Tuesday, May 16
S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.
5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>
Wednesday, May 17
Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”
Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>
Thursday, May 18
Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.
2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.
Friday, May 19
Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.
8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.
‘Pretty’ Prime Minister?
Who Loves You?
A bright and otherwise articulate second-grader was having night terrors. Well after midnight, she’d awaken screaming hysterically something about death. So her parents brought her to see me, the rabbi.
“I know kids, but I’m not a therapist,” I complained.
“But she trusts you,” they responded.
So I agreed to speak to the child and see what I could do.
“Sounds like you’re really scared at night,” I began.
“Yeah,” she agreed, playing with the knickknacks on my desk.
“Did something happen that made you so scared?” I inquired.
“No, nothing really,” she put me off. Then after a pause, “Well, my dog died.”
I jumped on this, “That’s terrible! Your poor dog died. You must be really sad about that.”
“No,” she parried, “he was really old and really sick and really smelly, and I didn’t like him very much.” And then, “But when he died, I started thinking about my grandma who died.”
Having been put off once, I proceeded more carefully, “And what was that like?”
“Well, I was only 3, so I don’t really remember her very well. But I started thinking that if grandma could die, and grandma was mommy’s mother, well, that means mommy could die. And that made me really scared.”
The knickknacks were set aside, and we were both paying attention now. She was such an open and forthright kid, I thought I’d go a bit further: “What do you think about when you’re so scared?”
“Well, you know, if mommy died, who would take care of me?”
“That is scary.”
“Yeah, that’s what I think about at night and that’s why I start crying.”
Of course you’re crying. At age 7, you’ve discovered the single-most-terrifying element of the human condition and your world is no longer so secure and bright. Of course you’re crying. We’ve all cried those tears. But we know something else about being human. And you know it, too.
“Tell me something, who loves you?”
“That’s a silly question … lots of people love me!”
“Well, mommy and daddy, my grandpa, and my other grandma and grandpa — I call them Nana and Papa, my Uncle Jack — he’s really funny….”
“Wait a second,” I held her back and reached to find a piece of coloring paper and a marker. “Start writing. Make a list of all the people who love you.”
So we started the list again. “Mommy, Daddy, Grandpa, Nana, Papa, Uncle Jack….” Soon the list grew long, including teachers, doctors, babysitters, the lady at the bakery who gave away cookies. Even the rabbi made the list.
“Here’s what I want you to do. Keep this right next to your bed. When you wake up in the middle of the night, and you start thinking those scary thoughts about death, read the list. Read the list of all the people who love you. Read it out loud. Let’s see what happens.”
She read the list every night before bed. And sometimes in the middle of the night. And the night terrors stopped.
This week’s Torah portion gives us the central affirmation of Jewish prayer — “Shema Yisrael.”
Before saying “Shema Yisrael” in the morning, tradition requires that we gather together the tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit. We wrap them around the fingers and hold them close as we affirm our faith.
There are several authoritative interpretations of this custom. But now I have my own, taught to me by this insightful young woman. As we gather the fringes, we gather all those who love us and all those we love into our hands. We gather them into one, as we say the word “echad” — to affirm the oneness that gives us the courage to face all the terrors of being human and continue to live with hope and with faith. The custom is, as well, to elongate the word echad — hold the syllable, ehcaaaaaad — long enough to include them all, all those we love, and all whose love touches us. To feel their collective love is to feel the presence of the One who loves us.
Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and author of “Tough Questions Jews Ask — A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life” (Jewish Lights), which was recognized as a finalist for 2004 Jewish Book Award.
Hearing Is Believing
A Mother’s Wish for Her Daughter’s Day
Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.
I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.
Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.
Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.
I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.
One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.
“What should I say?” she implored.
I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.
Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.
“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)
“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.
“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.
“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.
“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.
“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.
“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.
“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.
“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.
“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”
“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.
Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fourth Bar Mitzvah No Piece of Cake
“Fourth bar mitzvah. This must be easy for you,” my friend Maureen says.
“I’m a loon,” I answer.
“But you’ve already done this three times.”
It doesn’t matter, because I still have to make sure that Danny learns his eight aliyot and his haftarah, writes his d’var Torah, d’var haftarah and personal prayer and fulfills our synagogue’s mitzvah requirements for a Gold Kippah.
It doesn’t matter, because I still have to compile a guest list, pick out invitations, type an address list and deal with delinquent R.S.V.P.s. I still have to find a party venue, decide on decorations, sort through 13 years of photographs for the video montage and order kippot. And I still have to needlepoint a tallit bag and atara (collar) for the tallit.
It doesn’t matter, because each child is different, and each bar mitzvah strikes a different point in our family’s trajectory.
“Every bar mitzvah is the same, and there is none like any other,” Morley Feinstein, our senior rabbi at Los Angeles’ University Synagogue, says.
Seven years ago, with our first bar mitzvah, Larry and I were dealing with a 5-, 7-, 9- and 13-year-old. The biggest challenge was getting the four boys in and out of outfits for the Friday night dinner and service, the Saturday morning bar mitzvah and the evening celebration. And keeping track of 12 pairs of black socks in three different sizes.
Seven years ago, with Danny in kindergarten and Zack just 13, we were bemoaning the loss of our last preschooler and apprehensive about entering the turbulent world of teenagers.
Seven years ago, my father was alive.
Now, Danny can legitimately see a PG-13 movie, and Larry and I qualify for AARP membership. There are no more children, only teens and a post-teen.
“It’s bittersweet,” Larry says.
“No, it bites,” I reply.
And so, refusing to acknowledge this familial tectonic shift, I concentrate on how many tricolor light sticks to order and how to create place cards that resemble bookmarks. I concentrate on buying new towels for the bathroom and new plants for the living room. And I concentrate on finishing the atara.
“I don’t want this bar mitzvah to happen,” I tell Rabbi Feinstein, blinking back tears.
But beyond my distractions and denial, I can see that this rite of passage, which was created in the Middle Ages, has a life and insistence of its own. That this is the natural and ineluctable progression from Danny’s bris, where Larry and I promised to bring him up to a life of Torah and good deeds and, eventually, marriage. And a time when Larry and I will hand down the Torah to our grandchildren.
And beyond my distractions and denial, I can sense something transcendent happening as Danny prepares for his bar mitzvah, which, seemingly contradictorily, celebrates both change and continuity, and which connects Danny to both his ancestors and his descendants.
“What is unique about Judaism is that we mark the beginning of adulthood with acts of learning and acts of loving kindness, rather than some physical activity,” our cantor, Jay Frailich, says.
Indeed, rather than banishing our adolescent to some isolated wilderness, tempting as that sounds, we surround him with family and friends to mark this rite of passage publicly. And with months of preparation, with time to contemplate, question and, in my case, complain, we mark this rite of passage consciously. Danny is not slipping unaware into adolescence, nor Larry and I into immutable middle age.
And so, I begin to think about what I want to say to Danny on the bimah. This child who was born with an innate sense of right and wrong; who can hold his own with three older brothers, actually commanding their respect; who sticks up for other people.
This child who reads sections of three newspapers daily; who loves to debate and watch the Dodgers; who hates George Bush.
This child who became an adamant vegetarian at age 8; who wants to be a litigator, economist or therapist; who loves poker and “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”; who is a world-class worrier.
This child who constantly says, “If I weren’t here, you and dad would have a hole in your heart, and you wouldn’t know why.”
But he is here. And he is becoming a bar mitzvah.
Beyond my tears, I am grateful that Judaism gives us the ritualistic framework to stop and take stock of life’s significant transitions.
Beyond my tears, I am grateful for this son who has filled an unknown hole in my heart. And for this family that nourishes and sustains me, and that now can keep track of all their own socks.
Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino with her husband. She has four sons.
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.
Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step
A Kidney for Chana
Chana Bogatz is 5 years old, and she loves cutting and pasting paper, playing with her brothers and sisters and having “Happy Birthday” sung to her.
In those ways she is a normal child, in other ways, she is not. She has never eaten food through her mouth — only through a feeding tube inserted in her nose. Her hair is long but patchy, and her face is bloated. She is the size of a 3-year-old. She speaks in half-words, not sentences, because she has never been to school, so her vocabulary is underdeveloped. She has spent most of her short life in hospitals. And if she doesn’t find a kidney, she could die.
This month, Chana’s parents, Yehudis and Moredechai Bogatz, launched a citywide appeal to find someone who could donate a kidney to their daughter. Neither of them have the blood type necessary (type O) to make them potential donors, but they are hoping that someone will respond to the “Save Chana” flyers they have hung in shop windows all over the Jewish areas of Los Angeles or the savechana.org Web site they have set up, and be inspired enough to help Chana.
“If she gets a kidney, she is going to have a normal life,” said Yehudis Bogatz, who moved to the United States from Israel four years ago. “She is a very smart kid even though she has had a lot of complications, [but once she has had the transplant] she will be able to go to school and learn and do things.”
Chana is one of the estimated 60,000 people in the United States waiting for a kidney transplant, and one of 14,313 in the Western states. The need for kidneys has doubled in the past 10 years, according to Dr. Robert Metzger, president of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Statistically speaking, two-thirds of those in need will be on the waiting list for two to five years before a matching kidney becomes available on one of the national organ donor databases, like the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). The kidneys registered on these databases generally come from cadavers.
But those wanting to bypass UNOS can attempt to find a living donor. Since a donor’s remaining kidney will perform all kidney functions, there is little risk involved for the donor. There is also a greater chance that the recipient’s body will accept the kidney, because there can be a better tissue match between the living donor and the recipient than there could be between a cadaver and the recipient.
The Bogatzes’ attempt to find Chana a kidney is the latest chapter in her long and difficult medical history. Three weeks after she was born, she was diagnosed with a sole, malfunctioning kidney. She began dialysis when she was 3 months old, but at 10 months, the veins used for dialysis were exhausted and could no longer sustain the treatment. At that point, the Israeli hospitals could do no more for her and, on one day’s notice, the Bogatzes moved with their six children — a seventh has been born since — to Palo Alto, Calif., so that Chana could receive treatment at Stanford Medical Center.
In 2001, she received an infant cadaver donor kidney, which was meant to be a “bridge” until a regular kidney became available. For a short while, the kidney worked, but after a year, it failed and she needed to continue dialysis once again. She was in dialysis for 20 hours a day. But eventually she lost the ability to respond to the dialysis. Last year, the Bogatzes moved to Los Angeles so that Chana could receive treatment at UCLA Medical Center.
Although her life is spent in and out of hospitals, Chana does as best she can. While on dialysis, she takes her scissors and paper and sits quietly amusing herself by cutting. She always pulls up her sleeve to show her doctors her one remaining “good” vein so they can poke it with their needles. She was — and still is — conscious and proud of the feeding tube in her nose, and will run to get either parent to put a new bandage on it if it starts to become loose. She also learned how to adjust the various tubes and catheters going in and out of her body, often surpassing her mother’s knowledge of how to work them.
For the Bogatzes, coping with their daughter’s illness has meant many changes to their lifestyle. In Israel, both Moredechai and Yehudis Bogatz worked as high school teachers. In addition, Yehudis wrote and produced plays for the school she taught at, and wrote a book titled “No Different Than You” (Feldheim) about Yehudis’ sister, Shevi, who died of kidney failure one year before Chana was born.
Both parents have yet to secure gainful employment — Moredechai Bogatz can’t speak English, and even though Yehudis Bogatz did start working as a teacher, the demands on her time ferrying Chana to and from the hospital made regular employment impossible. They live in a two-bedroom house in the Fairfax neighborhood, and rely on the support of organizations like Chai Lifeline and Tomchei Shabbos to meet their needs.
Now the Bogatzes main focus is making a happy home for their children, have them love each other and be proud of Chana. They see the illness as a blessing, and they try to focus and draw strength from positive things.
“When I first heard I had a sick baby, I was crying and crying, but my goal was that my family shouldn’t fall apart,” Yehudis Bogatz said. “So things don’t have to be perfect by me — I don’t care if the house is messy — as long as the kids are happy and Chana is happy, and that we are all together.”
For more information on Chana Bogatz, visit www.savechana.org, or call (800) 728-3254. Suitable donors must be between 18 to 45 years old, have type O blood and be in good health. There is no cost to be screened and donor’s medical expenses will be fully covered.
Rolls of Veterans Groups Dwindling
Turning The Pages of Childhood
"Mommy, will you read to me?"
My 10-year-old daughter asks me this question every night. Even if I’m exhausted, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say yes. Before I turn around, she’ll be 11, then 12, then a teenager.
She will no longer need her reading fix with Mommy. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote back in 1607, when the printed word was still a new invention. I want to make this time with my daughter last.
My husband and I also have three sons who are older than Yael, which means I have clocked 15 solid years of reading aloud to our children. Because we have worked to instill a love for the written word in them, Yael’s requests to have me read to her make me feel that we have succeeded.
I take special delight in being asked to read to a child who has already read on her own for several years. (And her brothers all did the same thing.) Admittedly, if we allowed them to watch TV or play computer games for hours on end, the children may well have preferred to experience some frenetic galactic explosions on the screen to having me read to them. But we didn’t, and we have been rewarded richly for it. Over the years we have enjoyed countless delicious reading experiences together: Roald Dahl’s magical "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; E.B. White’s timelessly charming "Charlotte’s Web"; Beverly Cleary’s series about the irrepressible Ramona and Henry Huggins; and so many more.
I also take particular delight in reading to my children when they are already independent readers because I missed this kind of quiet growing up. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from one bedroom where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. We watched others live imaginary lives more than we talked about our own real ones, and sat passively more than we engaged with one another.
I’m secretly happy that my kids complain — not about wanting to watch TV — but about a lack of books in the house. This, despite the groaning weight of books, often double-stacked, on every inch of bookshelf space we have in every room in the house. Their reading appetites are insatiable. Even when I read to Yael, one or two of her older brothers sometimes drift in to the room and take a seat. After all, who could resist this exchange between Charlotte and Wilbur — no doubt the most endearing spider and pig to ever grace the pages of a children’s book:
"Why did you do all this for me?" Wilbur asked. "I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you."
"You have been my friend," Charlotte replied. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."
Who could ever tire of reading exquisite children’s writing like this, with elegant philosophy thrown in?
My husband and I may have fostered our kids’ love of the written word by reading to them when they were small, but they have continued to develop the passion on their own. Sure, it may partly owe to a Nintendo-deprived existence, but so what? In learning to love to read, they have also learned to love learning for its own sake. They have made this gift their own, and it will enhance their lives for as long as God grants them time on this earth.
As much as their reading thrills me, sometimes, even I have to pry their faces out from behind of a book. Even reading, taken to extremes, can become an isolating activity. I can’t always stop them from reading in the car, under the kitchen table, in the bathroom and, of course, under the blanket late at night, but there are a lot worse problems a parent can have.
When our kids are all grown up, I hope that their memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or in bed, will be among the most meaningful of their childhoods. I know that they already are for me. If I’m lucky, Yael will continue to ask me to read to her for many chapters yet to come.
Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.
Give Your Kid a Hug — a Paper One
Open your lunch box. Peek inside. Surprise! Mom scribbled you a note and drew you a little picture showing you she cares.
As a little girl, Michelle Krouss used to open her brown paper bag to find a little note with a smiley face from her mother, brightening up her day. Now the Jewish mother of two, Krouss created Paper-Hugs, a napkin decorating kit complete with soy crayons and fun stickers for parents who want to start the tradition with their kids.
“Parents work really hard today,” Krouss said. “This is a nice way for parents to connect in the middle of the day, giving their child a hug when they are not with them.”
When her son was in preschool and had a hard time separating from his mommy, Krouss remembers buying generic stickers and decorating napkins for her son to take to school. The comforting notes eased the separation, and that’s when she decided to develop Paper-Hugs for other parents.
Krouss created the concept and recruited her partner, Susan Conwiser, to handle the financials.
Working with a graphic designer, they fashioned creative stickers with messages and notes like, “We’re having your favorite tonight” and “You mean the world to me.” The sticker booklet also has words of encouragement and reminders like, “Good luck on your test” and “Return library book.”
The kit includes 40 bordered napkins, three crayons and 80 colorful stickers to personalize and send along with your kids a few times a week for up to three months.
With the school kit taking off, Krouss and Conwiser are in the process of developing decorating kits for grandparents and a camp kit for summers.
Krouss’ son, now 9, still gets a Paper-Hug in his lunch box a few times a week. “Don’t do it everyday,” warned his mother, “that way, they are not expecting it.”
Not embarrassed by his mother’s love, her son will read them and tuck them back into his bag and bring it home to mom. “He’ll throw away everything but that napkin,” Krouss said, “and that means a lot.”
With Mother’s Day coming up, a Paper-Hug kit makes a great gift for mom from the younger kids in the family. “It’s different. It’s not a piece of jewelry; it’s something you are giving back to your child,” Krouss said.
Paper-Hugs. $12.95. For purchase and/or more
information, go to
New UJ ‘Tradition’ Starts
Donor Pool Swim
Few days have haunted me like April 15, 2002. It was the day Time magazine screamed out from its cover that women cannot have it all.
Like a slap to the face, the writer reported that the biological odds are against getting pregnant after 35 and that stories of women conceiving into their 40s are anomalies, and nothing more.
I was approaching 33 and panicked. My biggest fear was becoming one of those women who troll the Bay Area’s Jewish singles scene, frantically searching for a husband. So I visited my doctor.
Dr. Silvia Yuen strode into her Sutter Street examination room.
"How are you today?" she asked.
"OK," I began, "but I read that Time magazine article."
"Yeah, so what I’d like to do is freeze some of my eggs."
I wanted insurance that my biological clock wouldn’t blur my dating judgment. Putting eggs on layaway would take off the pressure, I told her.
She offered me a fertility clinic brochure, but cautioned that while the freezing and thawing out of sperm had been perfected, the science wasn’t yet there for women and their eggs. Frozen embryos were the best bet, she said, but they’d require committing to a sperm — a step I wasn’t ready to take.
But the discussion got me thinking. How is a woman supposed to choose the right man when he’s reduced to a Petri dish?
My good friend, I’ll call her Beth, had to find out. After trying to get pregnant for more than a year, she and her husband learned that he’s shooting blanks. They mulled over their options and turned to California Cryobank (CCB), the mothership of sperm banks. Around for more than 25 years, CCB is spreading its seeds in all 50 states and at least 30 countries worldwide.
Agreeing on a donor was trying, Beth admitted: "We thought we’d found the perfect one, but when we pulled up his baby photo, he looked like a frog!"
Then there were those her husband rejected.
"I found one who was great, but he said he was too tall," she said. "I’m thinking about the best donor to help us have a child, and he views the sperm as competition."
Beth waved me over to her computer, selected a file named "Little Swimmers," and introduced me to their chosen sperm: Donor 5378.
I asked how she honed in on 5378, and she navigated to the donor catalog. Up top it read, "Click here to view our list of donors with at least one Jewish ancestor."
There were only 13 choices, and 5378 was off the menu, sold out.
Later, I called CCB. I wanted to know about the demand for Jewish sperm, why there’d been such a run on 5378.
"People choose on all different criteria," said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing. "It’s almost the same as what they encounter when looking for a mate."
High demand for Jewish donors, she said, prompted CCB to create the special search field Beth had used.
But how Jewish can a sperm be? I appreciate wanting a compatible gene pool, but it’s not like the little swimmer comes equipped with Torah knowledge or understanding of Jewish mothers and good deli. If halacha says a baby born to a Jewish woman is Jewish, does the donor’s background matter?
For Beth and her husband, it did.
"The spirituality and values of the Jewish culture is so much of who I am and who [he] is," she said. "Knowing that the sperm was Jewish … made us feel like we were connected."
This approach is common for Reform Jews like Beth, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of bioethics at the University of Judaism. But in the Orthodox community, he said, the opposite is true.
Based on a 1950s decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, non-Jewish donors are recommended to prevent incest and to protect against Jewish genetic diseases.
Beth felt safe knowing sperm at CCB is genetically screened.
I caught up with Dr. Cappy Rothmann, the co-founder and medical director of CCB, to see what he made of my sperm-shopping query.
"I don’t understand. I just try to help the best I can."
He asked about my interest in this topic, and I admitted my age. Before saying goodbye, he offered, "Next time you’re in L.A., come see me."
I hung up the phone, hoping I’d never have to.
Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s degree in journalism at UC
Berkeley. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
Sex in the Holy City
Funding Our Jewish Future
Imagine a world in which every newborn child receives a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a free trip to Israel.
That’s what philanthropist Michael Steinhardt asked 4,000 delegates to the North American Jewish federation system’s General Assembly to consider earlier this month.
The "Newborn Gift" would be part of an overall investment in strengthening Jewish education that Steinhardt is proposing. He told delegates that he was willing to contribute $10 million to the project, which he called the Fund for Our Jewish Future — on condition that his contribution represent no more than 10 percent of the total fund.
In other words, the former Wall Street tycoon was challenging the audience to raise at least $90 million for Jewish education in the Diaspora.
Many in the room found Steinhardt’s speech groundbreaking — and highly relevant.
Chip Koplin of Macon, Ga., said the speech gave him the chills. Koplin said that of all his experiences at this year’s General Assembly — his first time in Israel — Steinhardt’s speech "is going to have the most profound effect on me."
"As an American challenged with the struggles of a small, Southern Jewish community" trying to sustain Jewish identity, Koplin said he could relate to the speech.
The speech came as federations struggle to fund their local and overseas needs amid flat campaigns. Still, federation leaders didn’t appear to worry that Steinhardt’s appeal would undermine their own efforts.
"He made the speech to a convention of North American federations, so clearly he is looking" to partner with them, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In fact, the federation system encourages such visionary ideas, Solomon said.
Steinhardt said the proposal is a response to decreasing Jewish identification among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.
Steinhardt mustered a litany of statistics to prove his point. Some 49 percent of American Jews identify as secular; only 20 percent give to Jewish causes, down from a post-World War II period when half the community gave to Jewish causes; and the number of American Jews is dwindling, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Steinhardt said.
"This part of the Diaspora community — its majority — is in crisis," Steinhardt said. While most Jewish activists focus on threats to Israel, in some respects the Diaspora is "far more vulnerable," he said.
"We don’t know enough about our religion to take true pride in it. We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," Steinhardt said.
He also bemoaned what he called a glaring lack of Jewish leadership and innovative ideas.
By contrast, he pointed to the birthright israel program, which offers free trips to 18-26-year-olds who have never been on a peer trip to Israel. Steinhardt is one of the program’s major funders.
"Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life," he said. However, "the future of the program is tenuous — not because there are no young people who want to partake of this venture," but "simply because there’s not enough money to pay for them."
While the federation system raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israel Emergency Campaign, it has difficulty raising "a fraction of that amount" for birthright, Steinhardt said.
Steinhardt called for a "Jewish renaissance for our young people." He said his agenda would focus on the "centrality of Israel for the Jewish soul," the "pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood," encouragement of vibrant rabbis, the principle of charity and the "imperative of a Jewish education."
"Our survival depends on the next generation being educated," Steinhardt said.
The audience, which buzzed with electrified chatter after the speech, seemed to feel the same way. Many rushed the stage to shake Steinhardt’s hand.
Passing out flyers outside the auditorium, Jewish students stated that they would raise $500,000 for Steinhardt’s proposed fund.
Federation leaders largely praised the initiative but noted that the challenge is significant. They rejected the idea that the appeal might undermine their own fund-raising efforts.
Robert Schrayer, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, sounded a note of optimism.
"Can he do it? Yeah, I think there’s a large amount of money available in the American Jewish community for a cause like this," Schrayer said.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised the effort but took a wait-and-see approach.
"We need to have more details" on what such a plan would entail before commenting on its chances for success, Ruskay said.
As far as Steinhardt is concerned, the project is an imperative.
"The Jewish future of our children" is at stake, he said. "We owe our children nothing less."
Tzedakah With Toys
Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families
Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.
Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.
"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.
"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."
Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.
She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."
As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.
"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."
Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."
Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.
"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.
"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."
Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."
Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."
Facing the Holidays Without a Mate
Mind, Body and Soul
What do women want? Happiness, family and to shed those last 10 pounds. Women can learn how to accomplish all this and more at an educational conference produced by women and designed to meet the needs and wants of women.
"Exercising Your Mind; Minding Your Body," the fourth annual Women’s Community Conference, offers Southern California women a unique learning experience. A joint effort of the Hadassah Southern California Northern Area and the University of Judaism (UJ) department of continuing education, the daylong event on Sunday, March 10, aims to expand women’s spiritual and physical knowledge. Speakers, ranging from UCLA professors and Los Angeles-area rabbis to pediatricians and clinical psychologists, will tackle topics such as "The Women’s Revolution in Judaism," "What Color Is Your Diet?" and "Families and Other Unusual Life Forms."
"We want to explore health and spiritual topics that are meaningful to today’s Southern California women," said Roz Kantor, Northern Area chairperson. The conference is for women of all ages, from all Jewish movements and also non-Jewish women.
The more than 5,000 Hadassah Southern California Northern Area group members range from newlyweds in their late 20s to grandmothers in their late 80s. To accommodate the interests of all the women, the conference will present insights into all stages of a woman’s life. A new mother may be interested in seminars like "Using the Jewish Tradition to Raise Caring Kids" and "The Challenge of Raising a Challenged Child," while a mother of grown children may be drawn to "Midlife Challenges Not Midlife Crises" and "This Can’t Possibly Be My Life."
The conference not only will explore the different stages of a woman’s life, but also the different elements. Seminars will cover a woman’s mind, body and soul.
"We have something for everyone. Talks on diet and nutrition, women of the Torah, Israeli politics, stem cell research and even herbal medicine," said Debbie Kessler, the Women’s Community Conference co-chair. "Since its inception four years ago, the conference has aimed to educate women on multiple aspects of their lives."
The international Hadassah organization, over 300,000 strong, started as a women’s study group in 1912 and contributes much of its funds to Jerusalem’s Hadassah College of Technology. And so, the leaders of the Northern Area Chapter, felt it only appropriate to create an event dedicated to self-education.
"Since education is a cornerstone of our organization, it seemed fitting to start an educational day — a day for women to come together and learn," Kantor said.
To further enhance the day’s educational component, Hadassah invited the UJ to co-sponsor the event. "UJ is a renown Jewish educational institution right here in our area, and it made sense to join forces with them," Kantor said.
The UJ also saw the cooperation as an easy match. "Our mission is to provide a multitude of opportunities that enrich the lives of various segments of the population. To work with a group such as Hadassah was not only a pleasure, but a true fulfillment of this mission," said Gady Levy, UJ continuing education dean.
Levy emphasized the university’s excitement over the joint venture. "The conference provides our community with such a meaningful day of education, and the caliber of this program is something we’re very proud of," Levy said.
The UJ not only lends the conference academic prowess, but physical facilities. In past years, the conference was limited to 175 attendees, but this year’s university campus venue enables the conference to increase to 300 participants. "The event just keeps getting better and bigger. We have so many women who return every year, and now we can accommodate both returning and first-time attendees," Kessler said.
The 300 women will begin their day with a kosher continental breakfast, attend one of four morning seminars, have a kosher box lunch and then choose one of four afternoon seminars. The conference also features three keynote speakers (at the start, middle and end of the day), as well as a book sale and signing.
"Hadassah is a dynamic, 90-year-young organization, and we welcome and encourage all women to come to the conference and be a part of us," Kantor said.
The conference will run from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air, and is open to everyone.
Registration is $40. Same day walk-up attendees may attend on a space-available basis, and sign-language interpreters will be provided. For more information, contact Hadassah Southern California Northern Area at (818)783-3488.
Bundles of Joy
The stork has been awfully busy lately.
It seems as though everyone I know is having a baby. A couple I haven’t heard from in months sent a postcard with a picture of what I thought was a Sharpei puppy — it turns out the little boy’s name is Jesse. I didn’t even know they were expecting.
Of course, in the bargain, I’ve lost all my friends. They’re no fun any more. They’re very busy doing not very much. They can’t go anywhere, especially if they’ve got more than one child. When they do get out of the house it’s all they can talk about and, honestly, there isn’t that much to say about a little baby. You see these people with the 1,000-yard stare at Blockbuster, returning the overdue videos they haven’t had time to watch, despite the fact they’ve been home every night for months.
I’ve been to visit a lot of these babies. I don’t understand how The Gap can be in a sales slump with all the baby gifts I’m buying. If you’re not one of the parents, there’s not much for you to do. You look the kid over, rain praise on its incredible good looks, hold it long enough until it emits some vile fluid or hurts itself, and then you hand it back to its owner to mop up. It’s like a slow, sloppy game of “hot potato.”
A visit to a newborn should take an hour at most, by the end of which time you will have determined if the child looks more like the mother, the father, Winston Churchill or Lyndon Johnson. That important business concluded, you’re free to leave these people behind and do whatever you want. Going to “see the baby” is a lot like going to see a convicted felon.
I have a single friend named Gina, who is determined to have a child in the next year. Gina has also decided that she doesn’t need a man’s help in getting the job done. Not much, anyway. She’s come to the conclusion that, at age 35 with no “significant other” in her life, she’ll get the baby thing out of her system so she can get on with her life. She doesn’t want the pressure of having to rope some guy, get married and then hurry up to have a child. She reasons that men run from the scent of desperation, and maybe she’s right. You might argue that two parents are better than one, but where’s poppa when you need him? She’s got a gay donor-daddy and an eminent fertility doctor — and they’ll do just as well in a pinch.
I’ve heard stories from the old days about young women getting pregnant and leaving town, going to stay with a relative until the baby was born. There was a time when being a single mother was a shonda. Not now. At some point, having the fellow around is basically a nuisance. Meanwhile, Gina’s family has rallied around her with unbridled support, beaming grandparents-to-be waiting for the fatherless child.
So here’s the rub: I want a child. My biological daddy clock is happily ticking away with no sign of wearing out. The warranty is still good for another several years, but suddenly the snooze alarm is broken. I’m not exactly hanging around schoolyards getting all misty, but the idea is getting more and more appealing to me. I’d prefer one that already walks and talks, but I understand they don’t come that way direct from the factory.
Now I want diapers and runny noses and little, bitty clothes and brightly colored toys and big books by Dr. Seuss and one of those walker things in the kitchen. I want to get woken up at ungodly hours and struggle with a baby seat, and I want to call a pediatrician “just to be safe.” I also want my friends back. None of their behavior will seem nearly as odd when I’m in the same boat with them.
Incredibly, it seems, I’m going to have to get a woman involved somewhere in the process. I feel like Frank Sinatra in my best pressed tweeds: All I really need is the girl.
J.D. Smith is expecting @ www.lifesentence.net.
Self-Improvement for Dummies
Leading With His Left
Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman’s art-filled home on a quiet, verdant Brentwood street is a world away from the gritty industrial world in which he lived as a child during the Depression and again as a young man on the cusp of World War II. But it’s his experiences in that world of assembly-line workers that led him to the rabbinate and to his 52 years in Los Angeles.
Leo Baeck Temple will honor the man who became its first full-time rabbi in 1949 at Friday night services May 4, celebrating Beerman’s 80 years of life and his boundless commitment to social justice and liberal Judaism.
"We grew up together," Beerman said of the Reform synagogue, which had been founded the year before he arrived, newly ordained, from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It was the only congregation he served during the 37 years before his retirement in 1986.
Beerman was outspoken on issues such as civil rights, workers’ rights, the war in Vietnam and Mideast conflict. "Our synagogue became known as a place where these issues were engaged and openly discussed," inviting speakers that included Daniel Ellsberg and Cesar Chavez, Beerman said.
Under his leadership, the temple radiated "a wholesome atmosphere of ideas," he said. "Not everyone agreed with my views, but I think we established a relationship of basic trust."
"He was speaking against the Vietnam War before I even knew what the Vietnam War was," said John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up at Leo Baeck. When Rosove took positions that could be controversial, he said, "I knew [Rabbi Beerman] had stuck his neck out long before I did."
Beerman said his Jewish identity was "nurtured by my experiences, being a child of the Depression, seeing my father cut down by the Depression." He was also a witness to the struggle of local workers to unionize and improve their lot in life, and he came to see being a Jew as carrying a responsibility "to enhance life for the least of God’s children as well as the greatest."
Beerman spent most of his childhood in Owosso, Mich., about 20 miles west of Flint; his was one of seven Jewish families in town. Owosso had an active Ku Klux Klan — black folks couldn’t stay in town overnight — and, growing up, Beerman heard the occasional anti-Jewish epithet or remark.
But, he said, "growing up in a small town was a magical experience…. You felt yourself embraced, part of a definable community."
In 1941, several months before Pearl Harbor, Beerman took a break from his studies at Pennsylvania State University and returned to Michigan to work in an auto-parts factory that had been retooled to produce machine guns. That’s where he met up with a more virulent anti-Semitism: Some co-workers with whom he’d become friends dropped him when he mentioned that he was Jewish, and as word got out, other workers picked fights with him. "It was the experience of anti-Semitism that prompted me to think about the rabbinate as a place for me, because [prejudice] deprived me of this circle of friends," Beerman said in a television interview.
Curious about what caused hatred against Jews, Beerman began to read through the books on Jewish history and philosophy in the local public library; this research, in turn, sparked a desire for more formal Jewish study.
The current situation in Israel causes him great pain. "I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive to the rights of the Palestinians, [but] I have always believed that Israel accepted a basic contract, and the basic condition of that contract was that this land was meant to be shared," he said, calling Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories "destructive of the values that had gone into the making of Israel."
Nor does he sound particularly optimistic about how the conflicts will be resolved. "It’s tragic what these two peoples feel compelled to do to one another," he said. "It brings out the worst excesses of nationalist thinking on both sides. The only thing to hope for is that something is happening that none of us knows about."
But only an optimist signs up for as many causes as Beerman does. He’s involved with Jewish and interfaith organizations opposing the death penalty and supporting sweatshop workers, the anti-nuclear movement, medical ethics — and peace in the Middle East. He protested the Persian Gulf War and has fought for affordable housing and protection for the homeless.
Sanford Ragins, who was Beerman’s associate rabbi during the tumultuous 1960s and is now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck, told The Journal that Beerman’s passions informed Ragins’ own activism. "He knew Judaism was not something you kept locked up in the ark," Ragins said.
"At an early age, I remember being spellbound by his sermonizing," said Rabbi Carla Howard, who grew up at Leo Baeck and currently serves Metivta, a Jewish contemplative center on the Westside. "I was coming of age in the late ’60s, in the middle of this cultural explosion of values, and he was a voice that helped shape my values."
Beerman has known tragedy during his later years, having lost his first wife just after his retirement and an 8-year-old granddaughter to a sudden, undiagnosed ailment. But he says he looks forward to each new day with his second wife, Joan, and his children and grandchildren, with whom he regularly shares Shabbat.
And he still inspires congregations. "He is a rabbi’s rabbi," Rosove said. "[Listeners] melt under his words, even when they don’t agree with everything he says, because he speaks from a deep, prophetic place."
Leo Baeck Temple will honor Rabbi Leonard Beerman at services May 4, 7:30 p.m., 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.
Walk down Main Street and you’ll find an international corner market teeming with ethnic delights. Ring the doorbell on the house next door and you’ll find yourself invited into a cozy Jewish home — family pictures and menorah on the shelves; Shabbat candles and a tzedakah box atop the dresser. Further down the block is Bubbe’s Bookstore, filled with children’s books and a puppet theater. For spiritual nourishment, there’s the synagogue down the block. And if you’re hungry for nourishment of a more literal kind, across the street stands the Blue Bagel Cafe, where you can chow down some lunch — falafel, pizza, even some sushi. Or, hey, take it to go and picnic underneath the giant oak tree down the street.
What’s incredible about this Jewish-themed boulevard is that it is not located in the Fairfax District or the Pico-Robertson area, but indoors at the Zimmer Children’s Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. And it’s all pretend, built to scale for your kids.
The detail is meticulous. For example, inside the Blue Bagel, a restaurant atmosphere is simulated down to the autographed pictures lining the white wall (in this case, children’s entertainers Craig Taubman, the Alef Bet puppets, etc.).
Since the museum (formerly My Jewish Discovery Place Children’s Museum) opened nearly a decade ago, both museum executive director Esther Netter and director Sherri Kadovitz have been instrumental in shaping its vision. Over time, it has switched venues and steadily expanded to suit community demand, from 600 square feet to 2,300 square feet to its current two-tiered 10,000-square-foot area inside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 6505 Wilshire headquarters. The museum’s latest and greatest incarnation was made possible by a $2 million grant from the Max and Pauline Zimmer Family Foundation, as well as support from other donors.
Child-friendly environments aside, the museum has also housed wonderful memories over the years. Kadovitz literally cried on the phone as she recalled, “I’ve had a wonderful opportunity in the [past] 10 years to meet a lot of people and to be exposed to new people, and that has totally filled my life. That’s really special to me. It’s really changed in scope. Apart from the size, I’ve been given such a creative license to bring exhibits to life, to make people aware of Ethiopian culture, Yiddish culture.”
As Netter showed a visitor around the museum, she was excited about the new facilities. At the Mann Theater, with a variety of costumes and backdrops, a child can play superhero or pretend to be an immigrant passing through Ellis Island or a cruise passenger aboard Noah’s Ark. And then there is the Giant Tzedakah Pinball. It took four people to build this behemoth — a Pachinko-style contraption, adorned with colorful zig-zags of neon, that is so large it scales both floors. The three puck-like discs that trickle down the pinball machine’s obstacle course bear the face of a coin, a timepiece and a mirrored surface — symbolizing the three ways one can give back to the community: contributing money, time and yourself. Discs fall into categories slugged “clothing the homeless” and “saving the environment.”
The idea, Netter said, is to underscore that “being part of a community comes with the responsibility of taking care of each other.”
The Journal recently reported on the museum’s YouTHink program, co-sponsored by the Center for American Studies and Culture. Netter is very proud of this program, and at the student art space — which changes quarterly — artwork examines some themes YouTHink tackles: drug abuse, divorce, racial tolerance.
Netter said she views the museum as “a magical way to teach children and families Jewish values. The way it’s grown has been perfect. We started out small and mastered that level. Now we’re ready to grow.”
That growth means that there is no time for Netter and the museum’s board of directors to rest on their laurels. They are currently working on fundraising strategies to maintain the museum and keep its components fresh and innovative. Part of the plan is to keep the museum organic and improve the exhibits based on community feedback. One upcoming exhibit that has The Jewish Journal giddy is a section of Main Street, due in April, that will recreate our offices and allow children to simulate putting out a community newspaper. Computers will allow children to print up their own front-page headlines and contribute ideas to The Journal.
Jean Friedman, a founding chairperson, believes the museum will benefit people outside the community as much as those within it.
“We are an outreach to the non-Jewish community to demystify what a Jew is,” said Friedman, who found it important to make the museum accessible and relevant on different levels.
“I was very interested in connecting every exhibit that we had with a value and a meaning, not just entertaining but educational, with content of lasting value,” Friedman said.
As for Kadovitz, she is looking forward to watching the museum flourish. “Just to see the joy on the kids’ faces when they come through — that to me is one of the most special parts of this museum,” she said.
The new Zimmer Children’s Museum is already off to a great start. School-group visits have been booked through the summer, and birthday parties are already scheduled for next year. On Sun., Feb. 4, the museum will throw a community-wide opening free to the public, and in the weeks to come will host a diversity of Jewish-themed, family-oriented programs and workshops. Sure, the opening will show off the brand-new facilities, but for Netter and staff, there’s another dimension to the festivities — a feeling that the museum, after several venue changes, has finally arrived.
“We’re home,” Netter said softly. “We’re finally home.”
The Zimmer Children’s Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will hold its grand opening on Sun., Feb. 4, from 12-5 p.m. For more information on the opening, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8991; for general information such as directions and museum hours, call (323) 761-8989.
Changing Lives, Making Peace
Illustration from “Painting with Passion,” 1994. Photo-illustration by Carvin Knowles
Losing My Religion
My husband and I have decided to get a divorce, and we have amicably worked everything out — finances, custody, etc. What has become acrimonious and ugly are our religious differences in raising our child, age 5. I am Jewish, and my husband is Christian, but neither of us ever took religion seriously until we had our child. We used to think that when the child got old enough, he would decide for himself.
How do we do this? We are fighting all the time. Can you tell us who, other than our attorneys, can impartially guide us. We each want the child to follow our own faith. Help!
One cannot be a Jew on Saturdays and Yom Kippur, and a Christian on Sundays and Christmas. Yet this is undoubtedly how it will play for your son after the divorce. So, although a mediator, family counselor or both may be able to “impartially” guide you, no matter what is decided, odds are that no one will be satisfied with the outcome because this is a question of fundamental identity and values, which, unlike time or money, may not simply be sliced in half. No one is going to win this one, but if you make this a contest, the biggest loser will be your son.
Place the focus upon your child, who is about to suffer a great loss and be forced to endure some difficult changes. The question is not about whether he will be Jewish or Christian, but, rather, how both parents may provide religious environments that are warm, informative and, above all, respectful enough to not engender turmoil, guilt or confusion.
Perhaps the simple truth is best for now: “Mom is Jewish, and Dad is Christian. You will learn a great deal about both religions as you grow up in each of our homes. When you are an adult, you will decide upon your religion, and we both will respect whatever you choose.” In other words, you probably have no choice but to
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