National Yiddish Book Center alters focus, cuts staff


The National Yiddish Book Center, amid a change in focus, has laid off four employees and closed its bookstore.

As part of its strategic change from saving and restoring ancient Yiddish texts to educating people about them, the center in Amherst, Mass., made the layoffs in December, the Amherst Bulletin reported.

The cut positions include the director’s personal assistant, a major gifts officer, the bookstore manager and a designer of the center’s magazine, according to the newspaper. The center’s vice president and program director also resigned, leaving the center with 16 employees.

A rise in administrative costs was a part of the reason for the layoffs, center president Aaron Lansky told the Bulletin.

The center, in operation since 1980, has collected more than 1 million Yiddish volumes.

Can the Center Hold?


Fear pervades the Jewish community today. The fallout from the Gaza flotilla episode continues to reverberate in unpredictable and unsettling ways. Israel finds itself in a very difficult bind. It faces growing political isolation and, at the same time, has to deal with Hamas and Hezbollolah — both tough and unpleasant neighbors perched on its borders. Meanwhile, the greater strategic threat, Iran, is led by a clever dictator who spews bile at every turn and constantly outmaneuvers the West in his dangerous quest for nuclear weapons.

That said, Jewish communal leaders are wrong to compare the present situation to the 1930s in Europe when Nazism took rise; our era, in which there is a militarily powerful Jewish state whose chief strategic ally is the world’s major superpower, is far from that dark time. This kind of misreading of the past, sincere as it may be, points to a malady in American Jewish communal life: the repeated invocation of Jewish victimhood as an instinctual response to crisis. That model no longer works. The crisis-driven agenda has been employed too frequently and too ineffectively to speak to a majority of American Jews, who have voted with their feet by fleeing organized communal life.

It is this very realization that anchors Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published last month in The New York Review of Books. Beinart argues that the existing paradigm of Jewish communal activity is broken, and that must terrify the leaders of the organized American Jewish community. For they have hinged so much of their personal and institutional mission on one criterion and one criterion alone: Not Yiddishkayt, not Jewish observance or literacy, not knowledge of Hebrew, not a sense of a global Jewish well-being, not even a deep personal or cultural connection to Israel. No, their sole criterion is support for the government of the State of Israel. Those who refuse to submit to the orthodoxy of unquestioning support are branded as naïve, self-haters or, in one especially notorious case (proudly supported by a major national Jewish organization), liberal anti-Semites.

Others before Beinart have suggested that this crisis-driven agenda, symbolized by the enterprise of “Israel advocacy” (on which so many of the community’s precious resources have been spent over the last eight years or so), is not working. But no one has documented it as incisively or thoroughly as Beinart. And no one has suggested as clearly that it is liberal Zionism, and liberal Zionism alone, that can save the communal agenda from its worst excesses. Beinart is a true believer in the redemptive power of liberalism, and not only in this case. In 2006, he published a book, “The Good Fight,” whose subtitle is “Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.” On the subject of American Jews and Israel, Beinart insists that the Zionist cause can be saved, but only by recovering a measure of moral and political bearing. This means denouncing without apology the racist ideas of Israeli politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Knesset member Effi Eitam; it also means ceasing to minimize Palestinian suffering or rationalize bad policies or operational failures, as if somehow that serves the cause of Israel.

At its core, Beinart’s proposal is eminently sensible. Liberalism, as he intends it, means reclaiming the sane center. It marks itself off from the extreme pole that regards Israel as the chief, even sole, source of evil in the world. It also marks itself off from the pole that regards Israel as incapable of misdeed or injustice. But the main question, at this crucial juncture, is: Can the center hold?

There are reasons to fear that, alas, the answer may be no. In the first instance, it is not merely that the alphabet soup of national Jewish organizations have more or less abandoned their original tasks in favor of apologetic and unreflexive support for the government of Israel, as we’ve had ample occasion to see in recent days. (We might call this the AIPAC-ization of Jewish communal life).

It is also that this tendency has become deeply rooted in almost every level of organized Jewish life. It has taken hold in the curricula of Jewish schools, where uncritical and often chauvinistic Israel education crowds out a more honest and humane view that acknowledges the rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike. It has taken hold in synagogues across the denominational spectrum, where rabbis race to outdo one another in assembling the largest delegation to the annual AIPAC convention (while almost entirely ignoring pro-Israel, pro-peace groups such as New Israel Fund, J Street and Americans for Peace Now). It has taken hold in the unholy alliances that Jews forge with putative friends outside of the Jewish world who have their own theological motives for supporting obstructionist policies in Israel.

The result of this crisis-driven agenda is the creation of a new type: not simply the Orthodox Jewish patriots of whom Peter Beinart writes, but also non-Orthodox Jews, precisely the kind of liberals whom Beinart wants to empower, who have been prodded by the crisis-driven agenda to embrace a new, single-issue religion: AIPAC-style political support for Israel.

The dictates of this “religion” require that the questionable never be questioned and the indefensible always defended. What is so striking — and sad — about this belief system is not only that it entails a degree of moral abdication from its adherents, a rather un-Jewish proposition in itself. It is that it has been so blindly self-defeating. The support of American Jews — Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike — has enabled one Israeli government after another — Labor no less than Likud — to push ahead with a policy that may well spell the country’s own demise. Forty years of settlement construction in the territories, leaving aside the question of whether it does or doesn’t violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, may well have reached the point of irreversibility. If Israel cannot uproot the settlements of the West Bank, there will be no territorially viable Palestinian state. And if there will be no Palestinian state, then the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one polity: a single entity of Jews and Arabs in which there will either be one-person-one-vote democracy or suppression of one group by the other. Neither outcome bodes well for a Jewish majority in a Jewish state. How did we permit this suicidal engorgement to proceed for 40 years?

Beinart says enough is enough; he delivers a bracing wakeup call in his essay, urging American Jews out of their slumber of self-deception. We had better answer the call now, lest it be too late.

We need a new paradigm of American Jewish communal behavior that is independent-minded, Jewishly grounded and ethically attuned — far more so than the tired one that is disintegrating before our eyes. This new paradigm must reorient our understanding to the point that we grasp that the great test of Israel’s soul is not on the college campuses of this country, charged as they may be at times. The test of Israel’s soul is in the waters off the coast of Gaza or in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where Palestinians have been summarily evicted from their homes of 50 years to make way for Jews. If liberal Zionism — or Zionism of any sort — is to have a chance in this century, it is there that the battle for its soul must be waged.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

Left Coast peacemakers mourn 9/11 in many languages


Five years and 3,000 miles from the site of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the mournful strains of calls to prayer in Hebrew and Arabic open the Islamic Center of Southern California’s fourth annual commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11.

 
The audience, dressed in saris, suits, skirts or slacks, bareheaded, or wearing head scarves, kippahs, kufis or turbans, gathered to pray together and to honor three religious leaders, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who were to receive Peace Awards for their continuing work toward interfaith understanding.

 
One of the recipients, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, told the group how terror had come close to his life.

 
Last July, he and his wife were awakened by a call from their teenage daughter to assure them that she was all right. She was in London and had gotten off a bus moments before it turned the corner and exploded.

 
Now a year later, the rabbi urged a recommitment to truly care for one another’s children, by walking together toward healing and understanding.

 
“If we can truly change the way we are with one another, we will create a world in which no one would consider dying for Judaism, Islam or any other religion and killing others in the process,” he said.

 
Comess-Daniels urged ongoing dialogue, a cause at the heart of the organizations that sponsored the Peace Award, the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California.

 
Jihad Turk, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center, also presented Peace Awards to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guilbord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

 
In the keynote address, Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, denounced extremists’ twisted theology of death and destruction, while urging vigilance in the preservation of democracy — the protection of civil liberties and the Constitution.

 
“It would be sad if we save the buildings and lose the soul,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah, offered the first prayer. “To stand in the ruins of New York or Beirut, or the desolated areas of Palestine is to know that what doesn’t happen in the Middle East is happening here. We are talking to each other.”

 
The service continued with prayers from a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Baha’i, and concluded with a musical offering from representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 
As the group adjourned for cheese, crackers, fruit and baklava, Turk explained that this memorial service is part of the Islamic Center’s mission.

 
“Muslim Americans are on the front line in the war against terror in that we are charged with making sure that our institutions do not become dens of hate speech and extremist rhetoric nor recruiting grounds for extremists, terrorists or anyone who would want to do this country harm,” he said.

 
As Turk was about to enter the prayer room, he was approached by Suzanne Rubin, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they had traveled together in March on an Abrahamic pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 
She invited him and his family to a break fast after Yom Kippur.

 
“That’s during Ramadan, so we’ll be breaking fast as well,” he replied. “That should work.”

Campers Hit the Great Outdoors


The tomato plants are thriving. Their leafy green stalks shoot straight out of the moist brown earth and sway gently in the breeze. The lettuce, alfalfa and spicy greens starts also look healthy. Herbs grow everywhere. This garden, like all gardens at one time, is still in its formative stage — one of promise. This garden, unlike other gardens, is planted in the shape of the state of Israel.

Nestled deep within a Malibu canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Shalom Institute, a Jewish summer camp and nature center, has planted an extensive organic garden on its grounds this year and plans to incorporate the age-old tradition of farming into its summer programs.

“I don’t think any of this is new, but it is fashionable at present,” said Becca Halpern, the camp’s program director. “First every camp needed an Olympic-sized pool, and then it was a climbing wall, now every camp has a garden.”

Perhaps the Shalom Institute’s new garden is not on the cutting edge of summer camp innovation. At this point, maybe it is not even a novel idea, but the garden represents a growing trend in Jewish education, one that brings a predominantly urban culture back to the earth.

And this movement — at least in America — has taken its time. It began in the late 19th century, introduced in the politics of Theodor Herzl, the man credited as the founder of modern Zionism. Herzl’s chief lieutenant, Parisian physician, Max Nordau, made a speech in which he called for the need to develop what he referred to as “muscle Judaism.”

“If, unlike other peoples, we do not conceive of [physical] life as our highest possession, it is nevertheless very valuable to us and thus worthy of careful treatment,” Nordau said at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. “Let us take up our oldest traditions. Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

So how does an organic garden at a JCC summer camp relate to the high-minded ideals of famous Zionists? Well, Halpern explains, the garden is really a metaphor. It is a way of teaching Jewish concepts, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), or tzedakah, which Halpern translates as justice — or more specifically, environmental justice.

And the campers, literally, eat it up.

“I talk about edible and medicinal plants with 10-year-olds,” Halpern said. She makes her point, however, by taking them into the woods and scavenging snacks.

Another summer program has taken this concept of bringing campers into nature to an entirely different level. Yael Ukeles runs Teva Adventure, an outdoor adventure program jointly based in New York and Jerusalem. Teva Adventure has teamed up with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to offer wilderness trips rich in outdoor survival skills and Jewish education.

The organizations’ pilot program last summer was a trip for boys to the wilds of Alaska, where the predominantly Orthodox participants learned skills such as ice-climbing and glacier-hiking, while finding time to pray three times a day and observe Shabbat.

“I think there are a lot of programs like this in the secular world and I think the Jewish community is following suit,” Ukeles recently said by phone from Israel. “A person who is Jewish should be able to participate in a program like this inside the Jewish community; they shouldn’t have to go outside the Jewish community. It is also educationally, a tremendous opportunity, not just in a social Jewish context, but a tremendous opportunity to do Jewish education.”

Ukeles worked with NOLS instructors to build a curriculum that synthesized outdoor skills and Jewish education throughout the trip. She explained that the program relied heavily on metaphors to make a point.

For example, the group drew parallels between their journey and other famous journeys in Jewish history, such as the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. Also, when the boys were tied together as a rope team, while hiking a glacier, the group talked about how this symbolized the connection between all Jews.

The boys also learned how to keep kosher in the outdoors. They cooked together before Shabbat, learned how to erect an eruv and even made challah without an oven under the open sky.

For Gavi Wolf, an 11th-grader from Passaic, N.J., the trip was a “crazy success.”

“The whole experience of being in Alaska was so unreal,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Ukeles. “It was funny because although I had the heaviest physical weight on my back that I have every (sic) had, I felt more at ease and unburdened than I have ever have before. I was with people that I loved in an extraordinary place.”

It is Wolf’s last thought that sums up the single most important factor in the success of any summer program for youths, be it a JCC camp or a wilderness adventure. According to a recent survey by the National Study of Youth and Religion, which measures U.S. teenagers’ involvement in religious summer camps, the thing participants value most is a sense of community.

“If there is one story here that is coming out of the data, it is that summer camp is as much of a cultural activity or more so than a religious activity,” said Dr. Philip Shwadel, a researcher for the project. “They feel more at ease with [other] Jewish kids, especially the ones who don’t live in highly Jewish areas.”

The ability of summer programs to connect Jewish youths from different backgrounds is unparalleled. Like members of a kibbutz, they live and learn together in the natural world. One parent of a Teva Adventure participant noted this lesson and, like the Zionists of old, offered his own philosophy on the future of Judaism.

“Judaism can reach its zenith only through the cooperation of diverse individuals and groups,” Craig Wichell from Sebastopol, in Northern California, wrote in a letter about his son’s outdoor experience. “In Judaism, we each have our role to play.”

While the founders of modern Zionism called for Jews to recreate their more physical past in the present, Ukeles hopes Jews will do this while bringing Jewish education to the outdoors.

“In our climate-controlled lives, we go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car or a heated house to a heated car,” she said. “It is easy to lose touch and these programs remind us that we are not necessarily running the show here. There is something bigger and in the context of the world, we are small and God is big.”

For more information on summer programs, visit
www.campjcashalom.com or

Against the Stream


It’s 10 a.m. on Shabbat at The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard and the crowds are starting to converge in anticipation of the Torah reading.

Hundreds are milling about. People are dressed in all white outfits, the place is filling up. There’s a casual, relaxed atmosphere in the place, as the crowd takes their seats at pews adorned with song books, which contain a pamphlet declaring that "Death is an illusion" and promising that "Our enthusiasm, combined with our deep conviction, helps to accelerate the process of ending death, forever."

"If you come Shabbat, there is standing-room only," said Rafi Feig, a board member at the center. "It is literally packed."

The Kabbalah Centre is growing, with more than 1,000 people walking through the doors every week to attend classes and services — making it one of the most popular Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. With an aversion to any publicity, save that generated by itself, the center has managed this growth even while being ostracized from the mainstream Jewish community — or perhaps because of it.

Kabbalah, meaning "that which is received," is the mystical study of the hidden aspects of Judaism that is traditionally only taught to men over the age of 40 who have otherwise mastered the more mainstream Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and the Mishnah. Kabbalah is said to be so powerful, that only those individuals deemed worthy enough are allowed to learn it.

The Kabbalah Centre asserts that it is bringing kabbalah to the masses, a practice that, throughout the ages, has been long derided by rabbis who thought that the teachings of kabbalah were too explosive to be shared with ordinary people, and should be kept in the hands of a select number of mystics.

But the controversy in the community over The Kabbalah Centre’s practices lie not with the problem that the center is teaching a secret discipline to the masses, but that what it’s teaching is anything but kabbalah. Critics say that the center promotes "scanning" the Zohar (the main kabbalistic text written over 4,000 years ago by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) rather than actually learning it, and the new age philosophy they teach has little to do with either Judaism or authentic kabbalah.

"From my own perspective, I think that what they are offering is a lot of nonsense," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "I have taken the time to read some of their materials. I found them to be a mixture of two elements: things that are downright wrong, and things that are right but have nothing to do with kabbalah."

Regardless of whether the center’s teachings conform to traditional definition of kabbalah, they have managed to stake a strong foothold in the community, despite the arms-length distance between mainstream organizations and the center. For example, there is no Kabbalah Centre rabbi on the Southern California Board of Rabbis. The Kabbalah Centre is not currently involved in raising funds for Israel, an activity common in most Jewish institutions in Los Angeles. Neither the center itself nor its affiliate school, the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), are listed on The Jewish Federation’s community resource Web page, www.jewishla.com, which lists all the other synagogues, temples, Jewish day schools and community institutions in Los Angeles. (A spokesperson for The Federation had "no comment" when asked why The Kabbalah Centre was not listed.)

"The Kabbalah Centre is not included in the running of the community," Adlerstein said. "I don’t know of any organization in town that includes them in their mailing or their advisories, and I think that The Kabbalah Centre has tried very hard to ensure that it will not become part of the mainstream Jewish community," Adlerstein said. "They tell their people that the only real place that you can get the truth about Judaism and kabbalah is in their own ranks. That is why they set up their own institutions and schools — you won’t find people from The Kabbalah Centre moving to other schools or other synagogues, which is what you will find in any other mainstream Jewish organization," he added.

Billy Phillips, a teacher and director of communications at The Kabbalah Centre, denied that the center has deliberately tried to ostracize itself from the community, insisting that the opposite was true, and that the community tried to distance itself from it. "We made attempts to make inroads into the community, and we have been rebuked every time," he said. "We have been denied access to the community, and it has been going on for 10 years."

Phillips said that he was unaware that the center was not listed on The Federation Web page, but said the center would love to be listed, and he also said he was unaware of any Kabbalah Centre effort to join the Board of Rabbis. And as for Israel, Phillips said that they are not raising money, but they are "trying to raise spiritual light, protection and blessings for the people in Israel through the power of the Zohar."

However, Phillips confirmed one of Adlerstein’s criticism, namely, that the center bills itself as the only place where you can find authentic kabbalah. "No other synagogue teaches Torah to the masses in a way that reveals the kabbalistic light inherent in the text, besides The Kabbalah Centre," Phillips told The Journal.

In an e-mail accompanying a Kabbalah Centre Torah insight, Phillips wrote, "Here is an example of a simple kabbalistic insight into a Torah portion that no synagogue in the world would know, if they did not open up the holy Zohar and spend years studying it."

Rabbi Benzion Kravitz, of Jews For Judaism, said that is simply not true.

"Chabad teaches kabbalah to the masses — the whole Chasidic movement was created to take kabbalah and teach it in a way that the masses can benefit. Nobody taught more spiritual concepts to the masses then the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. But that [the center’s belief that only they teach the truth] is part of a cult mindset, where you discredit all your opposition," he said.

"By saying that they are only place that teaches true kabbalah, they are, in essence, discouraging people from going to other synagogues — and from being part of the rest of the community," Kravitz said.

Phillips countered that The Kabbalah Centre "is not God’s police" and people can go where they want.

Even without the positive press or community endorsements, the center has attracted a celebrity clientele that includes Madonna, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard and even well-known community philanthropists.

A longtime observer of the center, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the ostracism of the center actually helps it attract people. "In some ways it adds to their prestige," she said. "It puts them in good company, because they say they are not an organized religion. The Kabbalah Centre will use the fact that they have been denounced as a point to their credit, because they will tell their congregants that they are doing what other groups have refused to do."

In fact, so many people are turning out for doses of Zohar scanning and red-string-around-your-wrist-spirituality, that the center has practically outgrown its current premises on Robertson Boulevard. "Right now, because of the space we have, we are very limited," Feig said. "We need to grow, but it is an issue because growing takes a lot of money."

Calling the center "the only synagogue in town that does not charge membership," Feig told The Journal that it funds itself through donations and the sale of books and tapes published by the center, such as "How the Heavens Heal" by Karen Berg, wife of Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the center’s founder, as well as through courses.

The classes at the center are taught by volunteers, many of whom were students of Rav Phillip Berg, the founder of The Kabbalah Centre. In some cases, in exchange for pedagogy, the center supports the teachers, giving them food and board at The Kabbalah Centre itself.

But the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre is a global presence as well as a local one. As the home of Berg, Los Angeles has become the headquarters for all Kabbalah Centre activities around the world. It is the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre — or more specifically, Berg and his five-member board — who decide whether it is necessary to open up other centers in countries as remote as Australia or Rwanda. Today, there are some 23 Kabbalah Centres around the world and 60 satellite centers.

It is also from Los Angeles that decisions are made to tackle global problems in a kabbalistic way. "A few years ago, the Rav decided that we need to send 3,600 sets of Zohars to Iran for a certain energy," Feig said. "Iran at the time was a very negative place for the whole world, and the Rav believed that if we put a lot of Zohars over there it would make it easier."

The Kabbalah Centre also recently ran ads in Palestinian newspapers, reminding Palestinians that we should all treat each other with human dignity.

"Our mission is to create harmony," Phillips said. "We would love to build bridges and dialogues between those in the community who want to."

On the home front, The Kabbalah Centre last August bought a property on La Cienega Boulevard just south of Olympic Boulevard, the future site of the new building for the Kabbalah Children’s Academy (KCA), its elementary school. Currently the school is adjacent to the center, and has 80 students from preschool to fifth grade. Feig expects that the new building, which he estimates will cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million, will be able to accommodate 400 students.

According to its administrators, KCA is a yeshiva like any other. "The only difference is on the emphasis," said Rabbi Arye Weiner, KCA’s Torah studies rabbi. "Here we emphasize spiritual concepts. Not lofty concepts, but things like sharing and loving your neighbor as yourself."

Inside the school, pictures of Berg and kabbalists Rabbis Yehuda Zvi Brandwein and Yehuda Ashlag adorn the walls. Alongside the usual ABC and Alef Bet posters are student projects that look at transforming negative qualities into positive ones — from anger to love, and the like.

Like most traditional yeshivot, the school teaches Chumash with Rashi, Mishnah and Gemara (Talmud). Boys are expected to wear kippot and tzizit, girls are expected to wear skirts. Unlike most yeshivot, the KCA starts to teach the Zohar in fourth grade. The school also offers afterschool programs in "Spirituality for Kids" and "Mind Games."

Yet, there are other distinctions between the KCA and the other yeshivot in town. Unlike other yeshivot, KCA will not accept Jewish studies teachers who have only studied at The Kabbalah Centre. "We would not take a [Jewish studies] teacher from The Kabbalah Centre if he didn’t have a yeshiva education," said Weiner, who himself studied in the Lakewood and Mir yeshivot, both ultra-Orthodox institutions.

More controversially, unlike any other Yeshiva or religious school in Los Angeles, KCA accepts non-Jewish children as students. "We are not looking to recruit non-Jewish students," said Solomon, "but if the student comes, it is not for us to turn them away."

So do the non-Jewish students go home and give divrei Torah to their parents?

"Yes," says Weiner. "It is all about sharing the ohr [light]," he said.

Ray of Hope


What will become of five Jccs?

The question has still not been answered, but by next week, a resolution will be definitively closer.

Five center must submit their business plans by next week to the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles’ (JCCGLA) new transition committee for review. If the facilities can run on a budget-neutral basis, they can remain open.

On Tuesday, delegates from five JCCs centers slated for closure this summer attended a JCCGLA meeting at Valley Cities JCC in Van Nuys, where they had the opportunity make oral presentations on ideas to save their respective centers.

In the closed board meeting that followed, JCCGLA executives decided on next week’s deadline for business plans to be given to the Transition Committee. The committee, with the assistance of JCCGLA financial consultant Roni Fischer, will review and analyze the plans, and then decide by early February, on a case-by-case basis, the direction of each center and its programming.

JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi and Transition Committee chief Marvin Gelfand told The Journal that the deadline for a final decision regarding the centers must be made by early next month, so that parents who want to use the JCC’s early-childhood education services can make plans.

Representatives from the impacted centers (Bay Cities JCC, Silver Lake-Los Feliz JCC, Westside JCC, Valley Cities JCC and North Valley JCC) addressed 25 members of the JCCGLA council, headed by JCCGLA President Marty Janoll and Giladi. In their 10-minute statements, they described why their centers are vital to their community and detailed how to keep their facilities operating without interrupting key services.

"Our goal for the next year is to provide education for the 40 Bay City kids plus 20 kids from neighboring synagogues," said Bay Cities’ James Barner, accompanied by Dan Grossman.

Mark Frazin, and Cary and Renee Fox of North Valley JCC, want to improve marketing and planning to build their center back to its original 550-family membership.

Silver Lakers Jane Schulman, Devra Weltman and Andrew Thomas painted their facility as the sole Jewish representation in their neighborhood. Weltman –herself a product of North Valley JCC and a decade of JCC’s summer camp — told the room that she bought a home in the area while eight months pregnant because of Silver Lake’s JCC.

"I knew what the philosophy would be and where I wanted my child to be," Weltman said.

Michael Kaminsky, Helene Seifer and Deborah Schmidt evoked their successful $119,000 fundraising drive to keep Westside JCC open in the short term, and Mike Bresner, accompanied by Marla Abraham, hope to raise $240,000 to keep Valley Cities operational through 2003.

Members from all five centers at the meeting told The Journal that they were optimistic that a solution could be reached.

"I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t," North Valley’s Andrea Goodstein said.

JCCGLA has already taken proactive measures to avoid a future financial crisis, which has put five of seven sites in jeopardy and has led to the layoff of 49 employees.

On Jan. 11, JCCGLA announced its plan to revamp its bookkeeping with the hiring of Century City accounting firm Licker+Ozurovich. The firm’s founding partner, Andy Ozurovich, will serve as JCCGLA’s chief financial officer, overseeing payroll administration, budget preparation, and bookkeeping. JCCGLA hopes to save $200,000 annually.

"What a long way we’ve come since November," said Gelfand, who cited a groundswell of community outcry and media coverage as prime reasons that JCCGLA’s moribund status has segued into serious discussions on salvaging JCC facilities and programs.

Gelfand pointed to fundraisers underway by various centers to raise money, including an upcoming Westside JCC fundraiser featuring musician Peter Himmelman and proceeds from a "Fiddler on the Roof" production.

In what Giladi deemed is still a "fluid situation," the JCCGLA executive commended the community’s drive to keep JCCGLA thriving.

"The Jewish Community Centers are an entry-point to the Jewish community," Giladi said, evoking Schulman’s speech. "For many people it’s not their only entry point but for many it’s their sole affiliation."

Part of the JCCGLA’s plan to keep its centers alive will center around upcoming fundraising events. Gelfand and Giladi also announced that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will offer its entire mailing list to JCCGLA so that the JCCs can execute a direct mail financial support campaign next month.

According to Gelfand, JCCGLA’s position mirrors situations that have occurred throughout the 275-center Jewish Community Centers of North America system.

"JCCs do not operate at a profitable basis anywhere in the country," Gelfand said. "Federations throughout the country have helped JCCs. We need to improve our independent fundraising abilities and mechanisms."

The JCCGLA executives said that they have no current plans to solicit donations from the 1,000 JCC of North America members coming to Los Angeles in April for a biennial convention. They question whether it would be an appropriate move.

"I think that right now our community feels energized," Giladi said. "This is a very exciting time. You’re talking about an organization that last month was considered dead. So from that perspective, to have the biennial in L.A., I think, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity,’ because everyone knows that L.A. was in crisis, and we’re building to the future. What could be better than that?"

"We all believe very strongly," Gelfand added, "that the JCCs are here to stay and to grow."

From Three to One?


Can one Jewish Community Center (JCC) serve a population as vast as that of the San Fernando Valley?

That is the question facing Jewish communities from Burbank to Calabasas, and so far, the answer is a resounding no — even from some of the people who launched the idea in the first place.

“I don’t think the goal is to have one site for the entire Valley, nor do I think Westside can serve all of the city,” said Nina Lieberman-Giladi, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). “But we can’t do a good job [anywhere] until we can do so in [a] fiscally responsible manner.”

Granted, the JCC singled out for this honor is not your typical center. Dubbed the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, better known as the West Valley JCC, the facility houses the Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex, completed in 1999.

The sports complex includes a teen center (unstaffed because of recent cutbacks), two workout rooms and a 12,000-square-foot auditorium/basketball court. The $4.5 million sports complex was built with separate funds raised by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.

The Milken Campus is also home to the offices of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, as well as the Valley offices of the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Family Service and a host of other agencies, thus making it the hub for the organized Jewish community in the Valley.

The idea of one center is supported by some statistics: namely, membership numbers from the centers. The number of household units, which comprises both individual members and family memberships, has declined.

At North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, membership units dropped from 275 to 200. At Valley Cities in Van Nuys, membership dropped from 200 to 170 units. Although the West Valley JCC also experienced a precipitous drop of approximately 500, at 1,000 household units, it still outdistances the other centers.

Yet proponents of keeping the other two Valley centers open argue that there are equally solid reasons why the Milken Campus cannot substitute for locally grown centers.

According to Pini Herman, former Federation planning and allocations research coordinator and currently with Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, a 1997 survey performed for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles revealed that of the 248,000 Jewish families living in the San Fernando Valley area, about half had at least one member who visited or participated in a program at their local Jewish community center in the prior year.

“That’s about 120,000 people … who used the centers. Of course, not everybody uses [the Milken Campus] at the same time, but what if there’s a special event? It’s an inadequate facility when you’re talking about a midsize city showing up for even one day of the year,” Herman said.

Herman noted that the San Fernando Valley area also contains more Jews of middle and lower incomes than elsewhere in Los Angeles.

“What we found in the survey is the Valley was the only area where the median income did not increase but remained stagnant or even below every other area of the city of Los Angeles [compared with prior surveys],” he said.

“Jewish community centers provide middle-income families, the predominant families in the Valley, with affordable Jewish services like camp and preschool they may not be able to afford otherwise,” Herman said. “That’s why the Valley has been disproportionately hit” by the centers’ impending closures, he said.

There is also the simple problem of geography. On the best day with no traffic, it takes 20 minutes to get from Van Nuys (home of Valley Cities JCC) to West Hills, where the Milken Campus is located, and 35-40 minutes from the North Valley JCC in Granada Hills.

Even that assumes people are only driving from center to center. It does not take into account the people already commuting to North Valley or Valley Cities from areas like Santa Clarita.

The situation is especially tough on working parents who rely on the JCC for their preschoolers and to provide after-school care for children of all ages.

“I live in Northridge and work in Studio City, yet they want me to take my kids to [school] in Woodland Hills? It just wouldn’t work,” said Andrea Goodstein, a television news producer and an active North Valley JCC member.

Goodstein is the leader of the movement in the North Valley to retain the site and its services. A mother of two children under the age of 6, she said that the JCC holds a unique position: “Where else would I send my daughter to camp? There are no camps for 2-year-olds.”

A Valley Cities parent, Nelly Neben, echoed Goodstein’s sentiments: “So many Jews and non-Jews come to the center for after-school care because it is safe and wholesome. The children take on a sense of community and belonging, and there are no other places that provide that. For the growth of the children, they need a place like the center.”

Even if the West Valley JCC was conveniently located for the entire Valley, there is the issue of capacity: the preschool is full and the after-school program is close to full, according Ronda Wilkin, outgoing center director.

So what is the solution? According to Marty Jannol, JCCGLA president, the time has come for “thinking outside the box” and looking at alternatives.

“Across the country Jewish community centers have operated from a central location and served the community in ‘centers without walls,'” Jannol said. “Who’s to say we can’t rent space for a preschool and run it so Jewish parents who want to send their children to a Jewish nursery school can do so?

“One of the resistance points in the community is that we’re wedded to a way of doing business that may not be effective. It’s our desire to provide more programming, not less, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that the community doesn’t want to be tied to a facility that is undermanaged and in poor condition,” she said.

Jannol also said that in the future, centers will need to take a different approach in order to attract more members.

“For example, Valley Cities is located in a very stable Jewish population,” she said. “There are large Israeli and Orthodox communities in the area, and neither are being sufficiently served. If research supported it and if we rebuilt the building on that piece of real estate, we could have a very viable center, a two-story building with perhaps separate facilities for men and women.”

Supporters of the two centers facing closure say they will not give up without a fight. North Valley JCC members have formed an advisory board and are discussing their options. Valley Cities’ advisory board will hold a fundraiser Jan. 9. Each group hopes for a reprieve similar to that granted the Westside JCC.

Richard Rosett, a past president of the Valley Cities board, said he hopes the effort does not come too late.

“For years we heard from The Jewish Federation that is was not for the centers to go out and do major fundraising,” Rosett lamented. “I’m not here to go to battle with The Federation; we want to be able to work together.

“For whatever reasons, this difficulty is happening, and now the centers need to go out and start getting the … Michael Eisners to make annual donations to the centers. We have to get the people within our community in Los Angeles to step up and assist.”


Here is what is happening at the four JCCs in the San Fernando and Conejo valleys:

The Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus will remain
open. Teen services at the Milken Campus are suspended indefinitely. Ellen
Glutner, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los
Angeles, moved her offices to the West Valley JCC on Jan. 2 to help oversee the
Milken site.

The preschool at the Conejo Valley JCC will remain
open.

Supporters of the Valley Cities JCC will hold a “Save
the Center” rally on Wednesday, Jan. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the center, 13164
Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Entertainment and child care will be provided. For more
information call (818) 786-6310.

The North Valley JCC has formed an advisory board that
hopes to develop a plan to save the center. For future updates, check the Web
site: www.savethejcc.org.

Bunny vs. Rabbi


Lindsey Vuolo, Playboy bunny, met her match last month: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

The two squared off in front of an audience of more than 150 people — about three-quarters of them men — at Makor, a Jewish cultural center in Manhattan geared toward 20- and 30-something Jews.

The talk show-like event included a lot of back-and forth between Vuolo and Boteach, who met when the media-hungry rabbi interviewed Vuolo for a Web site called Belief.net.

Miss November spoke like a poster girl for Jewish continuity.

"My biggest fear is that because I’m not as religious as maybe I should be, I won’t be able to conduct High Holidays in my home," Vuolo said, her voice cracking with emotion.

When Miss November 2000 spoke about her "amazing" high school trip to Israel as part of an exchange program called Ambassadors for Unity, she choked up again.

Boteach, author of the relationship guide "Kosher Sex," said he respects Vuolo, particularly for her commitment to the Jewish people and for saying she wants to raise Jewish children. But he was critical of her choice to pose for Playboy.

At one point he told Vuolo that by posing in Hugh Hefner’s magazine she had turned herself from "extraordinary" to "ordinary." Vuolo hardly reacted.

When Boteach spoke, Vuolo at times grimaced or arched her eyebrows to show her disagreement. Members of the audience alternately booed, hooted and cheered — particularly for Vuolo, who seemed to have the crowd’s sympathy.

And audience members weren’t shy about taking shots at either the rabbi — short, bearded, in a dark suit — or the buxom bunny, who was dressed in a fashionable and sexy style that wasn’t too revealing.

Yet it appeared the audience wanted to bury the controversial Boteach.

Boteach was criticized for his long-windedness and for his friendship with pop star Michael Jackson. He also was called a hypocrite for publishing an excerpt of "Kosher Sex" in Playboy.

"Where am I going to put this, the synagogue newsletter?" Boteach responded. "I’m going to put this in the place where it’s most important to be read."

Articles courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Virtual Schmooze


We all hear rumblings about a global community, but a global schmooze? That’s just what the Jewish Community Centers of North America, in conjunction with the 92nd Street Y in New York City, propose to execute. Starting on Sun., March 11, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will host an innovative new lecture series through Kallah — a program sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and supported by the Charles and Dora Mesnick Cultural Arts Fund — by bringing such speakers as Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and Anne Roiphe to you live, via satellite. The lectures will be broadcast from the 92nd Street Y in New York City directly to JCCs across the nation, allowing participants to ask questions to their lecturers in real time for what is being termed a "virtual gathering."

The nation will be linked with the stage in New York via e-mail and fax, so that while the speakers hold the stage in Manhattan, members of the audience, regardless of geographic location, can participate as if they were sitting in the first row. Scheduled during the Hebrew months of Elul and Adar, a traditional time of gathering and Judaic study, the programs are designed to experience and celebrate Jewish learning and create community despite geographic divides. "Jewish education should take advantage of modernity to reconnect the Jewish people with their Jewish heritage," said Jonathan Fass, the Jewish education specialist for the JCCs of Greater Los Angeles.

Radio personality Dennis Prager, who is currently broadcasting on KRLA and who will be participating in the March 11 event, said the format is appealing because "when you have Jews in public life who have very different positions on issues, it’s a good and rare opportunity to hear them confront each publicly." The national format is especially appealing because "none of the issues are geographically specific, so it’s good to give them a national format," he added.

Fass explained the JCCs’ desire to participate as being motivated by a desire to innovate Jewish education. "Kallah is innovative because all of North American Jewry can participate in Jewish learning together, each community can learn from its neighbor community, and the Los Angeles Jewish community can connect with the greater North American Jewish community."

Participating in the event is also a way in which the JCC hopes to redefine itself. "The Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles is redefining itself as an Jewish organization with a renewed commitment to the Jewish growth of Los Angeles," Fass said. "Our agency recognized Jewish education is a fundamental component of Jewish growth. We believe Kallah is an adult Jewish education opportunity with widespread appeal to the entire community, and so we joined other Jewish community centers throughout North America in supporting the program."

Fass added that there are also technical challenges to the broadcast. "In Los Angeles, we will be receiving the broadcasts with the assistance of Globecast, a national communications company. The Jewish community centers have never used technology like this before in community programs, but we are confident that these programs will run smoothly."

"The Future of North American Jewry" will be led by law professor Alan Dershowitz, radio personality Dennis Prager, author Anne Roiphe and Rabbi David Woznica on Sun., March 11, 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the West Valley Jewish Community Center. Additional events will be held at the Museum of Tolerance: Tues., March 20, "Great Jewish Thinkers," 6-8 p.m.; Sun., March 25, "An Evening with Elie Wiesel," 4:30-6:30 p.m. Each event is $6. For tickets or more information, contact the Westside JCC at (323) 938-2531 x 2207 or the Museum of Tolerance at (310) 772-2452.

Beach Blanket Bar Mitzvah


In a city where most people go to the beach on Saturday mornings, a new center has opened in an effort to connect the local Jewish community with its heritage.

The center, run by the Lubavitch movement, includes two synagogues — one with 400 seats and another for weekday services — a library and separate mikvahs for men and women.

The seven-story center also houses a large ballroom with a kosher kitchen for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, a youth center and a preschool.

Local politicians joined Jewish officials for Sunday’s inauguration ceremony, held in Leblon, the city’s most upscale neighborhood.

Rio, with a Jewish population of 30,000, has synagogues in older neighborhoods, but many are unable to gather a minyan for Shabbat services.

The new center was designed for a Jewish population that has moved from poorer areas of the city to the Leblon district as members of the community grew wealthier.

For the past 10 years, Lubavitch activities were held in a two-story house in Leblon. As time passed, it became evident that the house was too small to house gatherings — but there was no place to move to.

Help came from Rio Mayor Cesar Maia, who donated a piece of land, and the center was built with contributions from the community.

To show its gratitude for the mayor’s gesture, the community also collected funds to build a public library in a poor section of town.

The center will host its first simcha for cariocas — as Rio’s residents are known — when a wedding is held Sunday in its ballroom.

An Early Face Lift


On the north side of the Skirball Cultural Center, two dozen construction workers shout to each other over the roar of the 405 Freeway. They handle jackhammers and operate bulldozers amid huge piles of building materials. A crane several stories tall towers above the construction site, where steel pilings rise from concrete foundations.

Mammoth changes are afoot at the Skirball, where the current space will be more than doubled, to 325,000 square feet — rendering “the largest Jewish cultural center in North America,” center founder and president Dr. Uri D. Herscher said.

By November 2000, a three-level, subterranean parking structure, designed to add 600 parking spaces to the facility’s existing 200, will occupy the construction site.

Above the parking structure, an airy, domed Great Hall, reminiscent of Lincoln Center and also to be completed by November 2000, will seat some 600 people for plays, lectures and concerts; it will also double as a banquet hall. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows will open out onto a courtyard of pale-gray stone and an informal outdoor stage.

To the south, the tentatively named Winnick Family Heritage Museum, largely funded by a $5 million grant from Gary and Karen Winnick, is slated to be completed within the next three years. The museum will feature two 3,500-square-foot children’s galleries and an 8,000-square-foot changing gallery, which, Herscher said, is larger than the Getty’s. Behind the Winnick Museum will be two children’s archaeological digs and a large outdoor amphitheater that will seat 500 people.

The price tag on the additions, which will be drawn up by renowned Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, is $50 million.

More immediate changes are set to begin Sept. 7 with the extensive redesign and renovation of the Skirball’s museum galleries, which will close to the public for three months. Herscher said the goal is to make the museum more accessible and to further emphasize “how we as Jews intersect with the American democratic tradition.” Funding for these renovations was drawn from a California Arts Council $2 million grant.

During construction, visitors can still attend special events, conferences and programs, such as the Oct. 3 Neil Simon film retrospective and lecture. Audrey’s Museum Store, Zeidler’s Cafe, the Resource Center and the Ruby Changing Gallery (now showing the “Latinos in Hollywood” photograph exhibit through Oct. 18) will remain open.

The galleries will reopen Sunday, Dec. 5, to coincide with the center’s annual Chanukah Festival.

So why is the Skirball redesigning its core galleries just three years after the $65 million center opened in April 1996? It’s part of the Skirball’s strategic plan, Herscher said.

“Prophesy is for fools,” he said. “We started out with specific priorities, and we knew we would have to refine them when we saw who actually showed up to the center.”

While only 60,000 visitors were expected the first year, the center drew 300,000 visitors, one-sixth of them children and up to one-third of them seniors. Thus the redesign includes an improved traffic flow through the galleries as well as more interactive displays for students and oversized print for the elderly.

The first major change will be evident upon entering the holiday gallery, where displays of each festival will emphasize the Jewish values immigrants brought to America. In the center of the space will be a comprehensive work of Jewish ritual art, encased within the form of a shtender — the humble study desk once found in many traditional synagogues. The shtender has been transformed by artist David Moss and woodcarver Noah Greenberg into a compartmentalized treasure chest for Jewish ritual objects, commissioned by the Skirball.

The more than 25,000 students who annually visit the Skirball (the majority of them non-Jewish) will learn about Jewish and American values in two new “gallery classrooms.” One will depict a cheder, a Jewish classroom from Eastern Europe, with wood-clad walls, benches and tables. The other will suggest a turn-of-the-century American public school classroom, complete with period artifacts, presidential portraits and a vintage American flag.

There will be an interactive exhibit of trunks that immigrants brought with them to America; displays on baseball star Hank Greenberg and actress Molly Picon; and a detailed replication of the ark of the 19th-century New Synagogue of Berlin, to be added to the existing replica of the synagogue’s ark pavilion. For the first time, viewers will be able to approach the ark, open its doors and examine the vintage Torahs inside.

The biggest changes will take place in the American galleries, where a large case resembling a turn-of-the-century storefront will house some 200 artifacts that depict the material culture of American Jews. On display will be objects such as canned goods with labels in English and Yiddish, an egg basket once used by Jewish farmers from Petaluma and tools once wielded by immigrant tailors on New York’s Lower East Side.

The exhibits on Presidents Washington and Lincoln, who helped ensure constitutional liberties for Jews, will include impressive artifacts on loan from private collectors: an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by George Washington, and Lincoln’s quill pen and black stovepipe hat (one of only two in existence).

“It’s all part of the story we’re here to tell: The story of the Jews from antiquity, with a special emphasis on Jews in America,” said Dr. Robert Kirschner, the Skirball’s program and core exhibition director.

Ask Herscher about why a Jewish museum should house non-Jewish Americana, and the rabbi’s response is swift. “We wouldn’t have any opportunities to live as Jews in America if it wasn’t for the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “I am devoted to Jewish continuity, but I get concerned when people try to push the Jewish part without the context … What I hope this redesign and renovation will provide is an even better understanding of how important the Jewish moral conscience is to the American community in which we live.”

Up Front A Museum of Tolerance &’009;&’009;in Israel


The Simon Wiesenthal Center is fully committed to building a $50 million museum in Jerusalem — despite skepticism expressed by some Holocaust scholars.

“We are close to acquiring a property and are putting together an advisory board in Israel, whose members will range from the far left to fervently Orthodox haredim,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

He said that the new project will draw on the practical experience derived from running the center’s popular Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which deals with the Holocaust and other outgrowths of racism and ethnic hatred.

However, the Jerusalem museum will not duplicate these themes, Cooper said.

“It would be ludicrous to try and build a second Yad Vashem in Jerusalem,” said Cooper, referring to the famed Holocaust memorial in Israel’s capital.

No permanent name has been selected for the museum, but Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, used the Talmudic phrase Kavod HaBriot, or Respect for Mankind, to indicate the thrust of its mission.

The museum will address two main themes. One will be the last 100 years of Jewish history in Israel and the Diaspora, expressed mainly through the encapsulated experiences of Jews in different times and places.

The second, and more controversial, part of the project will focus on contemporary issues that represent “flash points” of tension and strife among different segments of the Jewish world.

Likely examples are confrontations between Orthodox and secular Israelis, or between American Jewry and Israeli lawmakers on the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions.

The museum project has been met with skepticism, and even derision, by some Holocaust experts.

Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has suggested that the new museum might copy the interactive, high-tech atmosphere of the Museum of Tolerance.

“It will probably be a little bit of Disneyland with voices and disappearing bodies,” Hilberg said. “This is not my cup of tea.”

Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, also expressed reservations. “I knew they had some kinds of confused ideas in the past, but we have the feeling that we don’t need [the proposed museum],” he said.

Qualified support came from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I think it’s important to help Israel deal with its intolerance problem. I’m not sure a museum is a way to do it,” Foxman told The Forward.

Cooper declined to respond to Hilberg, but he expressed surprise at Shalev’s comments.

“We have had two long meetings with Mr. Shalev, at which we explained our plans in detail,” said Cooper.

After the site for the Jerusalem museum is purchased, it will take about five years until the opening day, Cooper estimated. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Unmarried with Movie

Two years ago, Dana Lustig was 32, single and at her wit’s end.

The Israeli was working odd jobs and odd hours as a wannabe filmmaker, but her parents had other ideas. “Why can’t you just find a good provider, get married, have kids and make movies as a hobby,” they said to her, nagging. Being thirtysomething and single, they argued, was cause for alarm.

“I was starting to feel worthless,” says Lustig, who attended AFI and co-founded her own production company here after serving two years in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War. “So I thought: ‘Fine. If all they care about is my getting married, I’ll find someone, anyone, go to Las Vegas and get married, just to get everyone off my back. Then I’ll get divorced.'”

In the end, Lustig didn’t go through with the stunt. Instead, she parlayed the idea into her directorial debut, “Wedding Bell Blues” (it opens today in Los Angeles), in which three 30-ish roommates (Illeana Douglas, Paulina Porizkova, Julie Warner) drive to Las Vegas to find throwaway husbands. They chant, with irony, “Better divorced than unmarried.”

As the director told The New York Times: “Maybe the big philosophers have agreed to the [feminist] revolution, but our parents and our boyfriends and the people who we work with every day haven’t gotten that message yet.”

The film parodies all the societal pressures by drawing on the experiences of Lustig, screenwriter Annette Goliti Gutierrez and all their friends. One such experience comes from the director’s stint in the Israeli army: “A friend and I were guarding our base, with guns — and talking about putting Scotch tape on our foreheads to [forestall] the wrinkles,” says Lustig, with a groan.

And then, behind the scenes, there was a case of life imitating art. In “Wedding Bell Blues,” Douglas’ character attends her younger sister’s wedding; Lustig had to fly home for her younger brother’s nuptials shortly after wrapping the shoot.

“I was really dreading it,” says Lustig, whose company is executive-producing a film starring Joe Mantegna and Rob Lowe. “But then my movie was opening in Israel, so I had an answer for every aunt who nudged me: ‘Leave me alone and go watch the film!'” — Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

Strumming, Fiddling at the Skirball


What is there about klezmer music that sends feet flying and excitement levels of certain Jewish audiences soaring? Nostalgia for the past or a just-found fondness for a “new” music”? Whatever it is, when the klezmer band struck up a “Freylach,” almost instantly, a woman in a red baseball cap jumped to her feet, raised her arms to the sky and began bouncing joyfully to the music. She was quickly joined by someone in a jaunty straw hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Danceaholic.” Soon, there was an impromptu circle of happy bouncers — young and old — stepping lively under the warm California sun.

So began “KlezFest at the Skirball,” a celebration of klezmer music and its role in Yiddish culture. The event, which took place on Sunday, April 13, in the courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center, attracted some 250 participants, from octogenarians to 8-year-olds.

I was there with my husband and teen-age son, instruments in tow. Bernie, my husband and the trumpetmeister, has long been a mainstay of our synagogue’s official band, Close Enough for Klezmer. Jeffrey, our son, who plays classical and jazz clarinet, is also a Klezmer wannabe. Over the last decade, this home-grown band has brought its members both inspiration and aggravation, but, musically, it has grown a bit stale. So six band cronies (and their offspring) showed up at KlezFest, looking for new ideas.

Other folks had other agendas. Nancy Carroll, who’s taking a Yiddish-literature class at Los Angeles Valley College, signed on for KlezFest because this “is a perfect illustration of what we’re studying.”

Joyce Hart, raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in Canada, is so passionate about the mamaloshen that she used to make weekly treks to Fairfax just to listen to people speak. KlezFest enabled her to sing in Yiddish, hear talks on Yiddish folklore, and applaud Yiddish-theater songs belted out in the style of Second Avenue.

A young man named Richard, who’s getting married in September, came to KlezFest in search of hints on how to integrate his Eastern European Jewish heritage into an American Jewish wedding. The fact that the day was to climax in a mock wedding ceremony made KlezFest, for Richard, the place to be.

One especially distinctive presence was that of Joy Krauthammer, dressed in flowing purple and chains of silver amulets. She proudly displayed the large African buffalo-skin drum she’d adorned with ribbons and snapshots of past mentors, including “my number one teacher in the world, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.” In attending the KlezFest-sponsored concert at the Wadsworth Theatre, Krauthammer had found an excitement that bordered on the spiritual: “I was doing Shabbos at the concert.” Now she was primed to learn how to bring her African and Middle Eastern percussion skills into the Klezmer idiom.

While the Yiddish-culture enthusiasts enjoyed lectures and a dance workshop, the 50 aspiring klezmorim present were sent off for in-depth master classes with members of The Klezmatics and Klazzj. These professionals gave solid and specific advice. Violinists were told to forgo vibrato, and got tips on how to incorporate that distinctive klezmer “sob” into their sound. Brass players were initiated into the mysteries of the Freygish Scale. There was a special section for accordionists and (high on the hill above the Skirball) one for wailing klezmer clarinets. Guitarists joined forces with a classical mandolin player and the owner of a Turkish oud to learn about plucking and strumming, klezmer-style.

After lunch, the instrumentalists were melded into ensembles for some ad hoc music-making. Close Enough for Klezmer found itself in a basement room, where a maven from The Klezmatics gave pointers on how to rearrange an old tune from the repertoire for maximum impact.

Nor was energy in short supply in the courtyard, where the promised wedding procession was about to start. The KlezFest organizers had supplied 12-foot puppets representing a giant-sized khosn (groom) and kalle (bride). There was also a billowing chuppah, made by the children in a crafts workshop while their elders strummed and fiddled. A long-bearded shtetl rabbi dramatically read off the items the groom had promised his chosen one — 200 silver zuzim, feather pillows, a brass bed and a Stairmaster. After the groom, his huge fingers fluttering anxiously, lifted the veil from his shy bride’s punim, KlezFest participants of all ages joined the celebration by waving multicolored banners and dancing along to the strains of the very haimish Ellis Island Band.

At last, happily sated with Yiddishkayt, the participants drifted out to the parking lots and back to their Southern California lives.

As for Close Enough for Klezmer, its members were blissfully close to overload. So much music, so little time.


Beverly Gray writes about education for The Jewish

Journal from Santa Monica.

All rights reserved by author.