTH, A TRUE FRIEND

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Even though Ruth’s husband died, she decides not to desert her mother-in-law, Naomi, who has lost her husband and two sons. Ruth leaves her home in Moab to accompany Naomi back to Israel. She cares for Naomi and goes to work in the fields of her relative, Boaz. Ruth later marries him, and lives, I suppose, happily ever after.

This book is about friendship, loyalty and compassion. In fact, the rabbis say that Ruth’s name comes from the Hebrew word for friendship — Re’ut. That is why it is so important to read this book on the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. All the laws and commandments of the Torah would be worth nothing if we did not, before anything, know how to be a good friend.

Israel: Independence and Remembrance


Events remembering Israel’s fallen soldiers, on May 6, and celebrating the nation’s founding, officially May 7, include two local benefits to address gaping needs of Israelis.

Yom Yisrael at Eilat will treat religious school students at Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat to a simulated Israel trip on May 4 , 9 a.m. at 22081 Hidalgo Road. Activity stations include a kibbutz, a Western Wall, archaeological dig, flag factory, army training, shuk (marketplace), Bedouin tent and Israeli dancing. For more information, call (949) 770-9606 ext. 13.

The 40-member Israel scout troop, established earlier this year at Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, intend to ignite a fire sign on May 5 at 7:30 p.m. to honor Yom HaZikaron, the remembrance day for Israel’s soldiers. The scouts haven’t settled on what the canvas-wrapped sign will say, but it is to be lit somewhere outside the upper campus, said Eyal Giladi, a parent organizer.

Singer Igal Bashan will perform May 10 at 8:30 p.m. Tarbut V’ Torah’s lower school in Irvine in a benefit concert marking Israel’s 55th anniversary. A student dance group and choir will also perform at the joint Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO)-Jewish Community Center event.

Proceeds from the $36, $50 and $180 tickets will help fight growing child poverty in Israel by providing foodstuffs to day-care providers. One in four Israeli children are below the poverty line, according to annual census figures released in March, said Michal Kropitzer, who heads a local WIZO chapter.

“It’s hard to face, but this is the reality,” she said, adding that in the past six months WIZO started providing meals at schools for hungry students. Her goal is $20,000. For more information, call (714) 731-9254.

Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet will celebrate Israel’s birthday on May 18 at 1 p.m. with wine, hors d’oeuvres, candlelighting and music sung by a student in USC’s opera program. Held at the shul, 1770 West Cerritos Ave., the $55 per person event will in part fund emergency kits needed by Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency response, ambulance and blood service. For more information, call (714) 772-4720.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

A coalition of Southern California Jewish organizations comes together today for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 60th Anniversary Commemoration. Theodore Bikel narrates the program, which includes the lighting of six memorial candles by Holocaust survivors in honor of the 6 million, poetry readings in Yiddish and English and performances by Bikel and the Workmen’s Circle Mit Gezang Yiddish Chorus, led by Dr. Michelle Green-Willner.

8 p.m. $5 (requested donation). Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Sunday

Getting a jump-start on Tuesday’s holiday, the Zimmer Children’s Museum hosts Celebrate Earth Day! Artist and environmentalist Ruth Askren teaches your little ones all about endangered species and ways to protect the Earth. The hands-on fun also includes collage-making with recycled materials.

1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Free (members), $3 (nonmembers, plus museum fee). 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 761-8998.

Monday

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, KCET has a host
of films airing this month. First, brush up on your World War II history with
the documentary, “Yalta: Peace Power and Betrayal,” tonight. Then tune in
Wednesday for the broadcast premiere of Academy Award-winning documentary, “Into
the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” and next week for “Elie
Weisel: First Person Singular.”

Jews on the Warship


When I first packed for my trip as “embedded press” aboard
the USS Theodore Roosevelt — one of five navy aircraft carriers deployed for war in Iraq — I decided to throw a Megillah in my
backpack, realizing that I would be on board during Purim. I had considered the
possibility of posting an announcement about a Megillah reading. But in the
end, as President Bush laid down his 48-hour ultimatum on Purim night, my 5,500
fellow seamen prepared for battle, and I read through the story of Esther and
the Persian Jews on my own.

On its last cruise from September 2001 through March 2002,
the USS Theodore Roosevelt — one of two carriers in the Mediterranean — eight
or nine Jewish sailors would gather for Friday night dinner together and a
Sabbath service.

But on this deployment, the Torah, ark, prayer books and
kippot in the ship’s chapel are unused.

It is hard to know for sure how many Jewish sailors may be
among the thousands of Navy personnel — including 102 fighter jet pilots who
have been training for months to take out mobile targets like Scud launchers in
the western part of Iraq that would be in striking distance of Israel. While
there are three Protestant and one Catholic chaplain, there is no Jewish
chaplain, to whom perhaps Jewish sailors would turn for guidance. So far I have
located two Jewish people — the public affairs officer, John Oliveira, and the
ship’s signals chief, Adam Green.

Oliveira, who is overseeing the journalists aboard, was born
Jewish and lived his life that way until three months ago, when he converted to
Methodism to share the same faith as his wife, who gave birth to a daughter. He
said he still identifies as Jewish, however.

“That’s my heritage,” he said.

Oliveira used to serve as the Jewish lay leader on board. It
started during the last cruise when a Jewish sailor asked him if there would be
High Holiday services.

“That’s when I got with the chaplains and became the lay
leader,” he said. “I was not going to tell this young sailor we’re not going to
celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”

When a sisterhood in Detroit found out about him, they
started sending care packages to the ship on the holidays. A Chanukah package
brought candles and gelt. And a Passover package is en route.

Like Oliveira, Green is intermarried. He says his wife and
children are planning a Seder back home. On the ship, he recites prayers for
his family.

“I have 15 kids who work for me,” he said, adding that he
“draws spiritual guidance from inside” himself.

Green, 38, is accustomed to being a minority. “You don’t see
a lot of Jews joining the Navy,” he said.

The non-Jewishness of the environment here is palpable,
particularly at 10 p.m. each evening, when one of the ship’s chaplains recites
a prayer over the ship’s PA system. It is nondenominational, but it feels
Christian. Sailors stop in their tracks and bow their heads.

Televisions around the ship broadcast announcements for a
multitude of Christian prayer groups.

Being the only reporter for an Israeli news outlet here —
and having lived in Israel for five years — many sailors ask me what life is
like there. A good number have ported in Haifa and have fond memories.

The ship’s captain, Richard O’Hanlon, told me that despite
our proximity to Haifa, we would not be porting in Haifa this time, though. The
bus bombing a few weeks ago made that impossible. Al Qaeda has pledged to carry
out attacks against nuclear-powered vessels like the one I am on, but it is too
dangerous to go to Israel.

The questions I am most frequently asked are what is like to
live in Israel or what will Israel do if it is attacked by Iraq. I tell them it
will depend on whether the attack is conventional or nonconventional. And I
stress that it is very important that pilots, like the ones on board here, take
out mobile Scud missile launchers early in the military campaign. They have
been training to do so for months.

But in general, people here have a very limited
understanding of or curiosity about Israel.

One sailor said the United States was pursuing this war
purely for Israel’s sake and said Washington planned on handing control of the
country over to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Green said that most people don’t care about Israel.

“They don’t get it. It’s not part of their upbringing,” he
said. “I have that additional worry. I don’t know how this is going to play
out.”


Janine Zacharia is the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.