Obama — who won 78% of Jewish vote — faces global disarray, Mideast challenges

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama emerges from a maelstrom into a vacuum.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has survived the longest and roughest election season in memory to assume control of a free world in free fall: A collapsing economy, a resurgent Iran, an obstreperous Russia.

“He’s going to have his hands full with a recession, a housing crisis, Wall Street, domestic legislation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Center for Near East Policy.

No matter who was elected president, they would have to to re-accrue the political capital squandered by President Bush in his last years of office, said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at UCLA. Obama, however, makes a better case than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival, Spiegel said.

“What Obama is really offering is the olive branch in one hand and the other is a fist,” he said.

Conservatives and some Republicans tried to use Obama’s exotic background against him, particularly in the Jewish community. But in the end, voters went with the son of a woman from small-town Kansas and a nominally Muslim father from the Kenyan hills–a choice that some observers say will be likelier to repair relations with an international community alienated by a president who once famously said nations either stand with or against the United States.

“Obama can say ‘I’m a different person with a different approach, we’re going to work with you on global warming, family planning, we’re going to be broader in our approach, we’re not looking for fights with Russia, we have a much more nuanced policy,” Spiegel said.

M.J. Rosenberg, the legislative director of the Israel Policy Forum, which strongly favors an increased U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, said Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency was a game-changer when it comes to foreign policy.

“He was elected to the Senate four years ago, he defeated Hillary Clinton, he defeated John McCain, he’s African American. Because it’s a transformational presidency, he can do things other presidents might not have been able to do,” Rosenberg said.

It is precisely this possibility of possibility that excites or worries Jewish political activists, depending on their political stripes. Obama’s Jewish backers argue that his victory will provide a significant boost in U.S. credibility and influence that can be used to increase international pressure on Iran and support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Detractors, on the other hand, have predicted that in his desire to win international respect, Obama could end up pressuring Israel and backing away from confrontation with Iran.

What’s clear, experts say, is that Obama faces an almost unprecedented challenge for a new president. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist on sabbatical at American University in Washington, described a world facing fundamental historic changes.

“I’m thinking of periods such as after the Second World War when the super powers devised a new world, or the Vienna Congress” of 1814-1815 that re-configured Europe. “You need a complicated, comprehensive approach to the new situation.”

Don’t worry too much about Obama being “tested” as a young, inexperienced president, as the McCain campaign had charged, said Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University professor who just published “War, Peace and International Relations in Islam”.

“Being an Israeli, I know that whenever a radical group has a plan in mind and are able to carry it out, they carry it out,” he said. “If they were able to challenge America, they would have done it by now.”

The most serious challenge, Peri said, is the potential of an Iran with nuclear weapons – a possibility, Israel believes, that could occur within two years.

“It will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East, not just because Iran might use the bomb, but because conventional power has been defined by non-conventional power, the fear that Israel has a nuclear capability,” he said. With a nuclear Iran, “assuming Hezbollah or Syria attacks Israel, Israel will be deterred from deterring them.”

The same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that fear Iranian hegemony. “The whole balance of power in the conventional sphere changes,” Peri said.

Obama’s likely path may be determined by those who advises him, Peri said, noting the preponderance of Clinton administration veterans who favor diplomatic engagement as the best path for ensuring Israel’s security. For example, in recent months, former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran; and his top staffer on Jewish issues has been another Clinton administration veteran, Daniel Shapiro.

“The people I know who are surrounding Obama have a more progressive view of the Middle East, want to see a peace between Israel and Palestinians, they see the differences in the Arab world and understand you have to take into account Arab interests vis-a-vis Iran,” Peri said.

Ross argues that the United States needs to play a more consistent and involved role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he also has ruled out the establishment of any “artificial” timelines for establishing a Palestinian state. On Iran, Ross has echoed Obama in arguing that the United States needs to increase its level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran–but says such an approach must be coupled with tougher sanctions in order to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mitchell Bard, the director of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and the author of “Will Israel Survive?,” was heartened by the Obama campaign’s stated intention to make Iran a priority in its first months. “He has to make some decisions early on to create some action to prevent Iran from getting to the point of no return,” Bard said.

He said Obama’s ability, proven during his campaign, to build alliances across the political spectrum would serve him well.

“He has the personal chemistry, the potential for building relationships,” Bard said, noting that Bush’s first term was well served by the personal relationship he developed with Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, despite policy differences.

Spiegel said Obama’s willingness to engage diplomatically suggested he would succeed where the Bush administration ran into a wall, in building an international alliance to isolate Iran.

“Obama starts out popular, people want to establish good relations; it’s going to be much easier to sell sanctions,” he said.

Under those circumstances, Spiegel said, Iran should soon face a ban on imports of refined fuel. Iran, with a refining infrastructure in disarray, relies on imports for 40 percent of its petroleum use. Such a ban, coupled with the decline in the price of crude, should hit the Iranian economy hard.

“If the price of oil is dropping and not rising, and with truly effective sanctions, then you’ve got a much better chance” of getting Iran to stand down from its weapons program, he said.

Obama has said he would couple sanctions with diplomatic outreach as a means of persuading Iran. Makovsky predicted that such an outreach would not take place until after Iranian presidential elections next summer in order not to hand a victory to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and who wishes Israel did not exist.

Jewish vote: Obama 78-21

By Eric Fingerhut

The first exit poll on the Jewish vote is out, and it has Barack Obama bettering John Kerry’s Jewish vote total from four years ago.

The preliminary poll, which is likely to be updated later this evening or tomorrow, has Obama receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote, to just 21 percent for John McCain. Kerry garnered 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, and Al Gore won 79 percent of the Jewish vote (with a Jewish running mate) eight years ago. The Jewish vote was 2 percent of the poll sample.

If those numbers hold up, it would vindicate Jewish Democrats like Rep. Robert Wexler, who claimed this summer — to skeptical reporters at the Democratic convention — that Obama would hit traditional levels of the Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates. At the time, Obama had been totaling slightly more than 60 percent in polls of Jewish voters.

If such outreach fails, Makovsky said, an Obama administration will at least have earned greater credibility if it is forced into a military option.

“If those negotiations don’t work, he will have some very tough calls to make but he will probably believe he is stronger for having made the approach,” he said.

Obama, who emphasized the Iraq quagmire during much of his campaign, was until recently believed to be likelier than McCain to have attempted to reshape the international alignment, tamping down tensions with Russia and refocusing international attention on Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That is less likely now with the economic crisis, Peri said. “Without the economic crisis, I think global issues would have been dealt with sooner,” he said.

Even with narrower expectations, experts agreed that the likeliest beneficiary of Obama’s victory in the Middle East would be Israel-Syria talks; Bush has discouraged this track, and McCain’s campaign suggested they would have continued that policy.

Israel and Syria, having engaged in back-channel talks through Turkey, have all but reached an agreement, including security arrangements, analysts say. Syria is seen as close to agreeing to pull itself out of Iran’s orbit and to cut off terrorist groups. The remaining obstacle is Syria’s desire to get back into the good graces of the United States, something that American hawks have been resisting in part because of Syria’s continued designs on Lebanon.

“It won’t take more than a few months to reach an agreement,” Peri said. “With a green light from the United States, the deal is done.”

Another factor favoring a Syrian agreement is that all the leading candidates in the Israeli elections – including Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu – have in the past committed themselves to a peace with Syria that would include a concession of at least part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Experts disagreed on what the Obama victory means for Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Peri and Makovsky noted the intractability of the Palestinian split, between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip–a balance of power many believe makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible at this time.

But Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum predicted that despite the Palestinian disarray, Obama would press the negotiations forward. The outline of an agreement is known, and achieving it would facilitate every other foreign policy initiative, he said.

“You get a hell a lot of mileage out of getting these two peoples together,” Rosenberg said. “A president who has the leadership to have a signing ceremony looks like a magician.”

But Obama’s Jewish detractors are concerned. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group had deep-seated worries about Obama, but as a tax-exempt organization could not speak of them until now.

“We are worried that he will put enormous pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinian Arabs without demanding that the Palestinian Arabs fulfill their obligations” under peace agreements, Klein said.

Klein cited as a basis for his concerns Obama’s advisers, including Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Tel Aviv who has counseled pressuring Israel, and friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, all strident critics of Israel.

Regarding Iran, Klein referred to Obama’s pledge last year to meet with Ahmadinejad, saying: “Someone who said he will sit down with this Iranian Hitler, Ahmadinehjad, without preconditions is clearly someone who will not do what needs to be done to prevent nuclear weapons in his hands.”

Jacob’s Ladders

Every neighborhood has its gathering places.

In my neighborhood, you'll find one if you head west on Pico Boulevard from Robertson Boulevard, past the ethnic aromas of the “center” hood and into the kosher Ice Blended Mochas of the “west” hood, where, right next to an Office Depot, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf rules.

That's where you're likely to meet a young man named Jacob Katz. Jacob is a happy-go-lucky, kippah-wearing, 23-year-old Jew who mixes ice-blended coffee drinks and takes care of customers at the Coffee Bean. Talk about a neighborhood hangout. When Hillary Clinton wrote the book “It Takes a Village,” she could have started here.

Pop in to the sunny patio on any afternoon and you're likely to see Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at a corner table giving a private Torah class; a Conservadox aspiring pop star who used to study in a Jerusalem seminary promoting her upcoming live show; a few perfectly coiffed frum supermoms taking a break from the carpooling; a couple of born-again Chasids from the Happy Minyan talking about a Jethro Tull concert; and a retired couple from Palm Springs making their weekly visit to their old neighborhood (“We bought a house on that street for $37,000. You know what it's worth now? I don't know why we got rid of it. Is that your daughter? How old is she? Hey, we have a granddaughter the same age.”).

Late afternoon, the patio gets invaded by YULA high-school students coming to unwind after a long day of Talmud, algebra and Shakespeare. The more eager students lay out their homework next to their lattes. The funny thing is, everyone seems to know Jacob.

You see, Jacob has a unique style and a unique voice. He has Down syndrome, so you have to listen carefully to get everything he says. In fact, to understand Jacob really well, you have to listen as well as he does.

Because Jacob Katz is a human sponge.

Ever since he was a child, he's had a talent for listening, and for absorbing everything around him. But as he got older, this talent morphed into something more universal: “I want this” and “I want that.” As his mother Frieda recalls, Jacob developed this unlimited capacity to want things.

It didn't matter what, Jacob wanted it: I want a computer, I want to learn how to drive, I want to listen to the Beatles, I want to go to college, I want to go to the movies. You name it — if it was cool, Jacob wanted it.

So one day, he looks up at one of the coolest places in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from his house, and he says, “I want to work at Coffee Bean.” And guess what? He gets the job.

Don't think it was a cake walk. He had to fill out a lengthy application, and after meeting with the store manager, he impressed him enough to get an interview with the district manager, a religious Christian woman named Jan. Obviously something clicked. She hired Jacob, and he started training that same week.

That was six months ago. Today, Jacob laughs all the way to the bank every two weeks to deposit his paycheck.

He laughs in other places, too. He laughs when he takes the bus twice a week to Santa Monica College, where he's learning all kinds of things, including how to type 30 words a minute without looking. From what I hear, Jacob's pretty well known around campus.

This week, Jacob is doing research on the Internet for a little dvar Torah he'll be giving at the Etta Israel Shabbaton at Beth Jacob Congregation. Etta Israel is the popular local organization that caters to kids with Down syndrome and other special needs, and it's where Jacob studied Judaism every Sunday for seven years.

Many years ago, Jacob's mother stood up at an Etta Israel dinner and said something that people still talk about. What she said was remarkably simple.

She said that all the things that Jacob did over the years — special classes, speech therapies, life skills training, etc. — were really important, but that one thing in his life was even more important: friendships.

Since he was very young, Jacob has been blessed with friends. Friends of his sister and three brothers are his friends, too. He has friends at Etta Israel, friends where he prays every morning (Young Israel of Century City), friends at the gym where he works out, friends all over the hood.

One reason he has so many friends is that he keeps in touch, and he doesn't ask for much. I love getting his calls: “Heyyy David, it's Jacob” is how he always starts, in his deep baritone voice. A little schmoozing, a few laughs, a few “I love yous,” and we're done. I think he gets a kick that the person at the other end of the line knows who he is.

At the neighborhood Coffee Bean, where he works four hours a day, four days a week, they definitely know who he is. Yet despite being so loved and having so many friends, guess what? Jacob wants more.

The other day, while sipping a pomegranate ice tea, and after singing his favorite Beatles tune (“Ticket to Ride”), he confided that there is one friend he still doesn't have — his lifetime soulmate. Like millions of single Jews, Jacob wants a great Jewish shidduch.

When you look at his track record with the things that he wants, and how single women in this town go crazy for Ice Blended Mochas, I wouldn't count him out.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Noteworthy sessions and events at the G.A.

10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center
Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.

2:30 p.m.
Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November”
Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel”
Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice”
Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism

8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m.
Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People”
Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York

10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam”
Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”

Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”
Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University

3:45 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP

8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m.
Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”

Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.

8:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006”
Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir
Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends”
Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur”
Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service

4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together”
Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

8:30 a.m.-Noon
Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum”
Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.

The Best Offense Is a Funny Movie

If you feel that life is losing its edge because no one has offended you recently, Sacha Baron Cohen’s next movie is for you.

Baron Cohen stars as his third incarnation (after Ali G and Bruno) in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”In it, Borat, the intrepid Kazakhstani TV reporter, is sent off to make a documentary of America, where he becomes obsessed with finding and marrying Pamela Anderson.

The film opens Nov. 3, but according to advance hints, it is guaranteed to enrage Jews, gays, blacks, women, cowboys, Christians and college boys — not to mention Kazakhstanis.

In the meanwhile, you can catch Baron Cohen now in “Talladega Nights,” where, as France’s Formula One champ Jean Gerard, he challenges NASCAR idol Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) for the trophy.

Baron Cohen sports the thickest French accent this side of Paris, and in his first meeting with good ‘ol Southern boy Ricky Bobby, offers to drop out of the race on one condition.

“Eeef you keess me,” Gerard says.

The movie is a lip-to-lip competition between two very different comic improvisational styles, and on the track as on the laugh meter, it’s a bumper-to-bumper race.

In real life, the 34-year-old Baron Cohen was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in London, the son of a menswear shop owner and an Israeli mother. He remains a religious, kosher-observant Jew.

He studied history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, showing real potential for an academic career, and wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement.

Coming up for the actor after “Borat” is “Dinner for Schmucks,” in which “an extraordinarily stupid man possesses the ability to ruin the life of anyone who spends more than a few minutes in his company.”

After that, it’s “Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill,” in which our hero plays a young Chasidic Jew who forms a band with an aging rock ‘n’ roller.

Who Are You?

Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.

That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.

But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.

When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?

One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.

Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.

Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?

A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.

When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.

And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?

Does Autism Offer Special Gifts?

“Identify yourself,” Seth says when meeting someone new. “Oh, my deepest apologies,” he’ll tell you, his curled hand over his heart as he delivers a deep bow, if he thinks he has made some kind of error.

Sometimes his face comes very close to yours to get your attention, telling you something that just cannot wait. “I am Sethman, not Sethy,” he reminds us.

“I am an adult. Live long and prosper,” he continues, using a Spock phrase right out of “Star Trek,” talking out loud using the priestly hand gesture, arm outstretched, reminding himself that his favorite TV characters Spock and Captain Kirk are Jewish. In fact, he tells those around him that they are Jewish.

We call his phrases “Seth-isms.”

It was not that many years ago that if you told someone your child had autism they would tell you their child is artistic, too. No kidding! And what about those well-meaning people who would tell you how God chose your home to place this special soul, knowing that you would love and cherish him or her.

How could we be so lucky?

Today we would submit that Seth is probably the best thing that has ever happened to us … or one of the best things anyway. We never have to worry about him ripping off hubcaps. A stickler for following rules, often profoundly shy (unless he knows you) he runs for the hills if he hears foul language on television. But way back when … make no mistake about it; those early years were a real challenge.

The Seth of today is almost always a joy for us. But he’s still so very different, unique.

Seth has often been told he looks like Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves. That has prompted him to declare that he wants to be an actor. After all, since Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves are actors, then he should be one, too. That’s logical, isn’t it?

Twice a week he leaves the gates of his transitional program at The Help Group and strolls over to Valley College where he takes an acting class — his favorite thing to do. Popular in his class, he is often used as a straight man. And since Seth can quickly memorize lines and seems to have stage presence, why not become an actor? Stranger things have happened, maybe.

At home you will often see him playing soundtracks from movies while seemingly conducting, using his index fingers for a conductor’s baton.

“I love conducting,” he’ll tell you excitedly.

He’ll pantomime words used by comedians while staring into the mirror, all the time conducting.

Do-gooders might tell you that having a special-needs child is like taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. Hogwash! Taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up on Mars is more like it — even when you end up treasuring the results.

As we faced those challenges we gained strength from my research into the life of Albert Einstein, a very unusual human being. In 1988, I began to look into his life, having long ago heard about his quirks and thinking what oddities genius reveals. What if Einstein was like this, too? After all, Einstein’s parents had been very worried about him when he was a baby. His head was unusually large (something being studied today as many children with autism are born with unusually large heads). His grandparents thought he was a dolt. He was a late talker, did poorly in school, was a loner, solitary, suffered from major tantrums, had no friends and didn’t like being in crowds.

What if Einstein had some form of autism? After two years of research with Dr. Edward Ritvo, a highly respected child psychiatrist at UCLA who is now retired, I had come to believe Einstein did have autism. Einstein was unusual his entire life. I spoke about Einstein at autism conventions and wrote about him in my last book. If Einstein did have autism and could do what he did in spite of his autism, or, perhaps because of it, what did this mean for others diagnosed with it?

The number of people now diagnosed with autism is staggering, especially in light of the fact that, not long ago, few had even heard the word. About 1.77 million people in the United States or one out of every 33 boys (boys are diagnosed approximately four times more often than girls) or 166 people per 10,000 have autism.

What was a very rare syndrome in the 1960s is pervasive today. And the numbers keep rising.

Have you heard of Sue Rubin?

Sue is a nonverbal young woman in her mid-20s who has autism. Sue, once thought to be “severely retarded,” is nothing of the kind. Through something called Facilitated Communication, a somewhat controversial form of therapy, it was discovered that Sue was brilliant in mathematics. Sue received a hefty scholarship for college and wrote a screenplay in 2004 titled “Autism Is a World.”

What about Ben Golden?

He is a young man in his mid-30s, nonverbal and autistic. He and his family moved to Israel several years ago. Like Sue, Ben also communicates using Facilitated Communication. That is how his family came to understand just how much their son really knew. Today, people come long distances to visit with Ben. He tells them about themselves and gives them guidance. Those who visit with Ben are frequently in awe. He seems to know things about those who come to see him. Psychic? Who knows. But apparently he’s quite gifted, and his essays can be found on the Internet.

Ben, Sue, Seth — a few names of some unique special-needs people. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it is those with special needs and differences who have the answers. Wouldn’t that be something!

Illana Katz, a former staff writer for Jewish Heritage, has written six books, two of which focus on autism.


To Live and Teach in L.A.: A Difficult Job


Eight-year-old Danielle dashes to the front of her third-grade classroom and shows off her drawing of an equilateral triangle.

“That’s fah-bulous, dah-ling,” the teacher says.

Danielle flashes a satisfied smile and prances back to her seat. The other students look admiringly at her.

Then, one asks, “What’s fabulous mean?”

Danielle’s (all the children’s names have been changed in this story) classroom is one of about 25 bungalows — detached, concrete rooms — that constitute Wilshire Crest Elementary School on West Olympic Boulevard near South La Brea Avenue.

Like many classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 75 percent of the nearly 1 million students failed to meet state performance standards in 2003, this class has it challenges.

At least half of the students live in a single-parent household. Most of the parents work two or three jobs and do not speak English.

“They’re just trying to survive,” says teacher Cindy Berger.

In a district that is 90 percent minority and whose per-child spending ranks among the lowest in the nation, Berger has her work cut out for her.

Colorful decorations cover the walls. “We love to learn about everything!” shouts a blue sign. “Read!” says a poster of a furry animal holding a book. One wall displays pictures of “star students” above essays stating their goals for the year. An American Flag graces the back of the room.

Nineteen children sit at desks that form a horseshoe opening to Berger, 44, who stays warm in the chilly room by wearing a long, gray skirt, black boots and a white scarf.

Through her black-rimmed glasses, she surveys her students, black and brown, none white.

“Bubbelas,” Berger says, “listen up. Tell me the shapes on your desk that are quadrilaterals.”

Hands shoot into the air, waving for attention.

“This is the best class I’ve had in 21 years of teaching,” Berger boasts.

But her enthusiasm gives way to a desperate, worried look.

“They wonder why test scores are low. It’s not because teachers aren’t teaching. These kids have so many obstacles,” she says.

Berger points to Laticia, a girl who moves slowly, dragging her body as if it were made of stone. Laticia’s father was murdered about a year ago, Berger says. The child cries every day.

Berger says she sent Laticia home with the paperwork needed to get school counseling, but the student’s mother did not return the papers.

“A week ago, Laticia came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want anyone ever talking to me. I want to be left alone,'” Berger says. “A few days later, she came back to me and said, ‘It’s just not working out. People are still talking to me.'”

Then, there is Victor, who got in trouble during recess for teasing another child. Last week, when he was asked to describe himself, Victor said he was bad, mean and ugly, according to Berger.

“There’s no one who’s said he can be more,” the teacher says. “He’s not getting the nourishment he needs.”

Berger says police came to the school a few weeks ago after one of her students blurted out, “My dad was beating up my mom. I tried to help my mom, but then I got hurt.”

The teacher keeps a book labeled, “Guess What?” where the children can write to her anything they wish. When students start to reveal something personal in the middle of class, she reminds them about the book.

Berger says Jewish values influence her teaching.

“There’s an emphasis in Judaism on education and advancement” and on performing mitzvot, she says.

The teacher spends up to $5,000 of her own money on supplies for the class, on “all this — their treats, art projects and things to organize the room.”

“But the issue is not materials,” Berger says. “It’s the extracurricular.”

Berger wishes someone would volunteer to tutor or mentor a student or to take a kid on a field trip.

“I hope someone will say, ‘I have tickets to a basketball game.’ These kids need experiences.”

“OK, bubbelas,” the teacher says, turning to her students. After winter vacation, she explains, the class will watch a movie about Helen Keller, who learned to write despite being unable to see or hear.

“There are no excuses in learning,” Berger says.

The 8-year-olds sit on this thought for a moment. One student raises his hand high into the air.

“Mrs. Berger,” he says, “is it time for recess?”

Anyone wishing to volunteer as a mentor or tutor should contact the school at (323) 938-5291 and ask for Cindy Berger.


Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits

When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska’s sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.

She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation’s largest state rather than institutional life.

Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.

"It became clear there wasn’t a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.

On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.

"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation’s growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It’s demography that changes; it’s not that the synagogue has magic pills."

Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster’s Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers’ first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.

The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David’s 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).

Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation’s past president.

"She was magnificent," he said.

Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.

Tourist Trap

Summer is often a season of travel and vacation. Whether travel is a part of our plans for this summer, most of us have had the experience of being a tourist.

Some of us are bold and adventurous travelers; we enjoy exploring every new place and sight. Others of us, just as curious about our new surroundings, travel in a more reserved and cautious style. Yet, for all of us, whenever and however we travel, this definition applies: a tourist is someone who stands on the outside looking in.

When we travel, we are often asked, “Where are you from?” Our answer to that question is a statement of personal identity. The place that we each call home and the cultural values that each one of us reflect, define who each of us is in the larger world of people and places.

The truth is, we do not have to go far to be tourists. We don’t even have to take a trip. We meet people all the time who stand on the outside of their own life experiences looking in. These are people who live separate from — and unaffected by — those around them, the things that happen to them or the chances before them. These are individuals who don’t recognize the truth in the cliché that “life is what happens while we are making plans.”

The story is told of a young man who finished his education and started out his adult years with a great desire to live an exciting and important life. Like many young men before him, he had grandiose expectations of accomplishing great things. The trouble was that he didn’t really know how to go about doing it, so he lived his life and routine as it seemed he should, as most of us would. He fell in love with a good woman, raised a family with her, earned some money working, made some mistakes and corrected as many of them as he could. He traveled a little, read a little, made new friends and volunteered here and there.

Toward the end of his years, he dreamed that the angel of death approached him.

“But I have not had the chance to truly live and accomplish the great things I had hoped to achieve,” he complained.

The angel of death was puzzled and asked: “What have you been doing all these years?”

The now-elderly man answered by recounting how he had only loved, raised a family, worked, talked, helped some, made a few mistakes, traveled a bit and learned what he could — but that he had never truly understood much about his place in the world.

“But don’t you see,” replied the angel of death, “that is life.”

Too many of us live with the expectation that life is something more than our actual experience. We are like tourists on a journey through the challenges and opportunities of every day. We have in our mind’s eye a different image of what we’re supposed to do, or even of whom we are supposed to be. The real challenge is to make ourselves at home with who we are.

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses and Israel to place a fringe, the tzitzit, “on the corners of their garments … so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15:38-41). The Torah’s concern was paganism and idolatry. Yet for us, as for every generation, the tzitzit are significant as a reminder of God’s commandments.

We remember that the Jewish people’s proud place in life is found in the doing of mitzvot. Every one of us can be a privileged participant in this sacred purpose. None of us need stand on the outside looking in. Each of us can know the comfort and confidence of feeling at home in Jewish tradition and community.

The Torah’s word for “follow” is derived from the Hebrew word for scouting or touring. Moses instructs each tribe’s scouts with this same word at the beginning of the portion: “To scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2).

As Rashi suggests, our heart and eyes are our body’s scouts. Through them we desire and discover all of life’s opportunities. In touring the world, we determine with our heart and eyes where we might visit and where we will reside. The message here is one of caution. In order to make ourselves feel at home and to understand where we are from, we ought not to follow our heart and eyes toward things foreign to the reality of our own experiences. Rather, we are encouraged to turn within, to recognize who we are and to live on the inside, at home in Jewish identity and present every day in the personal circumstances and genuine context of our lives.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’

Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.

Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?

RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."

Wendy Wasserstein to Give a Little Peek

Fertility therapy, Jewish identity, pressure to marry,
single parenting. All are themes that flow through both the personal life and
creative work of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize and
Tony in 1998 for “The Heidi Chronicles.”

In a rare peek behind the curtains on Broadway, Wasserstein
will share some scenes out of her own theater experience at the Newport Beach
Public Library on Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. The $36 cost per person includes a
complimentary copy of Wasserstein’s latest book, “Shiksa Goddess (Or How I
Spent My Forties),” essays chronicling challenges facing contemporary women in

A more intimate dinner with Wasserstein for patrons of the
Orange County Jewish Community Scholar Program will precede the library event.
It will take place in the dining area of Corona del Mar’s Heath Food Emporium
and will be an opportunity to question Wasserstein directly, said Arie Katz,
founder of the Orange County Community Scholar Program, which organized the

Wasserstein’s first book of essays in 10 years is the result
of a “to do” list composed of items left over from when she turned 30. The list
included perennial resolutions: lose weight, exercise, read more, improve
female friendships, improve male friendships and a holdover from a second-grade
to do list: become a better citizen. The more recent additions were: move, fall
in love, decide about a baby.

Each quest and midlife obsession is annotated with
Wasserstein’s well-known gift for prose. Reviewers called her observations humorous
and disarming in their honesty.

“Wendy Wasserstein reveals in inimitably witty fashion the
hard work that underpins her glamorous playwright life — and charts hilariously
her tussles with personal trainers, directors, philistine congressmen and, of
course, her mother…. A remarkable volume of essays, with much wisdom and some
moral outrage detectable in a rollercoaster of theatrical thrills and dietary
spills,” said Flora Fraser, excerpted at the Borzoi Reader, an online
publication of the book’s publisher, Alfred K. Knopf.

At least 200 people are expected at the library, having
already purchased tickets for her previously scheduled appearance last month.
Wasserstein, who was unavailable for an interview, postponed because of
illness. Should demand outstrip the library’s capacity, the venue may be
changed, Katz said.

Within the theater community, Wasserstein is known as a
mentor to other writers and for using her stature in institutions and in
government for arts advocacy.

“Her presence on Broadway gave her a platform that she used
to benefit others more than herself,” said Jerry E. Patch, who years ago
directed a college production of Wasserstein’s first play about her roommates
at Mount Holyoke College, “Uncommon Women and Others.” Patch serves as South
Coast Repertory Theater’s dramaturg.

Her earliest work won accolades for capturing the impact of
the women’s liberation movement on the middle class. “When change happens, it’s
sometimes difficult to chronicle,” Patch said. “Wendy writes plays that are
really insightful and quietly revolutionary. She makes that kind of change

A native of Brooklyn, Wasserstein graduated from Mount
Holyoke and the Yale School of Drama. She wrote a string of successful,
award-winning plays, including “Uncommon Women,” “The Sisters Rosensweig,” “An
American Daughter” and her most recent, “Old Money.”

In an offstage version of life imitating art, Wasserstein is
taking a cue from her famous heroine, Heidi, who became a single parent. At 48,
Wasserstein gave birth to her first child, Lucy Jane, in September 1999.

Patch as well as others suggest that Wasserstein’s work
speaks for a generation of first-wave feminists, who assented to the dogma that
family and career were mutually exclusive. Personally, Wasserstein rejects such

Just listen to her answering machine. A husky voice that
signs off is joined by the squeaky soprano of a child’s voice. They slowly
chant the ABCs in unison.

To purchase tickets or more information, call (949)

A Look Back

When I was 16, my family moved from Santa Monica to Sacramento. I had just finished my first year at Santa Monica High School and had been selected to play drums with the school’s jazz band in the Hollywood Bowl (which I did the night before we moved). I was certainly not looking forward to leaving all my friends behind — and everything I had grown up with — to move to a strange new place where I knew no one. But my dad had a new job, so move we did.

What I could never have known at the time, as I sat glumly in the back seat of my parents car on that long drive to a new, unknown life, was that Sacramento would provide me with some of the greatest experiences of my life. Because I moved to Sacramento, I became very involved with the local synagogue youth group so I could meet new friends and ended up being elected president, going to leadership institutes at Jewish camps in California, and then in New York, and started on the road that led me to become a rabbi.

Because I moved to Sacramento, I found a remarkable drum and percussion teacher, through whom I got my first professional job as a drummer at 16. A year later, I was invited to join the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, where I soon became the youngest principal percussionist in its history. I also had the privilege of performing all over California on tour with Germany’s leading electronic composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and became involved with some of the leading avant-garde composers in America. I remember looking back on the move to Sacramento later in life and saying, “I guess there really was a plan for my life, and I just didn’t know it at the time.”

This week’s Torah portion tells a similar tale about Joseph and his forced relocation to Egypt. Of course in Joseph’s story, his brothers are so jealous that they throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery. After a series of ups and downs, Joseph rises to become second-in-command of all Egypt, and is responsible for saving his country and others from starvation during the great seven-year famine. The famine forces his brothers to seek food in Egypt, where they end up standing in front of Joseph — whom they don’t recognize — and pleading with him for their lives.

In one of the most poignant moments in the Torah, Joseph can’t hold back the emotion that is welling up inside of him and finally reveals himself — to their great shock and fear. In doing so, he tells them what human beings have so often said: “There was a purpose to what happened to me, and none of us knew it at the time.” And in so saying, Joseph extended the hand of forgiveness to his brothers.

But it’s more than that. Joseph, in this passage, did what we humans probably do best. He took the otherwise random experiences of his life, and he created a sense of meaning and purpose out of them. All of us do that. We look back at our experiences with a kind of spiritual 20/20 hindsight, and we choose what those experiences mean.

Joseph is a beautiful model for each of us. Each of us has the chance, over and over in our lives, to transcend difficult experiences of the past and to find a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our relationships, struggles, triumphs and even tragedies. Perhaps that is the real lesson of this portion: that we are not trapped by the past; that we are not doomed to attach only one set of meanings to what happens to us and to the choices that we make.

As you look back over the past year and accept the challenge to find new meanings, perhaps you can forgive those who were the cause of petty hurts and injuries and find a renewed sense of your own vision of who you are and why you are here in the first place.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.