Calendar January 8-14


FRI | JAN 8

EMANUEL AX

Pianist Emanuel Ax marks his 40th anniversary performing with the L.A. Philharmonic with this return for the introspective and compelling concerto-in-one-movement by Franck, “Symphonic Variations.” French works by Berlioz (“Le corsair”) and Boulez (“Memoriale”) are complemented by the surging Romantic passion of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61. 8 p.m. Through Jan. 10. $26.50 and up. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. ” target=”_blank”>aju.edu.

ELYCE WAKERMAN

Congregation Beth Ohr invites you to a reading and conversation with author Elyce Wakerman, whose books include “Father Loss: Daughters Discuss the Man That Got Away” and “Air Powered: The Art of the Airbrush.” Her debut novel, “A Tale of Two Citizens,” published last February, centers on a Polish immigrant starting a new life in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. It brings to life the escalation of anti-Semitism during this era and provides perspective to such issues that continue to impact our lives today. A brief service and light supper will precede the presentation. 6:30 p.m. Free. RSVP. Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City, 12355 Moorpark St., Studio City. (818) 773-3663.

SAT | JAN 9

“COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS: AN EVENING OF DISCUSSION & DIALOGUE”

What unites us? What divides us? Delve into these questions and other issues that face the Jewish community with a host of special guests: Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am and Rabbi Pini Dunner of Beverly Hills Synagogue. 7:30 p.m. $18 suggested donation. RSVP requested. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 930-9333. SUN | JAN 10

SIXTH FLOOR TRIO

This eclectic, young trio is blazing a musical trail. Playing anything from bluegrass to Latin to klezmer rock, Sixth Floor Trio is dedicated to the creation and performance of music that connects different styles, communities and artistic disciplines. Members include Teddy Abrams on piano and clarinet, Harrison Hollingsworth on bassoon and violin, and Johnny Teyssier on clarinet. Get ready for a genre-blending great time with a bassoonist who plays violin, a pianist who plays clarinet and a clarinetist who plays klezmer. Reception with the band will follow. 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. $65-$85. Doheny Mansion, 8 Chester Place, Los Angeles. (213) 477-2929. ” target=”_blank”>bethjacob.org.

TUE | JAN 12

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER WORKSHOP SERIES: “FINANCIAL TOOLS FOR YOUR FUTURE”

Join the Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center (LAJAC) for “Financial Tools for Your Future,” an opportunity to learn about ABLE accounts and the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Pooled Trust — new tools to help adults with special needs to work and acquire savings without losing disability benefits. Presenters include attorney Annabel Blanchard; Janet Morris, directing attorney at Bet Tzedek’s Family Caregiver Project; and Michelle K. Wolf, executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Pooled Trust. This is the first of a six-part workshop series to learn about the latest financial and legal tools, entitlements, benefits and regulations to help plan for the future. 7 p.m. Free. RSVP required. The Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8000.

Here comes the groom-ing!


Step aside, brides — those indulgent pre-wedding salon, spa and grooming gatherings are no longer exclusively your domain! Grooms, it’s your turn for a luxurious pre-wedding makeover and grooming session. To ensure you’ll look tip-top in your tux and tie, we’ve consulted local experts, uncovered trends and looked at personal products designed to tame any testosterone-fueled challenge on the big day.

Ask an expert

According to veteran stylist-to-the-stars Allen Edwards (based at A.T. Tramp in Beverly Hills and Decarra Salon in Woodland Hills), good grooming habits should be established long before the wedding day.  

“I recommend men come into the salon more often for hair care, and they should not be afraid to spend more money on a good haircut,” Edwards said. “Although men have a tendency to buy inexpensive shampoo, I recommend they buy a good moisturizing shampoo and condition their hair at least once a week. The three best hair products for men are Imperial, Paul Mitchell and Crew.”

Edwards also recommends men get facials and get into the habit of using a moisturizer every morning. And, just as women turn to magazines for inspiration, he said men can benefit from the same practice, buying magazines such as GQ to review haircut and facial hair trends.  

“Don’t get stuck wearing the same haircut your whole life,” Edwards said.

“Beards are very popular now, and I suggest keeping the beard very cropped.

“On the wedding day, men should keep their hair clean and short, and if they have a beard, it should be groomed a little shorter.”

Smooth operators

In the last two decades, men’s grooming products have gone from utilitarian to upscale, while pop culture and general health trends have made masculine pomades, creams, gels and designer shaves more palatable for even the manliest of guys. 

While many women dream about the kiss on the big day, nothing can spoil her moment quicker than getting her face scratched. Newport Beach entrepreneur Michael Finfrock realized this just three weeks into dating his girlfriend. With his female friends weighing in on the scratchy subject, and with heavy body and facial hair being a part of his genetic makeup, Finfrock was prompted to develop Soft Goat ($11.99 at ” target=”_blank”>amazon.com and ” target=”_blank”>jessyjudaica.com, a Toronto-based custom kippot maker and Jewish event planner with clients in L.A. and San Diego. “Others invite close family and friends to share in the mikveh with stories, blessings and food or drink,” she added.

Indeed, Judith Golden, who oversees activity at the American Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh at American Jewish University, said she has noticed a significant uptick in the number of grooms opting to take the plunge in a more meaningful way. She estimates the number has increased by 50 percent since she began working there 10 years ago. 

“It’s fabulous to see more men doing this,” Golden said. “The mikveh is a metaphor for a new beginning, and is one of the best things you and your future wife can do before you marry. When both partners do the mikveh, they are setting an intention for the life they will live together and the journey they will be taking beyond the wedding day.” 

Wedivite: Online wedding planning and sharing


More than 7,000 couples around the world already have used Wedivite, the first free, socially integrated digital platform exclusively for weddings. Appropriately, its alpha launch happened in the traditional wedding month of June.

Conceived and built by Israeli groom-to-be Ben Novak, Wedivite enables sending invitations via email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, SMS or Whatsapp, or adding a QR code to a printed invitation. There’s an option to create a custom page for a wedding registry, too.

Guests can click to RSVP, add the event to their Google calendar, get directions to the wedding, send greetings and gifts, recommend songs for the playlist and add photos to the online album and live wedding slideshow.

An update due out shortly will offer additional features such as a dedicated gift registry, integration with Google contacts and Dropbox (for photo storage and printing), text reminders for guests and designer invitation templates.

“We’re connecting everything to make it more comfortable for couples to engage guests and to make it cheaper and fun,” said the 29-year-old founder.

Wedivite’s website and mobile app were launched in beta in January and became an instant hit with couples in India, the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Canada. A Spanish-language version was added before the alpha launch after increasing demand from users in Spain, Latin America and the U.S., and Novak recently introduced a Korean beta version.

“Three months ago, a wedding organizer from South Korea emailed me and said online mobile invitations are big in Korea but they don’t have everything I am offering, and she wanted to translate all the material for me [in return for putting] her link on my website in Korea,” he said.

While his fiancé is scouting out a gown and location for the couple’s May 2015 nuptials, Novak is knee-deep in the technical side of pending matrimony, and is learning that vast cultural differences require him to tweak Wedivite for specific audiences.

In South Korea, for instance, nobody uses PayPal or Google Maps, which are integral to Wedivite. And because Koreans typically don’t dance at weddings, there’s no need for a song-suggestion feature.

“One of my dreams is to create a big infographic or PDF with cultural differences between weddings that I have learned about,” said Novak, a Tel Aviv resident.

But some things are universal, such as the increasingly digital components surrounding the romance of engagements and weddings.

Mashable’s 2012 social and tech wedding survey revealed that “relationship status” is the digital age’s version of flaunting a new diamond ring, as 31 percent of engaged women update their status within hours of accepting a marriage proposal.

Other trends show that couples are forgoing classic wedding formats in favor of ceremonies and receptions that reflect their personal tastes and create a positive experience for guests while keeping costs down.

“Wedivite is here to reset the standard of wedding invitations from the traditional to the digital,” Novak explained. “By putting social-media integration at the forefront of our platform, we recognize the influence that social media and digital presence has in the lives of today’s couples.”

Novak was inspired to start Wedivite by a conversation with a newly married friend whose wedding photographer had failed to take a picture of the groom’s mother. Though many guests take their own photos at weddings, these couldn’t easily be added to an official album.

“My idea was to make a shareable photo album for weddings, but I decided, why not make it a lot cooler?” Novak said. “Eventually it became what it is today.”

Novak possessed the requisite skills to realize his idea because he has been a graphic designer and Web developer since age 14, and has experience working for an ad agency and as marketing director for New Media College in Tel Aviv.

“I always had my own businesses on the side, but now I am 100 percent working on Wedivite around the clock,” he said. 

That, and planning his own wedding. 

On a Birthright trip, love is born


Sagi Alkobi almost didn’t go on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

It was August 2008, and the then-20-year-old student at The City University of New York had applied months in advance to participate in the educational tour of Israel for young Jewish adults. But a problem with his paperwork kept the application on hold, and, five days before the trip was about to begin, he assumed he wouldn’t be on it. Then he got a call.

“It was from Birthright,” recounted Alkobi, “They said, ‘We have an open spot for you. If you’d like, you can get on our Birthright trip. It’s on Monday.’ ” 

Perhaps it was destiny. Alkobi didn’t know it yet, but his life was about to change forever.

That change had a name: Daniella Elghanayan, a 21-year-old recent UC Santa Barbara graduate. They fell in love on the Birthright tour, and Sagi and Daniella, now 26 and 27 respectively, married last month at the Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo. 

It’s not the first time a Birthright experience has led to a wedding, said Pamela Fertel Weinstein, acting director of communications for Taglit-Birthright Israel. A recent request on the organization’s Facebook page for love stories from Birthright participants who met on the trip yielded more than 50 replies. 

Fertel Weinstein said studies of the program also show that Birthright participants are 46 percent more likely than non-participants to marry a Jewish spouse, and 25 percent of alumni are married to other Birthright alumni, although not necessarily from the same trip.

“People often look for similarities and common interests in their partners and Birthright Israel is becoming a more common experience,” she told the Journal in an email.

For Alkobi and Elghanayan, their love story began on the second night of their 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Their group of about 40 young people from the United States was camping with Israeli soldiers near the banks of the Jordan River. It was hot, people were snoring, and Alkobi and Elghanayan couldn’t sleep. As they sat with a small group of fellow sleepless campers, the two began to talk, and their conversation lasted all night.

“It just felt so natural and easy to talk to each other,” said Elghanayan, who is Persian. “There was definitely a spark.”

In the days that followed, Alkobi and Elghanayan grew closer. At first, Elghanayan felt a little shy, but slowly she let her guard down, and the pair became inseparable. 

“I would always look for her, I was always trying to see where she was. … It was like I was drawn to her,” Alkobi said. “I wasn’t really thinking straight, because I knew she lived in California, but I didn’t really care about that at all. I was like, whatever is going to happen, it’s going to happen. I just have to get to know her.”

When the time came to return home, it didn’t seem right that things should end there. 

“After we got back, it was like, wait, but, we’re not finished yet,” Elghanayan said. “I just couldn’t wait to talk to him again.”

Back home in the United States — but on opposite sides of the country — the couple stayed in touch with regular phone calls. Within a month, Alkobi had booked a flight to California, but he was still nervous. Getting to know Elghanayan amid the wonders of Israel had been magical; would that same spark still be there when he saw her again on her home turf?

He needn’t have worried.

After about 2 1/2 years of long-distance dating, Elghanayan moved to New York City to be closer to Alkobi, who had opened his own jewelry store, while also working for his family’s real estate and property management business. Then, around the fifth anniversary of their Birthright trip, the couple decided to take another trip together, back to Israel and also to Italy. 

They returned to their old haunts in the Jewish state, where their love had blossomed on Birthright, and visited Alkobi’s relatives. All the while, Alkobi carried a ring with him, waiting for the just the right moment. 

The young man’s original plan was to pop the question at the top of Masada, but with the August weather unbearably hot, he decided to wait until they reached Italy. After dinner on their first day in Rome, the couple headed to the famous Trevi Fountain. As they stood there admiring its majesty, a man came up and offered to take their picture. 

“Is this your wife?” he asked, causally.

“Not yet,” Alkobi said.

“I just kind of laughed and brushed it off. I didn’t think anything of it,” Elghanayan said. “Then as soon as he took the picture, [Alkobi] went down one knee. … I just stared at him with my mouth open.”

When Elghanayan finally said yes, it seemed the whole crowd of tourists surrounding them had been listening in. People began to clap. Somebody threw them a rose.

“It was really romantic,” Elghanayan said.

The couple were married Aug. 17 in a traditional Jewish wedding officiated by Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim in Los Angeles. Prior to the big day, they held a celebration in Israel with Alkobi’s family, a Moroccan henna party, to honor his relatives’ cultural traditions.

The couple now lives in Santa Barbara, where she is a public relations consultant for several companies; one of her clients is Tel Aviv University. He works in real estate development and property management. They said they’re grateful to the Birthright trip for bringing them together.

“I really had no expectation at all. I was just going to see this country that obviously we had a connection to, and to see a new place that I’d never seen before,” Elghanayan said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Alkobi agreed. “I just thought it would be a cool trip, and I happened to meet my future wife.”

Re-imagining and recycling traditional wedding objects


Artists and creative newlyweds are finding new ways to make the trappings and ceremonial elements of Jewish weddings their own — and then to have these mementos live on and remain useful long after the actual ceremony.

The evidence? Broken shards of glass turned into art, chuppahs repurposed and more.

Cigall Goldman, founder and CEO of mazelmoments.com, a Jewish event-planning site in New York, said there are opposing influences on couples approaching their wedding.

“There are only so many trends with the ceremony, since it’s based on traditions and rituals that go way back,” Goldman told the Journal. But, she continued, “Modern Jewish couples want the wedding to be a reflection of the couple.” 

One place to start is with the chuppah. The centerpiece of any Jewish wedding, it has gone from a traditional tallit to a statement piece, with personalized themes, colors and creative touches. 

Today, the rustic-chic theme is popular, with an “organic, earthy vibe” with perhaps a grape vine or birch poles providing an all-natural feel, said Goldman, who in April led a webinar on nationwide Jewish wedding trends. “A more modern chuppah with a sleek, rectangular design has gained popularity too.”

Karina Rabin, owner of Happy Chuppah of Orange County, said, “Lately, birch is extremely popular because it’s natural. Flowers are also popular — roses, hydrangea, peonies. We also include crystals as an added decoration, and they’re complimentary, so they’re good if someone’s on a budget. A lot of fabric is also popular, chiffon fabric in white or ivory. People like to make a statement and go all out.”

After the wedding ceremony, couples often find a new purpose for their chuppah, which represents the home they are building together. Goldman said it could be used for decor at the reception or set up over the sweetheart table for the just-marrieds. 

Its uses can go far beyond the wedding day, too.

“People often purchase the top, which is the actual chuppah, and use the fabric for a baby naming or a bris,” Rabin said. “They decorate a table and cover it with the chuppah as the linen and put pictures on the table of family members who have passed away. Couples also pass on the chuppah to their children for their wedding; that happens a lot.”

When it comes to the traditional marriage contract, the ketubah, papercut versions have become very popular, according to Andrew Fish of Gallery Judaica in Los Angeles. 

“Papercut ketubot are our biggest sellers,” he said. “Two artists in particular, Danny Azoulay and Enya Keshet, have created amazing selections of exquisite, meticulously detailed designs, which are cut by laser. We think that one reason these pieces have become so widespread is that the majority of them offer a stunning way to display your wedding vows while maintaining a neutral color. This way, if you change your decor, you don’t have to worry about color matching.”

Keshet, who lives in Israel and also offers custom-made ketubot that are hand-painted, said in an email that she offers both a traditional text and alternative options that she composed herself: “The ‘Pledge of Love,’ which leans on tradition and stresses the long-term mutual responsibilities, and the ‘Vision of the House,’ which sets the house as a metaphor to marriage … special versions of the vows are adapted to same-sex weddings and even to interfaith ones.”

The traditional broken wedding glass, once stomped on and forgotten, can now live on as a part of anything from a Kiddush cup to a picture frame. In its new form, the couple can keep the glass pieces to remind them of their special day. Fay Miller of Los Angeles conceived the idea of reusing the broken glass pieces some 20 years ago, crafting unique designs including the pieces through her company, Shardz.

“I came up with the idea at the wedding of my husband’s cousin’s daughter. He said no one does anything with the broken glass, and I said, ‘We should.’ That began a journey of apprenticeship at my studio with another glass artist. I built my own furnace and piped it except for the electrical. I learned how to work with high-temperature cement. I think that’s not bad for an old Jewish lady,” she said. 

“Working with the broken glass puts me in touch with the joy and ritual they represent. … I feel I’m a part of so many Jewish lives, and I’m honored they choose me to preserve such important memories.”

Other well-known artists, such as Gary Rosenthal of Maryland, have been inspired by the practice. Rosenthal said the mezuzah he makes for broken wedding glasses is his most popular item with couples.

“You lift up the top of the mezuzah and put the shards in front, and then you have it in your home as a permanent memento,” he said.

Rosenthal integrates shards with other Jewish ritual objects as well, such as Kiddush cups and menorahs. He also creates picture frames, heart-shaped pieces and other designs. 

“They’re like little treasure boxes,” he said.

Today, long after the Jewish wedding ceremony has ended, artists like Rosenthal help the promises a married couple have made to each other on their wedding day live on — and live on in style.

Creating inclusiveness at interfaith b’nai mitzvah


For interfaith couples who choose a Jewish identity for their families — even ones who have shared holidays with their extended families and answered questions for years — a bar or bat mitzvah raises new questions.

Am I welcome? If I attend, what will be expected of me? Should I wear one of the little hats that the men wear? Can I participate in the prayers? Will they all be in Hebrew? Will I understand what is happening? Should I stand when the other people do?

Thus the b’nai mitzvah process will be another step in the Jewish journey of the family — immediate and extended. After all, congregations are increasingly full of Jewish families in which one of the parents has converted to Judaism or isn’t Jewish at all. And that means plenty of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who are not Jewish. 

Rather than being an event that separates these different people, this sacred celebration can be a time to strengthen relationships between interfaith family members and to build Jewish identity for the family celebrating the simcha. 

For each family, there are two categories of questions that usually arise. Some questions relate to participation in the service and others involve making everyone feel included and welcome. In terms of participation, each synagogue decides on its own specific policies. Be sure to inquire about them early on. They may or may not be covered at a family meeting at the beginning of the b’nai mitzvah year.

Many Reform congregations invite non-Jewish parents to be present on the bimah for the aliyot and the Jewish parent recites a blessing in Hebrew. Some synagogues invite non-Jewish parents to share blessings in English, either translations of Hebrew prayers or perhaps to share blessings in their own words. 

The participation of non-Jewish grandparents may also vary from congregation to congregation. Some will invite non-Jewish grandparents to participate as the Torah is marched throughout the congregation. Other non-Jewish family members may be included to open or close the ark or stand with a Jewish family member during an aliyah. 

As for issues of inclusion, most families want all grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who attend to feel welcome. This may be the first time that some of these people have been to a synagogue or attended a Jewish service of any kind. 

To help, Temple Beth David in Westminster  invites all families to write a program that is distributed along with the prayer books. Families can choose to explain the service, describe religious objects, introduce family members and share thoughts from the parents and bar or bat mitzvah. 

The tradition was started by interfaith couples who wanted all of their family members to understand and enjoy the service. After a while, it became a tradition for all families in the congregation. 

For congregations that do not have such a tradition, it is advised that the family talk with non-Jewish relatives members prior to the service. Tell them what to expect; let them know when and how they will be asked to participate. Some may not wish to take an active role — that’s OK; that is their choice to make and should be respected. 

Some families will decide to include all family members in Shabbat dinner and the celebration after the service. Shabbat dinner can provide a time for all grandparents to give the child a blessing or share their thoughts of love and pride. Guests can be acknowledged at the party or reception, perhaps, if you’re really creative, through a medley of songs that acknowledges the cities that relatives have traveled from in order to be present. 

Those of us who have been privileged enough to be guests at b’nai mitzvah services where non-Jewish family members attend often are impressed by the number who travel thousands of miles to attend. They are as moved by the service as Jewish participants — and the pride of the grandparents is unrivaled.

As it often does, the Torah provides a wonderful lesson when it comes to being part of extended interfaith families. In Exodus, we learn that Yitro (Moses’ father-in-law) was a priest of Midian. He brought his daughter Zipporah and his grandsons Eliezer and Gershom to Moses in the wilderness because Yitro “had heard what God had done for Moses and for Israel his people” (Exodus 18:1). 

The Torah does not tell us more about this aspect of the Moses story. We do not know if Yitro ever saw his daughter and grandsons again or if he participated in the significant moments of their lives. What we do know is that Yitro supported his daughter’s choice of spouse and her choice to join with the Hebrew people. 

As we look at the questions of non-Jewish relatives participating in b’nai mitzvah services, the specifics may involve new questions, but the issue of inclusion may go back to Yitro and his role in the lives of his grandchildren. 

So remember Yitro and Zipporah, and remember that the questions about love and inclusion have always been a part of our story and that our goal is to build strong, loving Jewish families that honor all family members. 

Arlene Chernow is an associate director for the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Expanding Our Reach Communities of Practice. Based in Los Angeles, she has worked for the URJ since 1984 in the field of Reform Jewish outreach, consulting with affiliated congregations on issues of inclusion for interfaith families and Jews by Choice.

Boy donates two ambulances


Robert Leeds’ bar mitzvah party last February was something special.

During the cocktail hour, Cirque du Soleil entertainers roller-skated on a half-pipe. The celebration — which had a British invasion theme with English guards, a teahouse and traditional pub food — also featured Leeds playing electric guitar with a Beatles tribute band and participating in a breakdance routine with his brothers, Jonathan and Andrew, and an ensemble of dancers.

But Robert will remember it for all the good it helped him do. On the invitations, he decided to ask 800 guests, in lieu of gifts, to donate money to purchase an ambulance for Israel. He ended up raising enough funds for two. One, a standard ambulance, costs $100,000; the other, valued at $125,000, is a mobile intensive care unit. 

“I wanted my bar mitzvah to be more than just a party. It became an educational experience for people to [learn how to] do good,” he said.

At a dedication ceremony for the standard vehicle on Jan. 8 in Sacramento, Robert explained part of the motivation behind his mitzvah project.

“Becoming a man to me meant standing up for my brothers and sisters in Israel and helping to cushion the blows that they experience on a daily basis,” he said. “I wanted not only for the ambulance itself to save actual lives, but I also wanted the very action of sending it to be the message that you do not stand alone and we love you.”

The bar mitzvah wasn’t the first time Robert has given to charity. When he was in elementary school, he saved up $60 and, unlike most kids his age, didn’t spend it on Pokémon cards or bubble gum. Instead, he gave tzedakah to help a man who couldn’t afford a wheelchair, his mother said.

The 13-year-old, who plays basketball and chess and devours books on the weekends, was moved by the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as well as the examples set by his mother, Dina, and father, Fred, president of Fred Leeds Properties. 

“My parents are board members of every single charity,” Robert said. “I was just trying to do my part.” 

The ambulances were provided by the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA). Magen David Adom is Israel’s national emergency medical response service. It also runs the only blood bank in Israel, according to AFMDA CEO Arnold Gerson. 

“This is a critical moment for the history of Israel,” he said. “[It’s] faced by potential threats. We deal with everyday situations, from childbirth and car accidents to major crises. Our focus here is to make sure that people are aware that we are working on preparing for any emergency and that we are increasing our resources.” 

Robert, of Los Angeles, is the youngest person ever to donate an ambulance, according to Gerson.

Months after the bar mitzvah, Robert had the chance to decide exactly where in Israel the vehicles would be sent. Ultimately, he chose to donate the standard one on behalf of the city of Sacramento to the coastal city of Ashkelon in Israel, which California’s capital made a sister city in August. 

Dina Leeds had written to the Sacramento City Council, urging it to vote for the sister-city resolution, and was impressed that she received a prompt response. She and her husband are board members of StandWithUs, an Israel education organization that supported the resolution, and she is a board member of AFMDA. 

The mobile intensive care unit has not been built yet. It is expected to be completed and delivered to Israel in the spring, according to Erik Levis, a spokesman for AFMDA, but has not been assigned to a particular geographic region.

Gail Rubin, StandWithUs’ Sacramento-Davis area coordinator, said that what Robert did “is an incredible recognition by a bar mitzvah boy about the importance of Sacramento approving the sister-city relationship with Ashkelon. Sister-city programs are all about goodwill. He was honoring us for doing the right thing and keeping the spirit alive of what sister cities is all about.”

The relationship with Ashkelon will promote cultural and student exchanges, but Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn said he hopes there will be business and economic opportunities as well. 

“The sky is really the limit. The donation of an ambulance is something we wouldn’t have anticipated when we started the relationship, but it really shows how things can grow from a seed.”

Cohn also said that what Robert did was the very definition of tikkun olam. 

“For a young man to give a nice gift and put such a substantial portion of his bar mitzvah gift to the good of others is what it’s all about,” he said.

Dina Leeds said that she could not be prouder of her son. 

“I’m speechless. There are no words to express my joy. I’m elated,” she said. “You hope to raise children just to be good upstanding citizens and to serve humanity. When you see a young kid present such leadership, it makes me feel inspired.”

For his part, Robert was overjoyed at the amount of money he was able to raise for Ashkelon. Paraphrasing the Beatles, he said, “It was great to see what I was able to accomplish with a little help from my friends.”

SHAVUOT: 10 ways to celebrate


Saturday, May 26

“TEN”
Rabbis Yonah Bookstein (Jewlicious) and Sharon Brous (IKAR) meet for a rabbinic head-to-head during a night of Shavuot celebration, which features TED-style learning, challah baking, meditation, tequila shots with the rabbis and more. Special guest speakers include Rabbis Shawn Fields-Meyer, Adam Greenwald, Rebecca Rosenthal, Shlomo Seidenfeld and Ronit Tsadok; David Myers, UCLA History Department chair; educators Batsheva Frankel and Becca Farber; filmmaker Tahlia Miller; Rachel Bookstein; and musician Hillel Tigay. Hosted by IKAR and Jewlicious, the celebration includes drinks, food, coffee, beer on tap and desserts throughout the night. Sat. 7 p.m. (dinner), 8 p.m.-1 a.m. (program). $10 (dinner), free (program). 1134 S. Crest Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. jewlicious.ticketleap.com.

BETH CHAYIM CHADASHIM
What did God say to the Israelites when they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai? Answer: “Can you hear me now?” We’re called to answer the same question every Shavuot, when Jews traditionally gather to read the Ten Commandments and study all night in celebration and commemoration of receiving those commandments. In keeping with that, the LGBT synagogue remains open all night and invites the community to participate in learning, prayer, meditation and maybe even movement, starting with the chanting of the Ten Commandments, then a Yizkor service, followed by noshing and studying. Please bring something to share for the vegetarian/dairy potluck. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.

“THE SWEETNESS OF TORAH”
Valley Beth Shalom’s celebration features interactive text studies: “Removing the Slumber From Our Eyes: Religious Awakening in the Jewish Tradition,” led by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman; “Romancing the Torah: A Mystical Perspective,” led by Rabbi Paul Steinberg; and “The Hooker, the Spy, the Judge: Girls of the Bible,” led by Noah Zvi Farkas. Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Harold Schulweis discuss “Holy Heresy — Why God Loves Doubters,” followed by a blintz reception and late-night study with Rabbi Farkas.  On Sunday, May 27, Rabbi Schulweis officiates services (8:45 a.m.). On Monday, May 28, the second day of Shavuot, Rabbi Hoffman officiates services and Yizkor (8:45 a.m.). Sat. Through May 28. 7 p.m. (text studies), 8:30 p.m. (Ma’ariv and conversation), 10:30 p.m. (late-night study). Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. vbs.org.

“70 FACES OF TORAH”
With many clergy come many opinions. Tonight at Stephen S. Wise Temple, learn how the values of our Jewish tradition inform clergy’s positions on relevant modern issues. A brief service includes the traditional reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by discussions “The Death Penalty: Moral Dilemma or Moral Insight?” led by Rabbis Spike Anderson and David Woznica; “What Is the Place of Taxes and Tzedakah in Creating a Moral Economy?” led by Rabbi Ron Stern and Cantor Nathan Lam; and “Judaism and Gay Marriage” led by Rabbis Eli Herscher and Lydia Medwin. Stick around for cheesecake. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561. wisela.org.

YOUNG ISRAEL OF CENTURY CITY
Author and educator Rabbi Yitzchak Blau travels from Israel to serve as scholar-in-residence during three days of celebration. Blau discusses “How Does the Prophet Differ From the Fortune Teller” during today’s Shabbat lecture. A full night of learning with Rabbis Blau, Elazar Muskin and Zeev Goldberg; chavruta learning and parent-child learning follow (11:45 p.m.-5 a.m.). On the afternoon of Sunday, May 27, Blau examines “Miracles and the Natural Order in Jewish Thought.” Finally on Monday, May 28, a women’s Shavuot lecture addresses “Fear, Anger and Arrogance,” and a special Shavuot party at the shul features food, singing and a presentation by Blau on “Excuses and the Meaning of Life.” Sat. Through May 28. 7:40 p.m. Free. Young Israel of Century City, 9317 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 273-6954. yicc.org.

NASHUVA
In commemoration of mystics who began a tradition of studying late into the night as a commitment to receiving Torah anew each year, the independent congregation holds a night of learning led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. Please bring a dessert for the dairy potluck. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Room 121, 1200 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. nashuva.com/shavuot_service.html

SHOMREI TORAH SYNAGOGUE
Experience the divine through the body and soul. Mincha, soulful singing by Minyan Kol Chai and Ma’ariv begin the celebration. A panel features body and soul professionals — including Taly Bar (Healing Body Work); Rabbi Sara Brandes, a certified yoga instructor; hypnotherapist Jesslyn Shani; and American Jewish University’s Rabbi Jay Strear — on “Experiencing the Divine Through Body and Soul,” followed by break-out sessions with individual panelists. Stick around for desert and late-night study sessions, going from 10:30 p.m. until midnight. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.

ADAT ARI EL
Cantor Ila Bigeleisen, Rabbinic Intern Matt Rosenberg and Rabbi Deborah Silver conduct a carousel of learning over three sessions during “On One Foot,” seeking a modern response to the challenge posed to Hillel: “Teach me Torah while I stand on one foot.” Break for cheesecake at 10 p.m. At 10:45 p.m. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard leads late-night session “The Original On One Foot Judaism.” Sat. 8:30 p.m. Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. adatariel.org.

TEMPLE BETH AM
Will the real Judaism please stand up? Temple Beth Am partners with Adat Shalom, Temple Emanuel, prayer group Pico Egal and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies for a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center lead a midnight session. On Sunday, May 27, participate in combined services at Temple Beth Am at 9:30 a.m. Second-day services on Monday, May 28, include Shir Hadash in the synagogue’s sanctuary at 9:15 a.m., and the Library Minyan gathers in the synagogue’s Dorff Nelson Chapel at 9:30 a.m. Yizkor follows at both locations. Immediately after, join a shul-wide picnic at La Cienega Park (meet at the picnic table on the east side of La Cienega Boulevard, north of Olympic Boulevard). Bring a dairy picnic lunch, drinks and blankets. Child care provided. Sat. Through May 28. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353. tbala.org/tikkun.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
“How is the Jewish community both a blessing and a burden?” Listen to personal stories, spoken-word pieces and music, and explore ancient and meaningful texts. Eat, drink, study, share, celebrate and stay up until midnight and beyond. Sat. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 876-8330. rsvp.tioh.org.

Extravagant Jewish celebrations — Have we gone too far?


A wedding that costs $100,000? A bar mitzvah that costs $20,000? When did extravagance and luxury become such primary Jewish values? I can’t remember the last simcha (Jewish celebration) I attended at which there were not tremendous amounts of wasted food, overly expensive napkins and bands large enough for a royal banquet.

Shockingly, the funding for these weddings (as well as bar/bat mitzvahs, and brit milahs) does not always come from savings accounts; rather, families frequently take out large loans in order to afford keeping up with the Jewish communal norms. Stories have been told that some families take out loans up to $100,000 to cover weddings that at times cost as much as $150,000 to $300,000. Is this what a committed Jewish life necessitates?

Histapkut bamuat (being content with less) is a core Jewish value, and Ben Zoma taught that a wealthy individual is one who is content with one’s lot (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

Rav Bachya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century Spanish philosopher, shared this view and taught that a lifestyle of materialism and overindulgence leads one away from God. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 29b) teaches that one is not to appear publicly in a way that flaunts his or her wealth, as this lifestyle not only leads to arrogance, but also can shame others and lead them to covet.

Throughout various time periods, the Jewish community embraced sumptuary laws (laws limiting personal expenses on religious grounds). As a way of showing “deference to the poor” (Moed Kattan 27), even the richest people were to be buried plainly so as not to shame the poor, and on certain festive days, girls, especially those from wealthy families, were to wear borrowed clothes so as not to shame those who did not have.

In the early 18th century, the community of Furth prohibited the serving of coffee and tea because they were expensive. They limited the number of musicians at celebrations, as well as how long they could play. At other times, rabbis ruled that only fish, not meat, could be served at festive occasions.

Attempts to limit overly extravagant celebrations have been made in 21st century America as well. In 2001, the Agudah issued “Guidelines for Financial Realism and Modesty in Our Weddings,” and for a few years thereafter, ultra-Orthodox rabbis issued simcha guidelines (“wedding takkanos”) that canceled the vort (pre-wedding celebration), limited wedding guests to 400, the smorgasbord to the basics, the meal to three courses, the band to five musicians, and the flowers and chuppah decorations to $1,800. The Satmar, Skver and Belz Chasidim have also followed suit and issued wedding takkanos.

These takkanos indicate that the madness of overly extravagant celebrations has gotten out of hand.

Every simcha sets a new communal standard, and rabbis should be counseling families in the virtues of modesty and moderation as their congregants plan their celebrations. Family members and friends should remind loved ones what is most important when planning a major life event; it should be a time of spiritual reflection creating an ambience of love by bringing together sacred community and not be merely an opportunity to outdo “the Cohens.”

Instead of inciting competition and animosity, we should strive for more creative and holy celebrations that foster inclusiveness and community building.

Money is tight today, especially for those committed to living an observant Jewish life. A 2005 study estimated that synagogue membership averages more than $1,000 per year, and in large cities it can easily be two to three times that. A Jewish family with only three children could spend more than $100,000 a year on day school, camp, synagogue and kosher food. Prices are going up and not all can meet these demands.

A wedding, birth, funeral and the like are all opportunities for great spiritual and ethical possibilities and are a time for families to engage in financial introspection (cheshbon ha’kis).

Some argue that people have the right to enjoy their wealth and spend it as they please. While it is true that they have the secular right to do as they wish with their wealth, it is clear that excessively lavish simchot are at odds with core values of the Jewish tradition. Those who are concerned with the trend of expressing love through consumerism should consider alternative models of celebration, shifting the focus of Jewish life-cycle celebrations from materialism and extravagance to a more spiritual and ethical approach.

Backlot parties put simchas in the spotlight


Founders of Hollywood’s great studios, like Jack and Harry Warner and Louis B. Mayer, played down their Jewish heritage when they arrived from the East Coast. Now, more than 70 years after the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when talkies became the rage and Jews routinely Anglicized their names, film factories are playing up the Jewish angle by hosting some of the largest and most unique b’nai mitzvah parties in town.

In the “top that” game so common on the b’nai mitzvah circuit, having a party on the backlot or in a sound stage certainly ups the ante. Like the “Titanic”-themed bar mitzvah featured in “Keeping Up With the Steins” or the opulent fairy tale-like settings found on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” such celebrations are created with a sky-is-the-limit mindset, and most studios are more than happy to accommodate a Tinseltown simcha.

While hotels and similar destinations are able to include decor that reflects a feature-film theme, the studios can one-up these venues by hosting celebrations where a movie was actually filmed, accenting the space with props from the original production. And the special-event coordinators note that the cost of renting most studio space is comparable to space costs at many Los Angeles-area hotels.

But is the unbridled use of such secular settings the right tone for newly minted sons and daughters of the Torah? While some might decry the expense of a glitzy movie studio celebration as sending the wrong message about Jewish values, especially when most synagogues provide their space to members at no additional cost, others say there are other factors to consider when keeping the b’nai mitzvah kid in the picture.

Susan Shapiro said she was extremely happy with her daughter Sascha’s ceremony and celebration on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City last August.

Family and friends of all ages joined Sascha in a studio courtyard decorated to look like an outdoor garden for her bat mitzvah, which included a Torah reading and a Havdallah service. Afterward, the party next door in the Rita Hayworth Theater was an exclusive get-together for the bat mitzvah’s friends.

Sascha’s name was displayed on a large marquee, similar to what one would find at a movie premiere. Guests walked down a red carpet, enjoyed a Wolfgang Puck-catered meal, and danced the night away on a black-and-white checkered dance floor.

“It never would have entered into my mind to have the party there,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro got the idea to hold the simcha at Sony after Sascha, now 14, attended a friend’s Sweet 16 at the studio and returned home raving about the party.

“I was really happy. Everything was on site. And it was a safer option,” said Shapiro, a professional psychologist. “At a restaurant, kids would be wandering around all over. [At Sony] there were guards watching them.”

Since the studio can tailor the party to the interests of the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, pre-dinner activities at recent Sony celebrations have included a make-your-own-movie area, a video arcade and a studio tour.

“At a movie studio you can do almost anything,” said Pam Byrne, director of studio services for Sony, who added that the number of b’nai mitzvah on the lot has grown every year.

Event prices vary depending on whether the client wants a lavish or intimate gathering. And naturally, all of the extras come at a price.

Shapiro said the Sony bat mitzvah for her daughter cost about $20,000, which included the venue rental, caterer, photographer, invitations and party favors, among other expenses.

“Was it expensive? Yes,” Shapiro said of her daughter’s ceremony and party, which she estimates at about $35 per child. “Was it expensive by most people’s standards? Probably not.”

Many hotels and other popular b’nai mitzvah venues outside of synagogues are comparable in price to the studios.

At the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, a bar mitzvah party, which includes venue rental, food, taxes and 20 percent service charge can range between $35,000 and $50,000, according to Shaun Brown, assistant director of catering. The onsite caterers can host a kosher function.

At the InterContinental in Century City, rental fees range from $500 to $1,500, while meals average about $54 to $64 per person, not including alcohol and a 20 percent service charge.

Marsha Rennie, event producer at Paramount Studios, said rental fees for a party at their lot average about $2,000 for one of their smaller venues and can balloon to $11,500 for one of the larger areas, which can hold up to 5,000 guests. The Melrose Avenue lot features 10 venues, from the intimate gardens of Valentino Park to the massive outdoor New York Street. The studio does not feature in-house catering, although the event staff can recommend a vendor for those who need it.

It’s a slightly different scene across town at Universal Studios, where soundstage No. 6 is dedicated solely to special events. Universal event planners note that set decorators and prop masters have transformed the 5,000-square-foot space, and its adjacent Mediterranean-style courtyard, into just about everything under the sun.

“Some [clients] come with a clear idea, a party planner and a decorator; others will come in open to our suggestions,” said Scott Ackerman, Universal’s director of catering. “We had a space theme for a bar mitzvah, where we suspended giant florescent-painted planets. Instead of regular lighting we had black lighting, and we piped in fog as guests came in.”

For a “Wicked”-themed bat mitzvah, based on the “Wizard of Oz” prequel, a yellow brick road led the guests onto the sound stage, which featured the Emerald City and a round dance floor covered in a winding yellow brick road pattern. The table centerpieces included giant lollipops and licorice castles.

While No. 6 is the primary destination, Ackerman said any spot at Universal is open for parties, however no one has yet to celebrate a simcha at their Red Sea tour stop. And “Desperate Housewives” fans might be crushed to learn that Wisteria Lane is currently off-limits due to ongoing filming.

Siblings show they have write stuff


As they practiced their haftorah portions, perfected their speeches and sent out invitations, Daniel and Lauren Deitch felt something was missing from their b’nai mitzvah preparations: Grandma Julie.

The Deitches’ grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, had promised to attend their Dec. 9, 2006, simcha. But her death six months earlier left the siblings with a void that seemed nearly impossible to fill.

To include her in their special day, the two were inspired to write and illustrate “We Will Always Remember” (Mishpucha Press, 2006), a book detailing their grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust to be distributed during the ceremony. But what began as a mitzvah project to honor family and remember the Holocaust soon became much more. The Deitches, who live in Hidden Hills, wrote about the experience and won first prize in Areyvut’s annual B’nai Mitzvah Essay Contest for a poignant piece detailing their unique and very personal project.

The inspiration for the book was sparked during the shiva, when the Deitches’ parents took out the videotaped interview Grandma Julie had provided to the Shoah Foundation. After watching her testimony, Daniel, 14, and Lauren, 12, started to ask questions about her life, especially about her survival during the Holocaust.

“My grandma used to tell us stories about when she was … in the Holocaust,” remembered Lauren. “But she didn’t go that far with it.”

For their mitzvah project, the Deitches had originally planned to collect books for BookEnds, a local nonprofit that gathers children’s books through student-run book drives and places them in schools and youth organizations that lack reading materials. They’d been involved with the group in the past, and it seemed easy for them to continue the effort.

But the interest the siblings took in their grandparents’ lives made them reconsider their mitzvah project plans. When their publisher father suggested that they write a book about their grandparents, the Deitches decided to take on both projects.

Daniel and Lauren filled the gaps in their grandmother’s tales by digging up old photos, talking to family members, reading Holocaust-related books and visiting the Museum of Tolerance.

In their research, they began to understand their grandmother’s desire to protect them from the horrors she’d seen. At the same time, they uncovered a fascinating story. Their grandmother was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She escaped a concentration camp in Hungary with her infant child and played up her fair features in order to pass herself off as a Christian.

Daniel and Lauren were also inspired to learn more about their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Walter. He escaped from Germany as a child via Kindertransport, a British program that enabled Jewish children to escape to England, while his parents fled to Shanghai to survive.

Daniel and Lauren unveiled the book to their friends and family during the b’nai mitzvah ceremony. The siblings remember watching their guests’ faces when the rabbi revealed the book.

“Everyone started crying,” Lauren said.

To continue to honor their grandmother’s memory, the Deitches have arranged for the profits from book sales to go to The Blue Card Fund, a national charity that provides financial assistance to needy Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children.

For Daniel and Lauren, becoming authors has also meant serving as peer educators.

“I told my friends that I wrote a book about the Holocaust, and at least three of them didn’t know what it was,” said Daniel. Lauren had a similar experience.

In addition to sharing their knowledge and their book with their friends, the children gave copies of it to their principal and teachers at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas. Another copy resides in the school library.

It was the personal aspect of the Deitches’ essay about their book project that won over the judges. “[Their project] took an experience that hit home for them, in terms of their grandmother passing away and their grandparents in the Holocaust, and it really added to their celebration,” said Daniel Rothner, founder and director of Areyvut.

Areyvut of Bergenfield

, N.J., a nonprofit that sponsors the annual essay contest, is dedicated to promoting charity, justice and social justice. In addition to its popular “A Kindness a Day” page-a-day calendar, the organization offers resources for b’nai mitzvah projects for students, educators and families. The essay contest, now in its third year, allows students to share their outreach experiences, speak for their peers and elevate their celebrations by helping others.

While their prizes for the essay include a Giving Certificate to be redeemed through Tzedakah Inc. and an iPod, the students feel the experience itself is more valuable than the prizes.

“Daniel and Lauren have done something that will be with them for a long, long time as they get older,” Rothner said.

For now, the Deitches will continue to educate others. “If people ask, ‘What’s the Holocaust?'” Lauren said, “we’re going to tell them.”

For more information on Areyvut, visit www.areyvut.org. For more information on BookEnds, visit www.bookends.org.

Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism


As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Try main course hamantashen for a topsy-turvy day!





Chef Nathan prepares savory hamentaschen. Video courtesy ” vspace = ’12’ hspace = ’12’ align = right border = 0 width = 200 alt=””>
I’m sure I don’t have to offer any information on Ahasuerus holding a beauty contest where he chose the secretly Jewish Esther to become his queen, replacing Vashti. Nor do I have to write about Haman, the anti-Semite who plotted to obliterate the Jewish people in the month of Adar. If you’re reading this article, you’ve also read others that get into the dressing up, the megillah reading, the frivolity of the holiday and the purpose and joy in giving.

If you’re the type of person who likes gift giving, especially treats from your kitchen, then you probably look forward to the holiday as much as my family does. I especially enjoy the making of hamantashen. Holiday cookbooks are full of poppy seed, prune, chocolate, and even jelly-filled recipes.

They’re all good, but I like my own unique creations the best.

Did you know that Queen Esther hid her dedication to kashrut by claiming to be a vegetarian? This look into Queen Esther’s palace life is why it’s traditional not to eat meat during Purim. Just wait until you read the calzone-style hamantasch recipe I’ve included below. It’s a great dairy dinner to make for the holiday.

It’s been years since my daughter dressed up during a Purim carnival as Queen Esther and my son as a human grogger. Although we’ve outgrown some holiday traditions, the mainstay for my family at Purim is the giving of shalach manot. What a terrific opportunity to share with your Jewish neighbors and friends a basket full of treats from your heart and home. The megillah instructs us to celebrate the holiday by sending these gifts as an expression of brotherly love and unity.

When we first started setting up Purim baskets, we filled them with the clichéd ensemble of grape juice, candies, fruit and, of course, fresh-from-our-oven hamantashen. The baskets were spruced up with sprinklings of chocolates, homemade jams and preserves.

Over the years, we’ve developed a more interesting and personality-filled basket of mishloach manot. We’ve expanded our baskets’ bounties based on ones that we’ve received. (It’s not illegal to borrow other people’s ideas, ya know!) One year, some good friends gave us mammoth-sized flower-shaped cookies in a brightly painted flowerpot. By the following summer the pot was filled with freshly grown strawberries on my back porch. The next year our friends outdid themselves when they sent oversized coffee mugs filled with holiday treats.

What we’ve used for baskets has evolved from the recycled ones we received in previous years into fancier hand-painted glass bowls. We try to use the opportunity of gift giving as an expression of who we are and what we like, what we enjoy in our home and what we’d like to share with our friends. And not everything has to be homemade. We often fill the baskets with spiced nuts, fruit chutneys, chocolate truffles and wine, along with the one or two items that we’ve baked. The idea behind shalach manot is giving, not necessarily being a slave in the kitchen. So be proud of what’s in your baskets.

Savory Hamantashen
From Jeff Nathan's "New Jewish Cuisine."
Stuffing
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onions, chopped
1/2 cup red bell peppers, diced medium
1/2 cup green bell peppers, diced medium
2 small zucchini, diced medium
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup pitted olives, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1/2 cup farmer's cheese
1/2 cup pot cheese
1 cup grated havarti cheese
2 eggs, mixed

In a large sauté pan add the olive oil, onions, peppers, zucchini and garlic. Sauté until onions are translucent. Add salt, pepper, olives and fresh herbs. Stir well. Remove from heat. Place in a large bowl and fold in the cheeses. Stir in the eggs. Adjust seasonings. Set aside and allow to cool.

Dough
2 packages dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons honey, divided
1 1/2 cups cool water
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups flour

Preheat oven to 450 F.
In a small bowl combine the yeast, warm water and 1 tablespoon of the honey. Set aside and allow to proof (approximately three to four minutes). In another small bowl mix the remaining honey with the cool water, salt and oil. Put all the flour in a food processor. While the machine is on, add the cool water mix, then the warm water mix. Process until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Remove to a large, well-oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise in a warm area until doubled in volume. Punch down dough. Roll out to approximately two 10-inch circles. Fill each with stuffing and pinch into triangles. Brush with olive oil. Bake on cookie sheets sprinkled with corn meal to prevent sticking.

Makes two large savory hamantashen, enough for four to six servings.

Jeff Nathan is executive chef of Abigael’s on Broadway in New York, host of television’s “New Jewish Cuisine” and author of “Adventures in Jewish Cooking” and “Jeff Nathan’s Family Suppers.” His food columns will appear monthly in The Journal.

Missing in action — Tu B’shevat


Orthodox Jews are known to be deeply attached to religious rituals. Their days are filled with them. In addition to the three daily prayers, some observant Jewsmake it a point to recite at least 100 blessings a day.

When actual holidays arrive, this attachment only deepens. Take a look at the Sukkot festival, when hundreds of sukkahs dot the landscape of neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson. Look at the care with which the observant Jew picks out his lulav and etrog, how the sukkah is carefully built and decorated, and the many blessings and rituals that happen inside this biblical hut. Orthodox Jews love those tangible rituals that you can eat, touch, smell and bless, because they deepen their connection to God.

So naturally, you would think that a religious happening that comes straight from the Mishna and is loaded with sensory opportunities would be eagerly embraced by the frum world. You would expect, for example, that they would embrace Tu B’Shevat, which celebrates the wonders of nature and, in particular, the wonders of those beautiful, delicious fruit born miraculously from God’s life-giving trees.

Yet, here in the hood, Tu B’Shevat is the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays: It gets no respect. It comes and goes like a ship in the night. It’s the missing holiday.

When I asked several Orthodox rabbis if they planned anything special for Tu B’Shevat, I was hit, like a former colleague would say, with a sudden burst of indifference. The norm, with some rare exceptions, is simply to make a few blessings over certain fruit after dinner. No synagogue events, no special sermons, no special ceremonies.

Of course, this is not true for other branches of Judaism, for which Tu B’Shevat has become a major celebration of planet Earth, complete with environmental initiatives and tree-planting ceremonies with the mayor of Los Angeles.

It’s almost as if the yeshiva world got together and decided that Tu B’Shevat is too “Kumbaya” for them, so they might as well leave it for the schmaltzy liberals to run with.

Many Orthodox rabbis will tell you that Tu B’Shevat is a minor holiday, it’s not a commandment per se and it has a utilitarian history that is connected to tithing requirements in the Land of Israel. In other words, it’s not that big a deal, especially if you don’t live in Israel.

While I understand this reasoning, I think the frummies have missed the boat on this one. That’s because this tiny, offbeat holiday has the potential to become a major, uniquely relevant holiday for all Jews.

And I don’t mean engaging in more tree-planting ceremonies or other fashionable Earth Day-type events. Those environmental ideas are wonderful and necessary, and they should go on all year as part of tikkun olam (heal the world). What I have in mind is something deeper and more personal.

And it was brought to my attention by a woman named Vanessa Paloma.Paloma lives in Pico-Robertson, but she was born and reared in Columbia, where she learned to sing Ladino music and play her favorite instrument, the harp.

She’s a recording artist who performs in festivals around the world. She’s also an Orthodox Jew who studies Torah and mysticism every week.

While most of us were watching the Super Bowl, Vanessa was under an orange tree leading a group of 10 women in a Tu B’Shevat seder, the likes of which I’m guessing you’ve never seen.

Using teachings that originated in the 15th century with the Arizal, a Sephardic mystic living in Safed, Vanessa has constructed an elaborate ceremony of music, meditation and blessings that uses 41 different fruits (including nuts and four types of wine) to raise the consciousness of our individual potential.

It’s not as weird as you think. In fact, its use of symbols is very Jewish. Think of all the symbols we use at a Passover seder: salty water for tears, charoset for brick and mortar and so on. It’s just that here the symbols are more personal. A hard outer shell will symbolize the prejudices that stifle our personal growth. A fruit that is soft all the way through will trigger a contemplation of our limitless potential.

Paloma says that “the power of Tu B’Shevat has to do with defining and creating intentions to manifest our essence in the world. We are all trees with roots, a trunk, branches, flowers and fruit… but only with clarity, nourishment and directed action [movement] can any of these potentials come to fruition.”

The holiday of Tu B’Shevat is here to help nourish our human trees, so that in time we can create our own fruits, whether it be through art, music, science or beautiful relationships.

Paloma explains that the ambiguous period of Tu B’Shevat — winter almost ending, spring almost beginning — and the symbol of the bud on the tree ready to sprout make it a fertile time to contemplate our creative potential.

By next year, she hopes to have the ceremony published as an attractive, user-friendly Tu B’Shevat seder. She wants people to see it not as spiritual mush but as practical mysticism utterly relevant to the modern, impatient mindset.

She won’t have an easy time with the Orthodox crowd, who generally like their traditions straight up, not shaken or stirred. But you never know. Ten years ago, you would have been laughed out of most Orthodox shul meetings for bringing up the very liberal idea of bat mitzvahs. Now they’re as common in Orthodox shuls as the cholent Kiddush.

But Orthodox or not, I’d love to see our best spiritual and creative minds get together and build on this whole notion of a personal seder for the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.

This personal seder would prepare us for the “peoplehood” seder that follows two months later at Passover. They would complement each other — you start local and then you go global. A psychologist would call it working on yourself first, to help you better connect with others later, in this case, the Jewish people.

Victory of a Blessing


There are times in our lives where after periods of struggle and conflict, we seek peace and quiet.

As life would have it, the term of tranquility is short, but we can emerge
from these times strengthened both physically and spiritually.

“Vayeshev Ya’akov — And Jacob settled down in the land where his ancestors had sojourned….”

The opening words of this week’s reading elicited the following comment from our sages: Just when Jacob sought tranquility, the crisis of Joseph erupts.

Jacob, our quintessential ancestor, is indeed a lifelong wrestler. Even before he is born, he is portrayed as wrestling in the womb with his twin brother, Esau.

In fact, his very name, Ya’akov, refers to an ancient wrestling technique. It means one who can strike at the Achilles’ heel of his opponent and cripple him, even while lying on the ground with the enemy’s heel at his own throat. Throughout his life, Jacob will constantly wrestle, and even in his final moments, we find him wrestling with Joseph, his favored son, in order to reverse the blessings between his two Egyptian-born grandsons.

Jacob will become “Israel” as a result of another wrestling match — this time against a mysterious, divine opponent. In this case, all commentaries seem to agree that we are confronted with a profoundly significant metamorphosis. Jacob becomes Israel.

When the patriarch finally succeeds in breaking the grip of the angel and achieves the upper hand, the angel begs to be released, and Jacob utters these famous words: “I will not release you until you grant me your blessing.” These words articulate an authentically Jewish value all too often overlooked.

According to 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, heroic thinking in the classical Mediterranean world defined victory as the killing of one’s opponent, which could be restated as:

“Might makes right.” Jacob and the meaning of Chanukah, incidentally, offer us a radically different definition of victory.

Perhaps it could best be expressed as: “Right makes might.” For the Jew, victory must mean receiving a blessing from the enemy, converting him into an ally.

The modern State of Israel never celebrated any of its stunning military victories with parades, parties, celebrations, dancing, etc., as do all other nations on earth.

The late Golda Meir said that we cannot celebrate, because our children had to kill and be killed. The only instance when we witnessed such a great wave of joy in Israel was when the enemy came to bless; i.e., when the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Israel, extending recognition and the offer of peace.

Sadly, Jacob/Israel must always be alert and ready to take up arms against the “violent hands” of Esau the hunter in order to survive.

As Edmond Jabes, one of the greatest 20th century Jewish writers, remarked concerning the Jewish people: “How inventive his means, how diligent his metamorphosis, deduce, adapt, plan, he can be hounded but not destroyed; Half man, half bird, half fish, half ghost, there is always one half which escapes the hangman…. ”

Our survival can be attributed in great measure to our adaptability but also to our inner spiritual victories.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah in India? No Problem


Young Israelis are among the world’s most prolific travelers, gravitating to hot spots like Bolivia, Thailand and India, where the shekel stretches far. Having experienced Pesach in Argentina, surrounded by more than 400 mostly Israeli backpackers, I was curious to see where I might end up for Rosh Hashanah on my around-the-world journey.

I knew that I would be in India, and given that several hotels in Delhi’s Pahar Ganj district had signs in Hebrew, there had to be something going on.

As it turned out, I would be in the holy town of Rishikesh, where ashrams and yoga studios line the Ganges. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I had fallen in with an Israeli crowd in Goa who had highly recommended Rishikesh as a place to find the inner spirituality that India is so famous for. Like so many others who visit India, I was looking to find myself, too.

During a challenging night bus ride from Delhi, in which the driver seemed hell-bent on having a head-on with every truck on the road, I found myself chatting up an Italian girl in the seat next to me. When we arrived, I followed her to an ashram outside of town. Naturally, we got horribly lost on the way, but I suppose you have to get lost before you expect to find yourself.

The swami there was world famous, and the Italian girl had flown in from Rome to spend eight months studying yoga and inner bliss. It seemed like just the ticket, so I followed her to a yoga class, where I found myself surrounded by post-high school Californians with immaculate tans in the latest, hippest designer yogaware. The instructor, an American, spoke with an unnerving calmness while the class anxiously took notes.

“Can you repeat clearly how one should position our shoulders during two-minute meditation,” asked one kid, as if nirvana would be the best possible grade at the end of year semester.

It all seemed a little ridiculous, so I quietly backed out the door, grabbed my pack and headed into town.

Unlike the lower Ganges, where the water pollutants are apparently 150 times more than the most dangerous allowable level, the Ganges here flows thick and fast from its source in the nearby Himalayas. A suspension bridge crosses the gray water at Ram Jhula, a popular neighborhood with the holy set. Pedestrians, cyclists, cows and monkeys all make use of the bridge, and as I stepped foot on the other side, I was surrounded by babas, Indian holy men who meditate all day and survive through the charity of the community.

I followed my nose to a wonderful little guesthouse at the top of the hill, dropped my things and went off in search of a beer. Easier said than done, this being a holy city after all, where most restaurants are vegetarian and the chiming of ashram bells echo in the air.

With a little perseverance, I found what I was looking for above an Internet cafe, where the signs were all in Hebrew. Seconds later, I was talking to some girls from Haifa.

“Nu, and where are you going for Rosh Hashanah?” they asked in that friendly Israeli way that makes you feel like a younger sibling.

“Wherever you are, I hope,” I replied.

Turns out there were so many Israelis in Rishikesh, that three different Rosh Hashanah celebrations had been organized. Early the next evening, I met with the girls from Haifa and followed them to the next village of Luxman Jhula, across another bridge. After passing rustic Indian shacks, hundreds of locals getting ready to sleep on the streets, beautifully exotic ashrams and more than a few monkeys and cows, the last thing I expected to see were chandeliers.

A large enclosure had been set up in a field below a hotel, with seats and tables laid out, and chandeliers hanging from the plastic tarp walls, lighting it up. The ceiling was open, the sun was setting and it looked surreally beautiful.

Unlike my Pesach in Argentina, where we had to walk through metal detectors to enter the five-star hotel in Patagonia, this Rosh Hashanah service was open to anybody and everybody, bringing together quite an eclectic mix of travelers.

I turned to talk to a Japanese backpacker, curious how she stumbled upon Chabad, and it turned out she was Jewish, too. By my rough count, there were about 300 people, and this was just one of three celebrations.

We were served a meal of chicken, potato and vegetables after a service that saw uplifting singing and dancing. I wondered how on earth Chabad managed to secure kosher food. But since it was Chabad, I figured it must be kosher. It was the first time I had eaten meat in India, as I was determined to avoid getting sick and was avoiding all meat, eggs and anything uncooked.

At the same time on the Ganges below, a traditional Hindu puja, a religious ritual showing respect to God, was taking place. Floral offerings were made and set forth on the river, young boys chanted holy songs, incense was burned and a gold urn was passed around and touched with reverence by the community, much like a Torah on the way back to the ark.

Never mind the ashrams and the yoga centers.

As I sat beneath the stars, celebrating a new Jewish year surrounded by Jewish backpackers of all nationalities, I decided the Ganges was the perfect place to find myself after all.

Vancouver-based freelance writer Robin Esrock has traveled to 32 countries in the past 18 months, posting pictures and stories on his Web site,

I’ve Got a Secret


I thought I had struck social gossip gold when my friend Paula let slip a delicious bit of intelligence straight into my eager ears. Paula and I were participating in a
real-time, interactive social dialogue — meaning, we were on the phone — trying to schedule a lunch date. This was no easy task, as we are modern women who live modern, chronically busy lives that become grist for oodles of “how-to-simplify-your-life” type of books and articles that we, being so busy, have no time to read. Paula consulted her PDA and ticked off the days she was not available.

“Monday I can’t take a lunch break, Tuesday I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, Wednesday I’ve got a business lunch, and Thursday’s out since I promised to shop with Barbara for a wedding dress.”

“Barbara?” I asked. “Barbara’s engaged?”

“Omigod,” Paula said. “I cannot believe I said that. And I was sworn to secrecy!”

“You know you can trust me,” I said, immensely satisfied at suddenly finding myself “in the know.” Inexplicably, Barbara had remained one of our social set’s most eligible singles for a long time. News that she was about to don the lace veil was the most exciting information I had heard since I learned that our very nasty neighbor’s pipes had burst. It was hard to decide which news was more delightful.

“You can’t tell anybody,” Paula said. “But the engagement is going to be announced in synagogue this Saturday. Boy, are people going to be surprised!”
“I’ll make sure to be there, and don’t worry. CIA agents couldn’t drag it out of me, unless of course they threatened to yell at me or drag me to some European detention center,” I said.

Although Paula and I failed to locate a single day anytime in the following six months when we were both available for a midday sandwich, the conversation was still a rousing success by my standards. I walked a little taller — a novel feeling, as my kids are now so big that in my entire household I am only taller than the dog — just knowing a juicy news tip that almost nobody else in the world knew.

An hour later, the phone rang.

“Make sure to come to synagogue on Saturday,” Mimi said. “There’s going to be a big announcement.”

Her I’ve-got-a-secret tone irritated me. I thought I was the only one, other than Paula, the bride and the groom, to know about the hitching. I had kept my end of the bargain and kept my trap shut. But I had suddenly tumbled from the social gossip elite, and I didn’t like it.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” I said, in a studied, nonchalant tone.

“How?” Mimi demanded. “Nobody is supposed to know.”

“Well, you know, and I know also. Why are you calling people if it’s supposed to be such a secret?”

“I don’t want to deprive people of the chance to be there when the news breaks,” she said. “This is BIG.”

“Have you also alerted CNN and the Los Angeles Times?” I asked.

“No need. The Men’s Club president already works for one of the wire services,” Mimi said.

The same day, I got an e-mail from Barbara herself.

“I know that Paula spilled the beans,” the bride noted. “But please don’t tell anyone else. I really want this to be a surprise.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I wouldn’t tell anyone even if I was promised the jumbo jackpot of the California lottery, unless it has gone over $23 million. After all, everyone has her price.”

I kept mum. But the next day in the market, I bumped into one of the synagogue staff.

“You didn’t hear this from me,” he said sotto voce near the tomatoes, “but there’s going to be a big announcement in services on Saturday. Only thing is, I can’t tell you exactly what it is. Wish I could,” he said, clearly relishing the presumption that he knew something that I didn’t.

“Somebody already beat you to the punch,” I said. “I learned about this three days ago,” I said.

“Three days ago? That’s impossible. This news is supposed to be hot.” He sounded hurt.

I shrugged. “What can I tell you? As Ben Franklin said, ‘Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.'”

Over the next few days, I received no fewer than four phone calls, three e-mails and two unsubtle hints accompanied by winks about the big scoop that was supposed to have remained a bigger secret than the Manhattan Project but had leaked like a New Orleans levee.

Barbara e-mailed me again: “I’m not accusing you of anything, but news of my engagement has somehow already traveled round and round. I only accidentally told 12 people, and they each promised not to breathe a word of it. Only two days left till the announcement, so please don’t tell anybody else.”

At that moment, the king-sized down duvet that I planned to get for Barbara as a wedding gift shrunk to a three-speed blender. I may be a writer, but I’m no leaker.

On Saturday I arrived at services early. The place was standing-room-only, with people spilling out into the halls. This never happened, not even on Yom Kippur. It was as if God Himself had been announced as the guest speaker.

When the prayers were over, we waited for the expected broadcast. The women were all on the edges of their seats. Two even slid off.

The air in the room was electric, as the rabbi dropped hint after hint about the identity of the bride and the groom. Finally, to great fanfare, he announced Barbara’s engagement to a man whom most of us did not know. Not that it mattered. Two more singles had been rescued from the cauldron of singles events, blind dates, wretched dates, wretched blind dates and Internet dating services. We sang and danced as if we had just discovered and trademarked the recipe for world peace, or least the recipe for a good nonfat cheesecake.

It was probably the worst-kept secret in the history of Western Civilization, yet for all that, the broadcast lost none of its thrilling quality when it became officially public. Ben Franklin would have had a great laugh.

Why I Write Jewish


On Jan. 25, 1997, my oldest son, Zachary, became a bar mitzvah, a ceremony that inaugurated him into the Jewish community as a responsible young adult. It also catapulted me into the world of Jewish journalism as a family columnist.

Call it writing therapy. Call it black humor. Dealing with the bar mitzvah preparations — from the trivial to the transcendent — sent me scrambling for books explaining the ritual’s history and meaning. I found myself jotting down notes and thoughts, wondering why we so warmly and lavishly welcomed these hormonally challenged teenagers into our community instead of sending them on extended solo vision quests like our Native American brethren. And why — just because the bar mitzvah fell on Super Bowl weekend — we needed to have two-foot-high glitter-covered plasterboard football players as centerpieces.

On the one hand, I was awed by the knowledge that when Zack read from the Book of Exodus (Parshat Beshalach) about Pharaoh’s soldiers pursuing the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt, every congregation in the Jewish world would be reading that same passage. Zack, standing on the cusp of Jewish adulthood, would become spiritually connected to them, to his grandparents and great-grandparents and to his 5,000-year heritage.

On the other hand, I was overwhelmed by the myriad mundane details — who do I invite, who do I have to invite, where do I seat them, what do I wear and how many maracas and blow-up saxophones must I purchase? And I was almost paralyzed by the major issues: Why are we doing this? Do we have the strength and the finances to repeat this three more times for Zack’s younger brothers?

I began my research. I learned that Moses, who had a speech impediment, never had to embarrass himself in front of his adolescent pals. I also learned — and felt validated by the fact — that the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law, actually commands the father to host a festive meal in honor of his son. Most important, I learned that I could combine the history of the bar mitzvah with my own angst and amazement, some comments by my sons and husband, description of family activities, humor and — voila –a column was born.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international Jewish news service headquartered in New York, accepted the story, launching my career as a personal chronicler of Jewish holidays and life-cycle events. Like some Jewish alchemist, I could magically convert the chaos and confusion of my life as the seemingly deranged mother of four sons into edited copy that captured those few transcendent moments and made our family life look organized, purposeful and, yes, Jewish.

For almost a decade, writing for The Jewish Journal as well as JTA, I have circled and re-circled the Jewish calendar, from Rosh Hashanah to Tisha B’Av, writing about the history, rituals and personal experiences of the Jewish holidays. I have passed through multiple life-cycle events, from birth to bar mitzvah to burial. I have also taken a look at some secular holidays, such as Mother’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and some secular issues, such as vegetarianism, gun control and family dinners. Always, I have looked at these subjects through Jewish eyes or, more precisely, through many pairs of Jewish eyes since consensus among Jews is rare — a boon for a journalist since, for even the quirkiest story, there’s invariably a venerated resource to quote.

Writing has always been important to me. It’s given me a means to record and try to comprehend the world around me. I don’t videotape. I don’t scrapbook, but I have boxes of journals stashed away and file cabinets filled with fiction and nonfiction in various stages of completion — and quality.

Writing as a Jewish columnist originally provided me with a “hook” for my articles, and the concomitant research served as a pleasant way to compensate for my less-than- adequate 1950s Reform religious school education. But quickly I realized it wasn’t the article that was hooked; it was I who was hooked as a strongly identified Jew, as someone rooted in and morally guided by Judaism’s multimillennial way of viewing, participating in and repairing the world.

Over the years, I have survived not one but four bar mitzvahs and moved on to high school and even college graduations. I still continue to write occasional columns, despite the protestations of my sons, now 22, 19, 17 and 15, who claim, “I’m too old to be quoted in your articles.” But I have also moved on to more reportorial articles in which I hope to now and again make a difference or affect a discussion. And where I can continue to write about the Jewish issues and Jewish subjects that I deeply value. l

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

 

Pioneering Class of 2006


Did I miss something?”

Adam Teitelbaum wasn’t sure why everyone was laughing. He stared out at the 800 guests, shrugged his shoulders and looked behind him for a clue from the 46 other graduates. They shrugged right back at him.

“When I am an old man,” he had just intoned, “and have high school children of my own….”

The laughter came in waves, quieting then renewing each time parents, teachers and friends caught a glimpse of the unrelieved incomprehension on the graduates’ faces.

When the crowd settled, Teitelbaum continued on with his warm and emotional talk, a piece of anticipated nostalgia about what the class of 2006 of New Community Jewish High School would tell their progeny about what it was like to be pioneers, to be the very first graduating class at a hugely successful startup Jewish high school.

The paradox of the Teitelbaum moment was just perfect: Even as these graduates could touch the future with their fingertips, anything past this moment seemed an unfathomably distant snapshot. When you are an 18-year-old standing up on the dais, mortarboard riveted to your head with 10,000 bobby pins, crimson gown billowing out over a carefully chosen dress and heels, or barely hiding the jeans and sneakers you somehow got away with — at that moment, nothing else exists. Nothing but you, your sobbing or whooping or high-fiving friends, your teary-eyed parents and the teachers you are suddenly hugging.

And how much more so when you are graduating from New Jew, and when you are among the 47 students who took the chance and dove head first into a new venture.

It was a risk that paid off.

The school opened in 2002 at the Milken campus of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, with 40 students in the ninth grade and Dr. Bruce Powell, veteran founder of successful Jewish high schools, at the helm. By the next year, 108 students had enrolled in ninth and 10th grade, then 180, then 240 and by this fall the school expects to have 320 students at the Shomrei Torah Synagogue campus in West Hills that it has occupied since 2004.

In just four years, New Jew, which has successfully accommodated and integrated all denominations, has grown to offer courses in seven languages — including Yiddish and American Sign Language. It participates in a student exchange through The Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership; it fields competitive teams in lacrosse, baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, cross-country, golf and soccer; it has an art department that includes Jewish arts, instrumental and choral music, photography, dance, drama and film; and it offers an intensive Torah study tract, a full listing of AP classes and a science academy. This year, after a rigorous self-study and auditing, the school won a coveted six-year accreditation from Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

So what explains this success?

As the graduates tell it — and four graduate speeches, not excessive adult blathering, formed the bulk of the graduation ceremony — New Jew is a place to build self-confidence and to gain skills to uncover and then pursue your passions.

Elan Feldman, student council president for three years (that can happen when you are always the oldest class in the school) spoke of the leadership he has learned.

“Through its commitment to New Community Jewish High School, the Jewish community has furthered its commitment to raise a generation of educated, responsible, socially aware and active Jews, ready to assume the responsibility of leadership wherever their personal passions may reside,” Feldman told the crowd gathered in Shomrei Torah’s main sanctuary for the May 31 graduation.

The school encourages students to live what they are learning, supporting their ideas and plans for new groups. That is how this class gave birth to a campaign to stop the genocide in Darfur, enlisting dozens of other high schools; that’s why New Jew students became mentors to middle school kids, teaching them how to become advocates for social justice; it’s why students created an Israel advocacy group, launched a literary magazine and decided to help kids in economically challenged areas of Los Angeles.

The camaraderie these students have built — among themselves and with the faculty — is palpable, giving credence to Powell’s mantra that New Jew is about creating A-Plus human beings, about advanced placement kindness.

Shira Shane, founder of Teens Against Genocide and a top student in the class, dedicated her speech to describing the characteristics that make up the class of 2006 — and each poetically rendered example, it became clear, referred specifically to a fellow student. The graduates and their teachers caught the references, nodding and smiling in each others’ direction.

There were no individual awards for this senior class.

“The best is the enemy of the good,” Powell said. Awards — which at this point don’t help the kids get into any colleges or guide them on any path — simply make those who don’t get them feel bad. It creates hubris, he said, and defies the notion that all are created in the image of God.

So the students, rather than celebrate individual accomplishments, celebrated their collective personality — as a free-spirited, rebellious class.

Talya Vogel described a moment at the school retreat when the seniors were supposed to pass the mantle to the junior class in a candle ceremony. But after the seniors had transferred their flames to the juniors’ candles and then extinguished their own wicks, the seniors balked, relighting their candles.

“And the fire spread throughout the senior class; every single senior candle relit. We showed them we are not burnt out; we are not going out without a fight,” she said. “We marched toward the campfire, candles lit, singing songs of self-possession and triumph and resonance.”

It is a conquering, go-forward attitude that indicates that the students have preemptively answered Powell’s signature challenge: “Will you dare disturb the universe?”

At the end of the ceremony, the graduates predictably pulled off their caps and tossed them into the air, a shower of oversized confetti pelting the graduates as the caps fell.

But one cap stayed up.

It clung to the ceiling, the strings of the tassels tangled in the border of the acoustic tiles.

The graduates pointed and laughed, tried futilely to reach for the lingering cap but then gave up, turning to the more important business of the recessional, hugging everyone in sight and looking out over the crowd for their parents.

So the cap hung there, not willing to let go of the moment where the future is at hand, but the present is so much stronger.

But alas, a parent came and released the cap from its bondage, wanting, no doubt, to return it to its owner for just a few a more pictures and a lifelong keepsake. Graduation, after all, has to end, and the future must draw near.

But the cap had made its point.

These graduates, the dangling hat seemed to say, would always hover above New Community Jewish High School, the pioneering class of 2006.

 

Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future


Parents and pundits, you may breathe a sigh of relief. The Class of 2006 — or at least The Jewish Journal’s not-so-random sampling of the class of 2006 — will put to rest any notion that this plugged in but wireless, overscheduled but doted upon and supersavvy but still so na?ve iPod generation is resting on a sense of inflated entitlement.

These graduating seniors, and surely dozens more who could have made it onto these pages, are doing everything they can to shape a world they want to call home. They have rallied thousands of high school students and adults on behalf of refugees in Africa; they have pushed the school system to meet their standards of morality; they have taught kids to read, raised money for AIDS orphans, interviewed Holocaust survivors, built houses with their own hands and pledged themselves to defend our country.

They come from day schools, public schools, independent schools. They are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, and all are Jewish in ways that defy definition. They are our future, and that future is looking just fine. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Eduation Editor

Zac Ellington
Taft High School
Grinnell College

For the past two years, Zac Ellington has routinely dedicated 35 to 40 hours a week to prepping with the Taft Academic Decathlon Team. This year, it all paid off when Taft won the 2006 Academic Decathlon National Championship.

Ellington is also the winner of a full-tuition Posse Scholarship to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he wants to study environmental science. He plans later to go dental school and become an orthodontist.

An African American, Ellington said he has always had to assert his Jewish identity strongly. His temple, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, has always been a big part of his life.

“I’ve always had to work to maintain my Jewish identity because I’m black…. Growing up, that’s made me more Jewish. Because people don’t expect it from me, that’s made me associate with it all the more.”

A music lover, Ellington wants to learn a new instrument at Grinnell next year — he already plays the bass guitar and trumpet. He also plans to try fencing. Currently, he spends his time tutoring high school and middle school students in math and English. — Lisa Hirschmann, Contributing Writer

Ari Berlin
Saugus High School
Yale University

Thanks in great part to Ari Berlin, a senior at Saugus High School, the William S. Hart Union School District in the Santa Clarita Valley no longer keeps students in school on Rosh Hashanah. Berlin advocated that Jewish holidays be “student-free days” in letters to his local newspaper, school principal and district board members at the beginning of the school year.

Berlin began a casual Jewish group at Saugus while in 10th grade, which brought together Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to experience Jewish rituals, cuisine and customs.

“I think the culture of it is the best part,” said Berlin, who will attend Yale University in the fall and wants to major in ethics, politics and economics. “Learning all the holidays and the traditions — my family has always shared that with me, and I share that with other people.”

Berlin was not particularly interested in politics until his junior year, when he attended the Presidential Classroom Inaugural Program in Washington, D.C., which provides high school juniors and seniors with political education and leadership training.

Prior to his trip to Washington, his main academic interest had been science, with which he has had great success. He worked as a research intern at Caltech and took part in the UC Davis Cosmos program as both a student and peer mentor. Berlin said his time in Washington motivated him to draw more attention to science and math in politics. — LH

Elan Feldman
New Community Jewish High School
Claremont McKenna College

When asked what inspired him to run the Los Angeles Marathon while still in high school, Elan Feldman said, “That I’ve never run it before. It’s one of those things that you see, and you wonder if you could yourself.”

He has also run on the cross-country team at New Community Jewish High School, earning first team all-league honors, and has played on the lacrosse team, all the while managing a full load of advanced placement classes.

Feldman is a leader. He has been student body president of New Community Jewish High School for the past three years, helping to set the foundation for student government at the new high school. He wants to study economics, government and leadership next year at Claremont McKenna College and will be interning for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa this summer. In the past, he has interned for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

For Feldman, being Jewish is “about helping another person. The whole idea of tikkun olam. Do anything you can to help another person.”

While not religious, he describes himself as a community-oriented Reform Jew. He has served as vice president of the Temple Judea Youth Club and is a member of NCJHS’s Israel Advocacy Club. — LH

Elana Goldstein
Alexander Hamilton High School
Brown University

Elana Goldstein discovered that the Los Angeles Unified School District was not living up to its commitment to take part in a process that ensures its physical education uniforms are not made in sweatshops. This led her to testify against the district in court.

Goldstein first became interested in workers’ rights through working for the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which Goldstein describes as “a Jewish ACLU.” She is also on her Temple Youth Group Board at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, where her mother, Laura Geller, is senior rabbi. Goldstein also works as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Malibu.

Goldstein explains her interpretation of tikkun olam as “more advocacy, volunteering your time, volunteering your money, stopping the conversation and starting the action.”

Goldstein credits her Jewish upbringing with teaching her to respect social justice and liberal values. “I was allowed to question everything in my home, which I think is a fundamentally Jewish value,” she said.

Goldstein is also ranked fourth out of 700 seniors at Hamilton High School and will attend Brown University in the fall. –LH

Kenny Gotlieb
Harvard-Westlake
Harvard University

Kenny Gotlieb has been interested in science ever since he had a mural of the planet Earth, while growing up. Now he is on his way to Harvard University, where he wants to study physics, biophysics or math-applied economics.

He has a long list of academic accomplishments. He is a National Merit Scholar, a member of Harvard-Westlake’s Cum Laude Society and has taken part in a directed thermodynamics study at Harvard-Westlake on how to make refrigerators more efficient.

His accomplishments outside of science also abound. The grandson of Polish Holocaust survivors, he won a grant from Harvard-Westlake to travel to The Netherlands last summer to do Holocaust research. He took the train between cities, interviewing scholars, museum curators and Jewish survivors and their rescuers.

He fondly recalled meeting Tieme Beubing, a hospitable Dutch man who hid both Jews and American pilots who had been shot down during the war. Based on his research, Gotlieb created a Web site about the Dutch resistance during World War II as an independent study this past semester. — LH

Thais Miller
Milken Community High School
Undecided about college (currently on waitlist at Stanford and George Washington Universities; has been accepted at American University)

“The Function and Expression of the miR 171 Promoter in Embryonic and Seedling Arabidopsis Development.” That is the name of the 20-page report on RNA that made Thais Miller a semifinalist in the 2006 Intel Science Talent Search.

But despite her obvious knack for biology, Miller, a senior at Milken Community High School, said she wants to study sociology or literature in college. An avid writer, Miller composes poetry, short stories and is even working on a Lolita-esque screenplay about a love affair between an overage movie studio executive and a young and na?ve Hollywood starlet. She is the co-president of Rites of Passage, a poetry club at Milken.

Her list of talents doesn’t end there. When Miller’s parents took her to a music store at the age of 4, an unwitting employee placed a toy violin in her hands, only to find that young Thais refused to part with it. Today, she practices and performs with her teacher and plays the electric violin in Milken’s jazz band. When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Keynote Brass Ensemble came to Los Angeles in 2003, Miller performed with it as part of Milken’s Chamber Ensemble.

Miller believes deeply in community service and serves as a teacher’s assistant at University Synagogue. This summer, she is working at the Human Relations Commission, an organization she admires for its promotion of tolerance. — LH

Shira Shane
New Community Jewish High School
Stanford University

Shira Shane has an eclectic collection of interests. Film, musical theater, Buddhism, art, languages, surfing and international relations are just a few she rattles off with enthusiasm.

In addition to being the top student in her graduating class at New Community Jewish High School, she speaks Hebrew fluently after living in Israel with her family for three years and is studying Arabic and French.

Shane founded Teens Against Genocide (TAG), a social justice organization that now encompasses 25 high schools. On April 23, TAG rallied on behalf of the crisis in Darfur in front of the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, grabbing the attention of local congressmen.

After running for her school cross-country team this year and training extensively, she completed the Los Angeles Marathon on March 19. She has also played on her school’s lacrosse team for three years.

Shane, who is Conservative, said her Jewish values come into play every day and allow her to connect to friends.

“They’ve guided me as a person, given me guidelines as to how to live my life,” she said. — LH

Ruben Zweiban
Milken Community High School
U.S. Naval Academy

Not many college-bound seniors can say they co-founded both the Young Republican and Young Democrat clubs at their high school. But because Ruben Zweiban found himself part of a Republican minority at Milken Community High School, he co-founded a club for the Democrat majority, as well, in order to encourage healthy and fair political debate.

Zweiban will attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis next year, a feat he accomplished by winning a nomination from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks). Each United States congressperson gets only one constituent admitted per year.

One of the biggest challenges about being at Annapolis, Zweiban believes, will be combining a rigorous training and school schedule with the faithful practice of Judaism. Zweiban grew up in a Conservative family, observing Shabbat and all major holidays, and he is heartened that the Naval Academy recently opened a synagogue.

An excellent student with a 4.5 grade point average and a full load of Advanced Placement classes, Zweiban wants to study international policy at Annapolis. Already a Hebrew speaker, he is interested in learning Arabic as well. He wants to pursue a career in the Navy, and eventually, he hopes, at the Pentagon.

Zweiban has always been fascinated by the military. At age 13, he began attending the Navy League Cadet Corps, a one-week boot camp. He also participated in the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, which simulates a month of Navy Seal training. Only 19 of 42 participants completed the training, and Zweiban was one of them. — LH

Elizabeth Rubin
YULA
Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim
University of Pennsylvania

Every Friday afternoon, Elizabeth Rubin has back-to-back standing appointments.

First, she heads over to Melrose Avenue Elementary School as a volunteer for Koreh L.A., a Jewish Federation project. For two years, she’s been devising games and offering incentives to help struggling first-graders learn to read.Then she visits a toddler through Chai Lifeline, an organization that provides support for families with chronically ill children. When Rubin started visiting early this year, the little girl would cry when she walked in. Now, she cries only when it’s time for Rubin to leave.

Rubin has been playing basketball at YULA since the ninth grade, and last season the YULA team made it to the league playoffs and won the national title at a yeshiva tournament in Florida. She also plays volleyball, is editor of the school newspaper, a counselor for the B’nei Akiva Zionist youth movement and won an academic prize for women in science and engineering.

As one of five high school seniors nationwide chosen to be an Orthodox Union Joseph Lieberman Scholar, Rubin participated in several political and leadership events in Washington and around the country.

Rubin will spend a year in yeshiva in Israel before going to the University of Pennsylvania, where she might study education, urban studies or communications. And she wants to be a mom.

“I like having a full life,” said Rubin, the oldest of six children. “There is never any down time, and always something going on.” — JGF

Elizabeth Green
Marlborough School and Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Northwestern University

As the community service representative to Student Council for Marlborough School, Elizabeth Green set out to raise $20,000 to build a school for AIDS orphans in Zambia.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit, and $5,000 and most of the students’ community service energy were directed at the Gulf Coast. Left with just one semester, she still she managed to supervise the raising of $29,000 for Zambia.

Green has been involved in community service since she was 6 years old, when she got pet stores to donate dog food to homeless pet owners. She worked at HopeNet food pantry in the Mid-Wilshire area and at the age of 15 ran the Honolulu Marathon, raising $8,000 for AIDS Walk L.A.

Green honed her inclination for tikkun olam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she has been a student since fourth grade. She participates in the weekly madrichim program, discussing Jewish values with other teens then mentoring eighth graders.

She received the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Arakhim Award for outstanding character traits, and at Marlborough received awards this year in community service, environmental science and history.

She will attend Northwestern University and hopes to study creative writing and environmental science. And she will continue community service.

“I have a sense that I don’t necessarily deserve all the opportunities I have, and that a lot of people who find themselves in difficult situations don’t deserve what they have either,” said Green. “Community service brings an awareness that there is a world beyond yourself.” — JGF

Seth Samuels
Shalhevet
Columbia/Jewish Theological Seminary

To become an Eagle Scout after six years of being in the Boy Scouts, Seth Samuels mustered a team of 49 volunteers and raised $5,000 to refurbish the home of an indigent, elderly woman in Pasadena last year.

With the help of Rebuilding Together, Samuels supervised the work site to install new pipes, a wheelchair ramp, a security fence, new flooring, sidewalk concrete and cabinets.

This summer, he’s taking those skills to Louisiana, where he and some friends will work to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged area.

Samuels’ hands also tend to more delicate tools — such as his cello, which he plays for the Shalhevet orchestra, where he is also assistant conductor and tenor section head for the choir. He’s starred in musical theater productions with United Synagogue Youth at Adat Ari El and has been a counselor at Camp Ramah, a bar mitzvah tutor and big brother to Shalhevet middle schoolers.

Next year he hopes to study psychology and Talmud at a joint program at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Samuels is an AP Scholar (he aced three exams in one year) and won the Manhigut Award for leadership from the Bureau of Jewish Education, a citizenship award from United Synagogue Youth and scholarship from the National Committee on Jewish Scouting.

For Samuels, the scouting and other work he does all fit together.

“It has to do with believing in God and being a religious person, but also working for the betterment of the country and the people in this country. It’s about being a better person.” — JGF

 

Mentor Sees Benefit in Villaraigosa Story


Herman Katz has begun to grow weary of hearing and seeing his own name. A humble 73-year-old who has taught and counseled in Los Angeles public schools since 1957, he has been living in the limelight since one of his former students, Antonio Villaraigosa, became mayor last year.

Katz taught Villaraigosa, then a struggling senior, in a reading improvement class at Roosevelt High School. Noticing that Villaraigosa held promise and was at a critical point in his development, Katz pulled him aside to offer encouragement and advice, namely that Villaraigosa should take the SAT exams and apply to college.

“I saw that he was a bright kid, and from what he had told me, he really didn’t know what he was going to do,” Katz said. “It was just a matter of encouraging him.”

Katz offered to take the boy to the college counselors himself.

Villaraigosa ended up taking classes at East Los Angeles Community College, then transferring to UCLA, from which he graduated in 1977 with a degree in history.

“It wasn’t a ‘this-kid-could-be-mayor-one-day’ type of thing. But it just so happened that this was at a time when he needed somebody who showed a little interest, who would give him the encouragement, and that’s what it really was,” Katz said.

Both on the campaign trail and in his inaugural speech, Villaraigosa credited Katz with making “such a difference in my life.” Katz even appeared in Villaraigosa’s campaign commercials.

Though Katz said he is baffled by all the attention, he is reluctant to shy away from it because he believes that his story is beneficial for all teachers. Villaraigosa thinks so, too. The mayor particularly likes to mention Katz when advocating the need for public education reform in Los Angeles, an issue that dominated his campaign and has been at the top of his agenda since taking office.

“This story is important because it shows people how important an educator can be when you don’t even realize it,” Katz said. “You never know how you’re going to affect a kid.”

If Katz’s is the ideal teacher’s story, then it’s also a very good Jewish story.

He was born in Boyle Heights and grew up there and in City Terrace, which both had large Jewish populations, but the areas later became heavily Hispanic. Like Villaraigosa, Katz graduated from nearby Roosevelt High School.

The son of a Russian Jewish mother and American Jewish father, Katz fondly recalled spending his boyhood hanging out at synagogues and as a member of AZA, the youth group for Jewish boys.

Today, he and his family continue to practice secular Reform Judaism. Katz and his wife, Beverly, volunteer at the Valley City Jewish Community Center in Sherman Oaks, where their now-grown children once attended the kinderschul.

Lately, Katz has been frustrated with the California High School Exit Exam, which he believes will prevent many deserving kids from graduating.

These days, he is retired but still spends two days a week helping out in the counseling office at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sherman Oaks, where he lives.

Katz credits his Jewish values with endowing him with a lasting respect for social justice and universal rights.

“We’ve always been union oriented and have always supported the working man’s fight for a decent life,” he said. “For me anyway, it just carried over into my philosophy as far as teaching is concerned.”

 

The Circuit


Full House of Hope
It was a full house May 14 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire at the 30th annual Celebration of Life Faces of Hope Benefit gala, honoring the City of Hope’s bone marrow transplant (BMT) program, along with the program’s director, Dr. Stephen J. Forman. Watching the videos and pictures about the program’s 30 years and the more than 7,300 transplant procedures conducted, guests were visibly overcome with emotion.

City of Hope is one of the largest BMT programs in the world and patients everywhere benefit from the transplant expertise and research conducted at its campus in Duarte.

Philanthropist Laurie Konheim, a member of City of Hope’s board of regents and the organization’s Cancer Immunotherapy & Stem Cell Research Committee, co-chaired the event. Honorary Faces of Hope committee members include actor Brad Garrett, supermodel Cindy Crawford, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Also at the event were Howard and Susan Gordon, owners of the Cheesecake Factory; Neil Portnow, CEO of the Recording Academy; Jordan Scott, daughter of director Ridley Scott; Val Zavala, KCET newscaster and member of the Faces of Hope honorary committee, and members of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

United in Charity
Spring was in the air on May 17 at the annual United Hostesses’ Charities (UHC) 64th annual Membership Luncheon and Fashion Show in the Crystal Ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Women dressed in spring colors and prints gave a festive air to the event and after lunch UHC President Marilyn Gilfenbain presented a check to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, bringing the group nearer their $1.5 million pledge to endow United Hostesses’ Charities Cardiac/Stroke Emergency Care and support the groundbreaking research of Dr. Prediman K. Shah, director of the division of cardiology. The group also provides funding for the UHC Center at Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center.

A fashion show featuring the extraordinary designs of Fe Zandi and the skinny models with legs up to their necks, (oh, why did I eat so much at lunch) rounded out the day.

Movies in Focus

Hollywood luminaries were honored at the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Entertainment Industry Awards, with Focus Features feted at the Beverly Hills Hotel event for distributing tolerance-themed films, such as the gay cowboy saga, “Brokeback Mountain.”

Thespians William H. Macy and his wife, Felicity Huffman, emceed the evening, with remarks from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and ADL Pacific Southwest Region Director Amanda Susskind.

“I can’t think of an industry that has more reach and power to make a difference than the entertainment industry,” Susskind said at the April 5 event. “When we see movies like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘The Pianist,’ we are reminded of this.”

Focus Features co-presidents David Linde and James Schamus received the ADL’s Distinguished Entertainment Industry Award. Schamus told the audience of more than 300 that given the number of films about oppressed minorities distributed by Universal Pictures-owned Focus, “If you’re hated for who you are, you probably have a first-look deal with us.”

“Lord of the Rings” executive producer Mark Ordesky, one of the dinner’s co-chairs, said that he was fortunate when he grew up because he “never had to experience anything that ADL has combated. The [charity] work I do for ADL truly is the most gratifying.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

The General Speaks
Nearly 100 mostly senior and Israeli members of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood gathered on May 29 to hear a speech given by former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon. The event, sponsored by Los Angeles chapter of the Americans for a Safe Israel, also welcomed their Christian supporters. After a career spanning more than 30 years in the IDF, Ya’alon retired in June 2005, prior to Israel’s controversial unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last year, because of his opposition to the policy supported by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. At the gathering, Ya’alon again voiced his strong opposition to Israel’s recent disengagement plan to leave certain parts of Judea and Samaria, warning that it was a failed policy of appeasement.

“Unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was perceived by the Hezbollah as a victory and now it is perceived by Hamas as a victory as well,” Ya’alon said. “This encourages and entices Islamic radicalism and they feel like they are winning”.

Ya’alon also spoke about the threat Israel faces from Islamic fundamentalist regimes like Iran that have promoted and funded suicide bombings through out the Middle East. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Lauding the Literati
Norman Mailer and Judith Krantz were honored at the 11th annual Los Angeles Public Library Awards Dinner recently at the Central Library. The event honored Mailer, Library Foundation of Los Angeles Executive Director Evelyn Hoffman and Wells Fargo, represented by Regional President Shelley Freeman. The evening, hosted by Keith Carradine, raised $680,000 for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to securing private contributions to support the Los Angeles Public Library.

Hoop Dreams
For 16-year-old former Encino resident Marisa Gobuty it’s all about basketball.

Throughout the summer, Gobuty, a 5-foot-7 high school junior point guard, who now lives in Israel and plays for Israel’s National Basketball Team, will be playing for the Southern California-based Finest Basketball Club (FBC), and compete in tournaments across the United States.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Israel for a short two-year stint. They have lived there ever since. But like in Encino, Gobuty’s love and passion for basketball led her back on to the courts around Tel Aviv, eventually landing a spot on the Israel National team at age 15. She is now one of only 12 team members on Israel’s Segel Zahav, which means Gold Team. It is comprised of the top players in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Living in Israel has been a great learning experience culturally and emotionally,” Gobuty said. “By playing basketball there I’ve also gotten to compete against some of the best in the world playing in European FIBA Championships, as well as having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. But some of my most rewarding moments have been talking to other high school age-teenagers about what it’s like to grow up in a country that is constantly on alert in a war time like state and being able to share my experiences.”

Support Your Students
The West Coast Supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) recently held a dinner at the L.A. home of Esthi and Walter Feinblum. Forty YU supporters attended the event and raised $100,000 for the West Coast Scholarship Drive to ensure that all qualified undergraduate students who wish to attend YU can do so regardless of their financial circumstances.

 

Dozens of Cousins


Imagine all the “Cheaper By the Dozen” kids grown up, married and with kids of their own. That’s my family. My mom is one of a dozen, and I’m one of the children of the dozen. And maybe not that surprisingly, my mom chose to have only two children (me and my brother) and my husband and I limited our brood to three.

Since most of my family lives in the L.A. area, it makes Los Angeles a pretty small town really. Just the other night, a Wednesday, when few people go out, my husband and I coerced our two teenagers into watching their 10-year-old brother while we went with another couple to dinner and a show. When we got to the restaurant, there was my cousin; he told me I just missed my aunt, who was picking up food. When we got to the theatre, there was another cousin waiting out front. Then in conversation with our friends, we discovered that their business partner is dating yet another cousin of mine.

Sure, I’m related to every other person in Los Angeles (not to mention a crowd of people in Dallas, Baltimore and even South Africa), but is that a blessing or a curse? After nearly 20 years my husband still hasn’t met all my first cousins, and I doubt he ever will. There are some I wouldn’t recognize even if they bumped into me headfirst. Now I can empathize with my grandfather, who never did learn the names of all 25 of his grandchildren.

I have so many relatives that my husband still grouses about the size of our wedding. The bimah was groaning under the weight of the wedding party. Each time my husband describes our wedding to someone, he embellishes the number of guests. At last count we were up to 1,000 guests and most of them, according to him, were my relatives. His entire extended family huddled at one small table.

I shouldn’t complain. Although our family gatherings are monumental affairs, the fun flows freely. The childhood stories and gags trigger tear-streaming laughter, no matter that the same stories are retold countless times by my mom and her siblings. And no story gets told without frequent interruptions, because there are 12 sides to every story in this family. Each time, arguments break out over whose story it really is. Did Jack crash Lenny’s new bike, or was it Sol? Who threw peanut butter balls against the wallpaper, leaving permanent grease spots? Who put the carp (destined to become gefilte fish) in the bathtub to save its life?

The curse of my extra-large family plagues us when we’re planning a holiday celebration or a milestone event. For Passover, we clear all the furniture out of our family room and squeeze 30-something of my closest (geographically speaking) cousins, aunts and uncles around folding tables. One year, some people had to stand while we awaited the arrival of the cousin who was bringing extra chairs. She was so late we ended up begging chairs from our neighbors so we could start the seder. We always reserve a space for my husband’s one cousin.

Growing up I thought he who has big house must sacrifice it to big family. But I’ve since learned that there are cousins and aunts and uncles with houses much larger than ours, who want their carpets to stay clean and their knick-knacks to remain unbroken. This past year we got snookered into serving as celebration central for both the Passover seder, catering to the Jewish contingent, and the December holiday party, for the masses. Everyone else had an “I’d do it, but…” excuse. Aunt Sherry hinted that it was up to me to carry on the family tradition. It was one of those “Godfather”-like offers you can’t refuse. Luckily for us, the family long ago abandoned the holiday party gift-giving ritual. As a kid, I used to marvel at the Mount Everest of presents, stacked up, something for every one of us cousins from each one of our aunts and uncles. If that tradition had continued, I calculated that I’d have to buy 46 gifts merely for the children of my first cousins.

When we put on our now-16-year-old’s bar mitzvah, we had neither the space nor the means to invite most of our friends, and we had to limit the number of his friends, too. Family comes first, and our dance card was nearly full just with close relatives. If we left family off the guest list, we would undoubtedly ignite a family feud, with resentments simmering far into the future. It happened once with a wedding slight. Even kooky relatives like the teenage cousin who wore the leprechaun-green suit to our daughter’s bat mitzvah, the former call girl and the aunt who’s been married more times than Henry the Eighth, must be included because, after all, family is family.

Sometimes our kids are resentful. My 15-year-old daughter would much prefer an intimate gathering to celebrate a holiday. Sorry, dear, but you were born into the wrong family. We don’t know from intimate. We took a family cruise once and filled up half the ship.

But would I trade in my King Kong-sized family for a tiny compact one like my husband’s? I’ll have to answer that question later. I’m late for my eye examination, and the optometrist, of course, is my cousin.

Betsy R. Rosenthal is the author of two children’s books, including the recently released “It’s Not Worth Making a Tzimmes Over!” (Albert Whitman & Company, $15.95).

 

Eco-Friendly Parties Mix Mitzvah, Simcha


Three days after my son, Will, ascended the bimah as a bar mitzvah, I stopped by our shul to drop off some books and thank the principal of the Hebrew school and others who made his big day such a wonderful experience.

When I got back in my car and drove past the piles of huge trash bags outside the shul’s kitchen door, I got a jarring jolt of reality: white plastic fork tines poked through the black bags and the remnant of a Mylar balloon was blowing in the breeze, caught on a nearby treetop.

While I wouldn’t classify myself as a tree hugger, I felt guilty that my hasty decision-making was impacting the environment. Had I invested a little more time and effort beforehand, I would have made more eco-friendly choices.

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year it lands on Shabbat. What better way to demonstrate our commitment to conserving our world’s precious resources than with b’nai mitzvah planning?

Selecting an environmental mitzvah project is a good starting point. But consider adding eco-friendly substitutes for white plastic tableware, Styrofoam centerpieces, Mylar balloons and elaborate banners. Are your invitations printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks?

If you need some tips, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL ) can help. The nonprofit publishes “Caring for the Cycle of Life: Creating Environmentally Sound Life-Cycle Celebrations,” which can be purchased online for $4.50. The booklet addresses brit milah, naming ceremony and weddings, and devotes three pages in the b’nai mitzvah section covering such issues as the ecology of the student’s Torah portion, what it means to fulfill the commandment of “to till and to tend” and environmental aspects of holidays, in case your child’s portion involves one. The booklet also covers Shabbat and “how solving environmental problems is an important part of tikkun olam, and then mitzvah project ideas,” said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of COEJL.

The booklet also offers lots of green mitzvah project possibilities that would appeal to kids.

Since many people have books, CDs and videos that they no longer want, you could keep those things out of the wastestream by organizing a drive and donating the items to a hospital, shelter or senior center.

eBay’s Giving Works program offers a high-tech answer. Your child can gather unneeded merchandise in good condition — sports equipment, toys, musical instruments your child had to have but then decided he hated, etc. — and sell it through this online yard sale, transferring the money raised electronically to the charity of his or her choice.

Since kids wear out or outgrow sneakers fairly quickly, why not consider adopting Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program as a mitzvah project? Nike grinds the rubber, foam and upper fabric of any brand of athletic footwear and recycles those components into new material that is used for running tracks, tennis courts, soccer fields and playground surfacing. The program features drop-off locations throughout the L.A. area.

Selecting the right invitation can set the scene for a green b’nai mitzvah day. Handmade, recycled-material paper invitations are obtainable (but not inexpensive) through Indiana-based Twisted Limb Paperworks. For those with a smaller budget, machine-made recycled paper is now available through most regular invitation purveyors. And soy-based inks are starting to gain ground, too.

Whether your family decides to celebrate the simcha quietly with an intimate gathering after services or loudly on a grand scale, food will be served. Even if it’s just challah, cake, coffee and soda, you’ll need cups, plates and utensils. Tables will have to be covered. A few balloons strategically placed outside the sanctuary will add a festive touch.

With more and more consumers clamoring for earth-friendlier options, companies are now producing products that are strong, serviceable, cost-effective and conservational.

If you’re having a colossal Kiddush, consider covering the tables with white butcher paper and using Chinet plates or platters instead of plastic. Made from recycled material, this tableware will stand up to a most generous serving of chopped herring, cheese, egg salad, gefilte fish and all the horseradish you want.

Plastic can take almost forever to break down at the city dump, so if you’re unable to use metal utensils, consider this alternative: biodegradable cutlery. Made of cornstarch, potato or tapioca starch, these utensils look great and work almost as well as plastic. However, potato-starch-based products will hold up better to heat than cornstarch ones. If you don’t find these items at your favorite party store, check with Palo Alto-based nonprofit World Centric, which sells the items online.

When you’re considering balloons, think latex. While it won’t hold helium as long as Mylar, it is made from rubber, a renewable resource that is biodegradable. Color selection is extensive, and size and shape options are pretty good, too. Specialty balloons are available through party planners and retail outlets, like 1-800-Dreidel.

Centerpieces and banners are often quite flashy and extravagant — lots of glitter, Styrofoam, plastic and all sorts of environmental unmentionables. If you choose to take the eco-track, consider using recycled paper banners and decorating tables with pi?atas or live plants, or creating something out of natural materials, like seashells and bamboo. With a little thought, it’s easy to come up with something attractive that won’t condemn the next generation to energy starvation and toxic terror.

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
” target=”_blank”>www.nikereuseashoe.com

Twisted Limb Paperworks
” target=”_blank”>www.worldcentric.org/store/cutlery.htm

1-800-Dreidel

A Few Purim Celebrations


Adat Ari El: The Eat Goes On: A Latke-Hamantaschen Debate
Monday, March 13 at 7:40 p.m.
12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village, (818) 766-9426.

Beth Chayim Chadashim: Megillah Reading in Multiple Languages
Monday, March 13 at 7 p.m.
6000 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-7023.

Stephen S. Wise Temple: Club Shushan (Adults Only)
Monday, March 13 at 8 p.m.
15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive , Los Angeles. rabbi@tbe.org

Temple Akiba: The Motown Megillah
Sunday, March 26 at 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.
5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, (310) 398-5783
See our online calendar for additional events.

Letters


Mensches, Menschen

The plural of “mensch” has always been “menschen” (“Mensches: Some Big-Hearted Angelenos You Would Be Proud to Know,” Jan. 6). Come Purim, will we read about “hamentasches”?

I was impressed, though, by the dedication of those featured in the accompanying article.

Ruth L. Brown
Los Angeles

I do not profess to be a Yiddish linguist, but I learned my Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul in Perth Amboy, N.J., about 65 years ago, where everyone knew that the plural of “mensch” was “menschen.” Please tell me whether or not I’m correct.

Marv Frankel
Los Angeles

Ed. Note: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the plural of “mensch” is either “mensches” or “menschen.” We chose the style closer to English, but feel free to come by and discuss it over some beigelech and blintschikes.

Interfaith Celebrations

We were disappointed by your editorial/news story, “Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah” (Dec. 23), with its premise that interfaith or intercultural celebrations shouldn’t be tolerated.

The predictable seasonal staple about how children are confused by joint celebrations provided no evidence to support that conclusion. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead of probing how Jewish communities can respond sensitively to the growing number of intercultural or interfaith families, it adopted the contemptuous tone articulated by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who dismisses those who want to combine holidays as “totally ignorant,” misguided and misinformed. By disparaging and discounting non-Jewish members of intermarried families, Jewish leaders put their heads in the sand and push them away.

In our secular Jewish organization, the Sholem Community (www.sholem.org), we’ve welcomed intercultural families who have been made to feel uncomfortable at synagogues.

We don’t ask non-Jewish family members to reject their backgrounds. We discuss how family members can honor each other’s heritages with respect and understanding. We explore common cultural themes in seasonal festivals, and we’ve seen how families can observe loving and warm, respectful celebrations.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone but is appropriate for people whose outlook is cultural and secular. Instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach, families who honor each other’s cultures and traditions can enrich their own experiences, their humanity and connect themselves and their loved ones to their Jewishness.

Jeffrey Kaye
Katherine James
Alan Blumenfeld
The Sholem Community

IRS Charge

In his opinion piece, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), Rabbi John Rosove correctly observes that the Tax Code prohibits, at the risk of loss of tax exemption, intervention by synagogues and other charities “in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

It does not prohibit all political activities. Charities, including synagogues, can take positions on legislation — that is lobby — so long as their lobbying activity is not substantial. (Positions on initiatives and referenda, as well as positions on nominees to the federal judiciary, are considered lobbying.) Moreover, these organizations can take positions on questions of public policy without limit.

Thus, even had Rabbi Rosove named leaders in his erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in October 2005, he would not have violated the campaign prohibition, since no election was looming. Nonetheless, since he did not mention any leader’s name, Rabbi Rosove could have offered this same sermon just days before an election without any violation of the prohibition.

In unofficial guidance, the IRS has treated discussions of issues of public policy without mention of candidates’ names as falling outside of the category of campaign intervention.

Ellen Aprill
Past President
Temple Israel of Hollywood
John E. Anderson Professor of Tax Law
Loyola Law School

Orthodox Women

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox But Not Monolithic” (Jan. 6). While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union (OU).

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the OU, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the OU’s Board of Governors.

David Luchins
OU National Vice President

Illegal Immigration

Like every apologist for illegal immigration, Rob Eshman makes a case for “assimilation” of the undocumented, while ignoring the wholesale violation of our laws and sovereignty that got us into a fiscal and social quagmire (“The Slop Sink,” Dec. 30).

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the net cost of public benefits and services for illegal immigrants in California is $10 billion a year — a structured deficit that no one in Sacramento is willing to address. L.A. County public hospitals lose $340 million a year providing uncompensated care for undocumented immigrants.

Here’s the kicker: The proposed Totalization Agreement with Mexico will provide Social Security benefits to Mexican nationals and, by extension, illegal immigrants. The price tag: $345 billion over 20 years.

Les Hammer
Los Angeles

Winter Break

Jennifer Garmaise’s article (“Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time,” Dec. 30) did not address the logistical and economic impact that shifting winter vacations to late January has on families of moderate means. Far from “disrupting vacation plans,” moving winter vacation from late December poses a serious challenge to parents who work outside the Jewish community, particularly single parents and those families where both parents must work in order to make ends meet.

Many of these parents hoard their sick leave and vacation time in order to take off for Yom Tov. Taking a week off in January (when alternative forms of child care are not available) in order to care for children out of school poses a financial hardship and, sometimes, a barrier to employment altogether. It is also difficult to see what educational or religious benefit the children gain from this week.

Giving the children a week’s break at Chanukah (as is done in Israel) would not completely solve the child care issue, but at least it has a logical Jewish rationale. Starting winter break on Dec. 26 would comply with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, while alleviating the child care situation.

Offering affordable day camps would also go a long way toward addressing the needs of ordinary working parents who sacrifice in order to send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Miriam Caiden
Los Angeles

 

Salami Shortage No Baloney


 

Five hunks of Hebrew National salami lie side by side in a glass display case at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in midtown Manhattan. When compared with the crispy corn dogs and enormous latkes, they don’t look like much. But the takeout counter guy is relieved he has any salami to sell at all.

For the last several months, a shortage of Hebrew National products has hit kosher restaurants and food distributors across North America, forcing some to fill the gap with other meat products — ones that don’t “answer to a higher authority,” as the Hebrew National famous advertisement put it.

The shortage comes at what should be a time of celebration, as Hebrew National, which was founded on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, celebrates its 100th birthday.

“At this point, we’ve been working very hard to increase production,” said Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc., the Omaha-based food giant that bought Hebrew National in 1993. They just built a new manufacturing facility in Quincy, Mich. She said shortages on some of the most popular products — hot dogs and lunchmeats like turkey and salami — would continue for some time.

Hebrew National has seen “several-digit growth” in demand for its hot dogs in recent years, DeYoung said.

Demand is strongest on the East Coast, she said, though it is picking up on the West Coast. And, as super-retailers like Costco begin stocking Hebrew National products, DeYoung said, the company is becoming, as its name suggests, national.

Overall, kosher products have experienced growing popularity in recent years, fueled, in part, by the belief that kosher products are healthier. Also, other groups like to eat kosher products, such as Muslims who buy kosher for the meat, or lactose-intolerants who purchase pareve products.

But for the man behind the counter at Ben’s, the reasons for Hebrew National’s success are much simpler.

“You can’t beat their hot dogs,” he said. — Chanan Tigay, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

 

Rosh Hashanah 5765


So, what do math and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, have in common? On this day, Jews are supposed to do a cheshbon hanefesh.

This literally means “accounting of the soul.”

We count up and categorize all the actions we’ve taken

and all the thoughts we’ve had during the year:

How many good? How many bad? How many generous?

How many selfish? How many useful? How many just a waste of time?

Then we decide which actions and thoughts we want to repeat

and which ones we will throw away.

Yom Hooledet Samech!

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. The Jewish/Hebrew calendar follows the cycle of the moon. The English/Gregorian calendar follows the cycle of the sun. Both calendars are divided into 12 months.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next week!

Not Your Grandma’s Honey Cake


It wouldn’t be the second night of Rosh Hashanah if our friends didn’t come for dinner, contributing a cornucopia of dishes, especially divine desserts. There are enough pastries covering the buffet to keep judges at the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest busy for a week.

I always bake a chocolate and yellow swirl bundt cake, my daughter’s favorite dessert. One year, a friend came with an apple pie and a plum torte, which she placed on the buffet next to my cake. A towering pyramid of brownies vied for attention with white chocolate chip cookies and a plate of lemon squares. The intoxicating smell of a warm pear crisp tempted people who were piling their plates with pastries. When they reached the homemade honey cake, though, they made bee-lines back to their seats. Feeling embarrassed for Alice, who’d baked this wallflower, I moved the honey cake to a more prominent position and cut it into slices. Still there were no takers.

“I told you not to bring it,” Alice’s 8-year-old daughter cried. “Honey cake is boring. Nobody wants it.”

To be kind, I took a couple of slices. But Alice’s daughter was right. The cake tasted overbaked. I had been warned that dryness is a problem with honey cake, which is why I never attempted to make one. Yet I felt guilty shunning the only Rosh Hashanah dessert on the buffet. I realized honey cake had become the dowager of New Year’s celebrations, revered but seldom consumed.

“A dry honey cake will send people away for years,” said Marcy Goldman, author of “Jewish Holiday Baking” (Broadway Books, 2004). Conventional wisdom on the subject maintains that if honey cakes are removed from the oven at exactly the right time –whatever that is — the dreaded dryness will be avoided. But Goldman disagrees, explaining that many recipes call for only one-quarter cup of oil, which is not nearly enough fat to yield chewy, moist texture.

And so she began experimenting with different honey cake recipes. First, she upped the fat content. Then she realized that she had to add some sugar; using enough honey to sufficiently sweeten the cake can make it too sticky to rise. Later she addressed flavorings, adjusting their levels depending on which type of honey cake she was baking.

“If I make one honey cake, then I have to make 10 different kinds,” she said. Among her repertoire, Goldman has developed a Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake, an Eastern European Bee Sting Tart and a Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake.

The whole honey cake hullabaloo started because Goldman is fussy about honey and will not buy just any kind. In recent years, she has enlisted Elmer, a retired stockbroker-turned-beekeeper, to fill her honey needs. Elmer produces a nonpasteurized kosher honey, known to taste exquisite.

“Most honey is just sweet; it lacks rich honey flavor,” Goldman said.

Honey comes in thousands of varieties. There are more than 300 such varieties in the United States alone. They range in color from pale blond to dark walnut, and in flavor from mild and floral to herbal and robust.

The taste of this natural sweetener depends on the types of flowers its black-and-yellow creators frequent. In the United States, the most common floral destination for bees is clover, but the possibilities are endless, depending on climate and growing conditions. Like wine, honey is a truly local product that varies from region to region.

Equally enthralled by the range of honey flavors, food writer Jayne Cohen takes her family on vacation every August with a mission. As a segue between the carefree days of summer and the fall holidays to follow, they spend their vacations searching market after market for honey.

“We always bring a fragrant honey back from every trip,” said Cohen, who, along with Lorie Weinrott, is co-author of “The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book” (Clarkson Potter, 2004). She joyfully describes creamed lavender honey from Provence, wild blueberry honey from Maine, chestnut honey from Italy and honey scented with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda.

“Every year, we open a lovely new honey, and that has become our Rosh Hashanah tradition,” she said.

Last year her family vacationed in Sicily, where they found the most marvelous honey carrying the aroma of pistachio flowers.

“I prepared an elaborate Rosh Hashanah dinner for family and friends,” Cohen said. “But nobody could stop dipping apples and challah in that pistachio honey.”

It was so popular that three of her friends later visited Sicily and returned with jars of honey of their own.

While in Sicily, Cohen’s daughter, Alex, purchased a three-pack of honeys: chestnut, wild flower and thyme. Attending college in California, Alex couldn’t come home for Rosh Hashanah. Instead she bought a challah and went to a farmer’s market for tart apples. Inviting friends to her dorm room, they dipped the challah and apples into the three Sicilian honeys.

“Alex liked the idea of beginning the school and Jewish year wishing for sweetness,” Cohen said. “It was nice to see her repeating our family tradition.”

Honey has long been important to the Jewish people. Since biblical times, honey has been a symbol of abundance. Addressing Moses from the burning bush, God announced his plan to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

Back then, “milk and honey” were dietary staples, so in essence God was saying that Canaan would be a promising place to settle. In fact, the land was teeming with goats and swarming bees abounded. Canaan’s fertile soil supported grapevines and date trees, which produced a syrup also known as honey. Date syrup is similar in viscosity and texture to honey, and is equally sweet.

This abundant land offered prosperity and sweetness, which have come to represent Rosh Hashanah ideals.

During her career, Cohen has specialized in tweaking traditional Jewish recipes to create marvelous alternatives. With Rosh Hashanah in mind, she developed Honeyed Cigars with Date-Pomegranate Filling, a phyllo pastry with a Sephardi influence.

“Besides being a traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit, pomegranates have a tart taste,” said Cohen, adding that you don’t truly appreciate sweetness without contrast. For that reason, Jews from some Sephardi cultures mix pomegranates with honey. Cohen’s recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which can be found in Middle Eastern, specialty-food and gourmet markets.

Cohen highly recommends baking with a quality honey, preferably one that carries a flavor you find pleasing. Look for honeys such as orange blossom or lime blossom at farmer’s markets. At specialty stores, you can sometimes find Greek thyme honey or lavender honey.

If you can’t locate fragranced honey, mix flavors you like into commercial honey. Almond extract or a small amount of strawberry jam work well, also.

While the Rosh Hashanah dessert course should be the moment for honey to shine, it has lost out to Blondies and Mississippi Mud Pie over recent decades. There was a time when Ashkenazi Jews eagerly anticipated the holiday because it promised honey cakes galore. Every family had a bubbe or aunt who baked them. Yet a dwindling number of people recall this distant memory.

Now, just in time for Rosh Hashanah,
“I love baking,” Goldman said. “But even better than that, I love it when someone else derives pleasure from repeating my recipes, because with Jewish cooking and baking, you’re talking about more than just a recipe. You’re passing on your whole culture.”

Along with the chocolate desserts people crave, this Rosh Hashanah try baking a pastry so full of nectar that even the most ardent honey cake haters will have to admit they’re wrong.

For more tempting Rosh Hashanah baking ideas, visit Cohen’s Web site, www.ultimatebarbatmitzvah.com, which features Apple Challah Bread Pudding, along with other seasonal pastries.

Goldman revives honey cakes and other holiday confections on her Web site: www.betterbaking.com.

Marcy Goldman’s Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

11/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup warm coffee or strong tea or Coca-Cola

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup rye or whiskey (or substitute orange juice or coffee)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

This cake is best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in one 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake, or two 5-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit. Have ready doubled up baking sheets with a piece of parchment on top

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Make a well in the center. Add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, tea or cola, orange juice and rye or whiskey.

Using a strong wire whisk or in an electric mixer on slow speed, stir together well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom.

Spoon batter into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle top of cake(s) evenly with almonds. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets stacked together. (This will ensure that cakes bake properly.)

Bake until cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, 60-80 minutes; loaf pans, about 45-55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, baking time is 40-45 minutes.

Let cake stand 20 minutes before removing from pan.

Marcy Goldman’s Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

1 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla

1 cup Coca-Cola

1/2 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate

1/3 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. Generously spray a 9- or 10-inch tube pan or angel food cake pan with cooking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.

In a food processor, add in the oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar. Blend well about 30 seconds. Add in the eggs, vanilla, and Coca-Cola. Blend well for another minute.

Fold in the dry ingredients and blend for about two minutes, until smooth, stopping the machine once or twice to ensure that ingredients are all blended and not stuck at the bottom.

Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon or pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with almonds. Place cake on baking sheet and bake until done, about 60-75 minutes, until cake springs back when gently pressed with fingertips.

Cool 10 minutes before unmolding from pan.

Dust cake with confectioner’s sugar, or cocoa. Or, drizzle on melted, semi-sweet chocolate.

Garnish with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, drizzled melted semi-sweet chocolate, or the decadent Microwave Ganache Glaze (recipe below).

Microwave Ganache Glaze

1/2 cup water or heavy cream

1 cup coarsely chopped, semi-sweet chocolate (the best quality you can find)

1 tablespoon honey

Place water or cream in a microwavable bowl and heat on high until bubbly.

Remove from microwave and whisk in the chocolate and honey, blending until smooth and glossy.

Refrigerate about two to three hours until it has thickened but is still spreadable. If it is quite stiff, warm it slightly until you can drizzle it on the cake. You can also add one-two tablespoons of unsalted butter or margarine to make it more pliable.

Jayne Cohen’s Honeyed Cigars With Date-Pomegranate Filling

Pastry:

About 12 sheets of frozen phyllo, plus several extra to allow for tearing

1/2 cup light, fragrant honey

1/2 cup avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Filling:

1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) Medjool or other soft, moist dates, pitted and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon hot water

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pinch of salt

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling

Additional honey to brush on after baking

Thaw phyllo sheets slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the unopened package from the refrigerator two hours before you begin the recipe to allow sheets to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

In a small saucepan, warm 1/2 cup honey. Slowly add 1/2 cup oil, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in cinnamon. Remove pan from heat.

Prepare the filling. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend dates, oil, pomegranate molasses, hot water, cinnamon, and salt to a smooth paste. Add walnuts, and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a bowl.

Remove phyllo sheets from the package and carefully unroll them on a damp kitchen towel. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stack of sheets in half from short end to short end, forming rectangles approximately 6-by-17-inches (exact size will depend on brand of phyllo used). Immediately cover the cut phyllo sheets with a large piece of plastic wrap and another damp towel to prevent them from drying out.

Work with one sheet at a time, keeping the rest covered with the plastic wrap and a towel. Remove one sheet from the stack and brush it lightly and quickly with the honey-oil mixture. Carefully fold the sheet in half, bringing the short ends together and pressing down gently. Brush the new surface, now exposed, with the honey-oil.

Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling, roll it into a little sausage, and place it along the short bottom edge of the phyllo, leaving a one-inch border at the sides. Fold the bottom edge toward the center so that it just covers the filling, then fold the sides in, so the filling won’t ooze out. Brush the new phyllo surface that is exposed with more honey-oil, and continue to roll, jelly-roll fashion, brushing each new, dry phyllo surface with more honey-oil as you go.

Brush the finished cigars lightly over all surfaces with the honey-oil and place seam-side down on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle lightly with chopped walnuts. Keep the cookie sheet lightly covered with plastic wrap as you work.

Continue making cigars with more phyllo and filling, stirring the honey-oil mixture when necessary if it separates. (You can refrigerate the unbaked cigars at this point, well wrapped, up to one day before baking.)

Bake the cigars for about 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. While still hot, brush them very generously with honey. Let cool. Serve as is or cut each cigar on the diagonal into thirds.

Yield: 20-24 cigars, or if cut, three times as many bite-sized pieces.

Douglases: Good as Gold


Heralded by the blowing of shofars, Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne, stood under the chuppah Sunday afternoon and reaffirmed the marriage vows they first recited 50 years ago.

The first time around the couple eloped to Las Vegas, when Kirk managed a day off from shooting "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," with one witness present.

This time there were three generations of Douglases on hand, an A-list of 300 guests, and an actual rabbi, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, said Kirk’s longtime publicist, Warren Cowan.

During the celebration at the historic Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, the 87-year-old groom serenaded the 74-year-old bride with his own composition, "Please Stay in Love with Me."

The impressive guest list of veteran civic and Hollywood celebrities included former first lady Nancy Reagan, Lauren Bacall, Theodore Bikel, Tony Curtis, Anjelica Houston, Vidal Sassoon, Barbara Sinatra and Jack Valenti.

The religious ceremony chosen by Kirk and his German-born, Belgian-raised wife was one more marker on the movie star’s long road back to his Jewish roots, which included a second bar mitzvah observance at age 83.

Notorious, even in Hollywood, for his ego and womanizing during a career of 85 movies, the legendary tough guy returned to his faith after a helicopter crash left him in constant pain and a stroke left him speechless.

Born Issur Danielovitch, the son of an illiterate Russian immigrant, Douglas reevaluated his life after the 1991 helicopter accident, which killed two young companions.

"I came to believe that I was spared because I had not yet come to terms with my Judaism, that I had never come to grips with what it means to be Jewish," he told this reporter some years ago.

Douglas embarked on an extensive course of Torah study with Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, has endowed children’s playgrounds in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and, after his stroke, taught himself to speak again.

He has also written a best-selling autobiography, "The Ragman’s Son," the introspective "Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaning" and a Holocaust-themed story for children, "The Broken Mirror."

+