Martin Finkelstein with his twins, Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes (left) and Harrison Finkelstein-Hynes, in 2003. Photo courtesy of Martin Finkelstein

Uh, Papa, we have big news … we’re straight


do my most important parenting in the car — often not by choice. Living in Los Angeles, the car is simply the best place to talk.

The snack-covered leather seats of my black Honda Civic have been the scenes of multiple conversations with my twin children that I’ll remember forever. Like when my daughter, Juliette, then age 3, announced to my brother, as we picked him up from the airport, that she recently made a poo poo on the potty and demanded some sort of payment — or at least recognition from her uncle.

Or a year later, when that same daughter decided she wanted to convert and announced that she would like to be Christian because they celebrate “Eastern” and “Eastern” has better candy than Passover! I still remember her words ringing in my ears: “Eastern is better than Passover!” I tried my hardest to defend my position, but when it comes to candy … “Eastern” sort of wins.

And that was the easy stuff. These sun-scorched seats also witnessed some tougher conversations, like when Juliette asked, through tears: “Why does our teacher keep saying that we are adopted when we are not? I tell her every day I’m not adopted! I have two dads and they had a surrogate in order to bring me and my brother into this world.”

Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I imagine that it would be in this same car that my children — both of them — would come out to me! We were on Olympic Boulevard on the way to the Fish Grill, and they were 9 or 10 at the time.

How can this be happening, I thought? It took me until I was 21 to have enough courage to come out to my parents. I planned and rehearsed it for years. I was already a college graduate, and yet my kids are doing it before middle school (and on the way to the Fish Grill).

Truth be told, I never dreamed that this conversation would happen in the first place. As a gay dad, I was not prepared. Sitting behind the steering wheel, I started to understand how my parents must have felt. No one teaches you how to be a good audience when your kids give you life-changing news.

Plus, what are the chances that two kids with gay dads would feel the need to come out to their parents? I always swore that I would never let my son and daughter go through what I did: the secrets, the fear, the confusion, the feeling of letting down the rest of the family. I came out before “Will & Grace,” and doing that in the Reagan years was not easy or fun. 

So you can imagine how fast my heart began beating after Juliette, speaking for both herself and her brother, Harrison, apologized for their sexual orientation. In the backseat of our Honda Civic. On the way to Fish Grill. At age 9.

“Papa, you know Harry and me are straight … right?” 

Silence.

I tried not to crash the car. Looking back in the rearview mirror, I tried to see her eyes. Could this really be happening? My thoughts were going a mile a minute: How does she even know? She’s so young. Why is her brother not saying anything?

Neither of them could look at me. I could see they felt bad, like they let us down. As parents, we could not care less, but the more I told them that it was OK, the sadder they seemed and the more they felt they needed to explain.

Finally, I said the words that every child wants to hear, the ones that I’ve learned are so important to hear any day and every day. (I heard similar words when I came out at 21.)

“Daddy and Papa love you guys no matter what.”

This is sort of the Golden Rule of fatherhood, right? All the rest is commentary.

We continued: “We never assumed you would be gay just because we are. Nor do we care. We just want you to be happy.”

Just make sure your Auntie Vera in Boca doesn’t find out that you’re straight!  


Martin Finkelstein is executive director of advertising at the Jewish Journal and the father of two teenagers, Juliette and Harrison.

Not So Fast


We live in a world that values achievement, excellence, hard work, and success. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, I wish them on us all – on our synagogues and our schools, on ourselves and our children as well.

But the problem is, the message many of our kids hear is that excellence, achievement, and success are the only things that matter in this world. And this is a terrible message for our kids. It’s a message that leads to expectations that can result in a lot of stress and a lot of suffering for our children. Kids who internalize this message end up “doing school” instead of learning. And then, ultimately, they become adults who end up “doing life” instead of living.

The irony of it all is that the system that we’ve constructed to push our children to become successful achievers sometimes causes more harm than good. Study after study demonstrates this. One example is early reading programs. Forcing reading when kids aren't ready can dampen their enthusiasm for literature and even negatively affect the way they think about school itself. Hurrying kids to read before they are developmentally ready won’t make them more successful readers – or students or scholars – down the road.

If we really want to do our kids a favor, if we really want to give them a “leg-up”, we need to give them what they need most of all. And what is that? According to Dr. David Elkind, author of the now-classic book on this subject, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, what kids need most “is a healthy sense that the world is a safe place, that their needs will be met, and that they will be cared for and protected by the grown-ups in their world.”

So what does it mean for us to ensure that the needs of our children are met?

According to our tradition, meeting the basic needs of our children includes providing not just food and clothing, but also a proper education. Torah study is a given. Some sages add that we should teach our children how to swim. Another says that we must teach them a craft.

But as important as learning is, our tradition understands that it must not be rushed: “Rav said to Rabbi Shmuel ben Shilat: ‘Do not accept pupils who are less than six years old…’” (Bava Batra 21a) The message: don’t hurry. For millennia our people, no slouches when it comes to learning and achievement, have waited until a child was five or six to start formal education. And our sages understood that a child should only be introduced to more difficult subjects like mishna and Talmud, when he is ten or fifteen years old.

But one of the most profound lessons about parenting comes in a rather unlikely place. In tractate Yoma, the part of the mishna that details the laws, customs, and meaning of the sacred day of Yom Kippur, we learn:

“Do not make children fast on the Day of Atonement. However, they should be trained the year before or two years before so that they become accustomed to the observance of the commandments.” (Yoma 8:4)

It seems obvious. Toddlers should not be required to undergo a 25 hour fast. It would be harmful to their health and of little value to them spiritually as they would not be able to understand the significance of the activity. When they are older, 11 or 12, they can prepare for adult responsibilities by eating a few hours later than usual. Once they become bar or bat mitzvah, they are required to fast like other Jewish adults. But until that time, they are k’tanim, they are minors and are not required to behave as adults behave. The Hebrew of the mishna is suggestive. It uses the term tinokot, babies, as if to remind us that, in the eyes of Jewish law, a seven year old is still a baby. Just as babies must be protected and nurtured, so too must young adolescents.

And this principle is extended to the post-b’nai mitzvah kids who still live in our homes. As long as they sleep under our roof, our tradition considers them our wards. We are still required to protect them and watch over them.

It is a mitzvah to provide our children with a fantastic education. And it’s an equally (and actually not mutually exclusive) great mitzvah to let our kids be kids. They should play like children and act like children, and dress like children. We protect our kids best when we ensure that their childhoods, their birthright, are not taken from them.


Rabbi Zweiback is a lecturer at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem . He is also the volunteer Executive Director and Founder of Kavod, a non-profit tzedakah collective which is dedicated to protecting human dignity.  Rabbi Zweiback is also Senior Rabbi-Elect for Stephen Wise Temple

MICHAEL JACKSON: Memories of my Childhood


This column originally appeared in OLAM Magazine, a journal of Jewish spirituality.  Reprinted here with permission of the editor, David Suissa. To read David Suissa’s reflection on meeting Jackson, click here.

When I look back on my childhood, it is not an idyllic landscape of memories. My relationship with my father was strained, and my childhood was an emotionally difficult time for me. I began performing when I was five years old, and my father – a tough man – pushed my brothers and me hard, from the earliest age, to be the best performers we could be.

Although we all worked hard to perform, he never really complimented me. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he didn’t say anything at all. He seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. And at that he was more than adept. My father was a managerial genius, and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way he pushed us. He trained me as a showman, and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step.

Those of you who are familiar with the Jackson Five know that since I began performing at that tender age I haven’t stopped dancing or singing. But while performing and making music undoubtedly remain among my greatest joys, when I was young I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy. I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights and play hide-n-seek with my friends. But fate had it otherwise, and all I could do was envy the laughter and playtime that seemed to be going on all around me.

There was no respite from my professional life. But on Sundays I would go “Pioneering”, the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah’s Witnesses do. It was then that I was able to see the magic of other people’s childhood.

Since I was already a celebrity, I had to don a disguise of fat suit, wig, beard and glasses, and we would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door-to-door or making the rounds of shopping malls, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I loved to set foot in all those regular suburban houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs, kids playing Monopoly and grandmas babysitting and all those wonderful, ordinary and starry scenes of everyday life. Many, I know, would argue that these things are no big deal. But to me they were mesmerizing – because they symbolized, to me, a home life that I seemed to be missing.

My father was not openly affectionate with us, but he would show his love in different ways. I remember once when I was about four years old, we were at a little carnival and he picked me up and put me on a pony. It was a tiny gesture, probably something he forgot five minutes later. But because of that one moment, I have this special place in my heart for him. Because that’s how kids are, the little things mean so much to them and for me, that one moment meant everything. It was a gesture that showed his caring, and his love. I only experienced it that one time, but it made me feel really good, about him and the world.

And I have other memories too, of other gestures, however imperfect, that showed his love for us. When I was a kid, I had a real sweet tooth – we all did. I loved eating glazed doughnuts, and my father knew that. So every few weeks I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed doughnuts – no note, no explanation, just the doughnuts. It was like a fairy godmother had visited our kitchen. It was like Santa Claus. Sometimes, I would think about staying up late so I could see him leave them there, but as with Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic, for fear that he would never do it again.

I think now that my father had to leave the doughnuts secretly at night so that no one would catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion, he didn’t understand it, or know how to deal with it. But, he did know doughnuts.

And when I allow the floodgates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back, memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could.

With hindsight and maturity, I have come to see that even my father’s harshness was a kind of love. An imperfect love, sure, but love nonetheless. He pushed me because he loved me. He pushed me because he wanted me to have more than he EVER had, and he wanted my life to be better than his EVER was.

It has taken me a long time to realize this, but now I feel the resentments of my childhood are finally being put to rest. My bitterness has been replaced by blessing, and in place of my anger, I have found absolution. And with this knowledge, that my father loved his children, I have found peace.

Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books



This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.

Happy birthday to me


Not long ago, a guy I know, a good guy who to all outward appearances seems happy and successful, replied to a birthday e-mail I sent him at work — “go
home and blow out some candles” — with this:

“I’m 40-f—ing-8, give me a break. They tell me that’s close to 50, but I refuse to believe it.” (Only he didn’t leave any letters out of “f—ing.”)

I wrote back: “you’ve got your hair, a flat stomach, and a wife. I’d say life is good.”

To which he replied: “At 20 you won’t settle for less than several million, two best-sellers and a house in Majorca. At 48, what you said sounds really good.”

Expectations are strange things. When we’re kids, and when we’re parents of kids, we have no compunction about shooting for the stars. Every child is encouraged to believe that becoming a Michael Phelps or a Golda Meir, or however your tribe fills in the blank, is within the realm of possibility. B’nai mitzvah speeches and commencement addresses are universally about holding fast to your dreams.

But nevertheless, somewhere along the line we’re supposed to learn that the secret to happiness is adjusting our expectations to reality. Maturity means accepting that failing to get the gold or the Golda isn’t the same thing as failure. The good life is to be found in wanting what you have.

To be sure, the self-help sections of bookstores are filled with inspirational messages and 10-point-plans to the contrary. If only we visualize what we want, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we buy this book, then love and riches, fame and health, six-packs and serenity will be ours, no matter how far along in the life cycle we are.

But by and large, despite those enticing pitches, adulthood turns out to mean acceptance — of how you played the hand you were dealt, of mortality, of beshert — even if it sometimes includes flashes of 40-f—ing-8-like fury at the way the world turns out to work.

I wonder whether that rage would be mitigated if, instead of everyone being brought up to think we could be president, we were raised to believe, as Buddhists are, that desire is the source of suffering. I wonder if the gross domestic product would really shrivel, or the upward mobility of classes would stall, or the amount of art and justice in the world would decline, if we grew up already knowing how things more often than not turn out to be — if we understood early on the unreliability of the meritocracy, and the odds against our dreams, and the huge role in life of dumb luck — if the rough passage signaled in the cry of “40-f—ing-8” were not something kept hidden from children, like the true identity of the tooth fairy, the mutability of beauty, the lifelong wrestling with the meaning of existence that lies ahead of them.

In “The Uses of Enchantment,” child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales is to give children an arena — a proxy world — in which to come to grips with evil, to come to terms with loss, to train their emotions for the inevitable struggles and disappointments of life. Anyone who has read the cruel original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm will recognize the sense of this. But anyone who knows these stories only from their Disney versions will recognize how diligently we now go out of our way to insulate kids from the disturbing stuff that Bettelheim says is good for them.

Yes, I know that Bambi’s mother is killed, and plenty of other modern classics include scary separations from parents. The murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Lord Voldemort is of course the setup for the series. But (spoiler alert) no one in those seven volumes is forced to reconcile with the whole panoply of less lethal but no-less-soul-crushing disappointments — being downsized, pink-slipped, passed over, left — of which many, maybe most, lives are constructed. We are all broken vessels.

Recently I found myself reading the ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/sowhatsnew. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Card-Table Tales


 

I confess that most of my childhood Passover memories have nothing to do with the Passover story itself. How could they when seders were family dramas enacted against a backdrop of matzah and gefilte fish? Like most American Jewish kids, I started out observing the proceedings from a card table, fidgeting while the grown-ups read from the haggadah.

I remember my cultivated Grandma Lil, relishing dunking her finger into her cup and flicking wine out while reciting the 10 plagues. She always tried to avoid the eyes of my Grandpa Herman, her ex-husband. I think the tyrannical Herman, an esteemed ear-nose-and-throat doctor, had been one of her private plagues. But love Herman or not, Grandma tolerated him at seders. The didact in Grandpa Herman embraced the lecture component of seders. He had a little notebook full of Pesach cartoons and poems that he called a Children’s Haggadah. He dragged it out every year to show us the same poems and pictures. My grandmother just rolled her eyes. We kids humored him.

I also remember heated arguments about the Vietnam War, with my then-hawkish, young, dentist father vs. his UCLA sociology doctoral-student brother and Berkeley undergraduate sister. My father’s brother had a long, hippie beard that shook like a burning bush when he shouted, “We’re killing innocent children in ‘Nam!” My father’s sister’s breasts shook (she must have burned her bra during a protest at People’s Park) and cords stood out on her neck when she yelled at my father: “You’re sounding like one of the pigs.”

My father’s genial father stepped in with his Yiddish-accented English and said, “Quiet, we’re trying to have a seder here. What will the children think?”

He motioned at me, age 6, and my sister, age 4. The seder went on.

As I grew older and more responsible, I was allowed into the grown-up sanctum, the actual dining room. I felt almost adult as I carried steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, cleared the dishes and conversed with my elders. At age 15, as I cleared the dinner plates from the grandparent section of the table, I heard my sweet, widowed, little Grandma Bea sucking the marrow from a thick chicken bone. Suddenly, tyrannical Herman screamed at her from across the table, “That’s disgusting! You’re not living in the shtetl anymore. You’re nothing but a peasant.”

Grandma Bea ignored him and sucked louder.

“I’m done now, Sharon dear,” she said. “You can take my plate.”

I scooped up her plate and tried to dash for the kitchen. Grandpa Herman grabbed my forearm, fixed his blue eyes on mine and said, “I hope you won’t behave like her in polite society.”

I wanted to cry. But I followed my grandma’s example, ignored him, and walked out. Although Grandpa Herman’s rages were getting scarier with age, I learned to cope.

My Grandma Lil, tyrannical Grandpa Herman, genial Grandpa Fred and my father are all gone now, but these seder memories remain. I try to view even the painful memories as a blessing. Growing up, these experiences taught me that despite difficult relatives and challenging situations the seder must go on — the story must be told, the wine must be drunk and the songs must be sung. Doesn’t that somehow seem like a metaphor for the Jewish people’

My once wild-bearded sociologist uncle is now a retired college professor with very little hair remaining on his head. He conducts the seders much like my father did before him, and my grandfather before him. His past political outrages have been muted by time. But somehow the seder remains the same.

Now that I’ve graduated to near the head of the dining room table, I sense a lot more people around me then I did in the card table days. I feel the presence of all the dead relatives I remember from childhood on, and see a new crop of children sitting at the card table. From generation to generation, in my mind’s eye, everyone is around the table. That’s the power of seder I hope to pass on to my own children.

Sharon Rosen is a mother of three and is currently working on her first novel.

 

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.

Filmmakers Bring Maturity to Cinema


Israeli filmmaker Shemi Zarhin is a gourmet cook and baker, whose diet-defying cakes, especially, soothe the vilest temper.

"I cook Sephardic style, Ashkenazi and Japanese," Zarhin said in a phone call from Tel Aviv. "Next time you’re in Israel, come by and I’ll show you."

Not by chance, the 16-year-old title character of his film, "Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi," cooks up a storm. Besides the family meals, he also does the laundry, cleans up, tries to make peace among the shouting family members and bathes his French-speaking grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title.

Shlomi of the film, played with absolute veracity by Oshri Cohen, is not exactly Shemi, its director and writer, but they are at least closely related. Both of their families originally came from Morocco and Tangiers and grew up with the mindset that they were part of Israel’s underclass.

"I was born in Tiberias, which could be a very beautiful town, but the reality was hard, there were lots of unemployed," Zarhin recalled. "My family arrived in Palestine 200 to 300 years ago. The Ashkenazim were here only 100 years, but they were the upper class."

Shlomi keeps the family going, but is considered none too bright. He is flunking out in school and with the girls. When he suggests to a classmate that they "upgrade" their relationship — a wonderful Hebrew slang term introduced by Zarhin and equivalent to having sex — the girl "freezes" him out.

Zarhin, now 42, did not detail his own childhood, but, he said with emotion, "I was miserable. Childhood is a waste of time."

Perhaps as an escape, "making films was my dream from the beginning," he said. "But it was not easy to get the money and to leave for a big city like Tel Aviv."

However, he graduated from the film school at Tel Aviv University, taught there and is now on the faculty of the Sam Spiegel Film and Television College in Jerusalem.

He started out making TV commercials, and nine years ago he wrote and directed his first film feature, "Passover Fever," which did very well in Israel and foreign film festivals. Zarhin followed up with the thriller "Dangerous Acts," and "Bonjour" is his third feature.

The main problem with "Bonjour’s" Shlomi, who turns out to be a remarkably gifted youngster, is not just that people consider him stupid, but that he has internalized that evaluation himself.

"The contrast between a person’s outer image and his inner truth has always interested me," Zarhin said. "It takes two outsiders to open Shlomi’s eyes to who he really is."

"Bonjour" is considerably more cheerful and wide-ranging than just a dissection of adolescent angst. For one, it represents a slice of Israeli life unfamiliar to most Ashkenazim, here or in Israel.

For another, the film has considerable humor and some nongraphic sex, though the language, even in subtitles, is quite vigorous.

"Someone told me that I had made a comedy with tears," Zarhin said.

The producer of "Bonjour" is Eitan Evan, who will be honored on opening night with the Israeli Film Festival’s Cinematic Award.

Described as "a major force in the Israeli film industry for the last 25 years," Evan produced two of Israel’s best-loved movies, "The Summer of Avia" and "Under the Domin Tree," both with Gila Almagor.

Evan, an old friend of director Zarhin, recalled in a phone call from his home in Herzliyah that "Bonjour" came together so smoothly and quickly, "It seemed to have a life of its own."

"Shemi, who had written ‘Bonjour’ in five days, showed it to me, though he wasn’t sure whether it would be film or a novel," Evan said. Funding was guaranteed almost immediately, itself a minor miracle, and the film wrapped in four months, about one-third the normal timeline in Israel.

One reason for the quick turnaround was that the project generated an early buzz, so actors vied for auditions. Another reason, said Evan, was that "Shemi and I work so well together, we can read each other’s thoughts."

Evan, the son of Hungarian immigrants, took a degree in economics at the Hebrew University and then went to England for further study.

"There someone gave me camera and I was hooked," he said. "I decided on a career transfer, went to film school in England, returned to Israel and first worked on two American films being shot in Israel."

Evan formed his own company in 1977 and has since produced such titles as "Wooden Gun," "Clean Sweep," "On the Edge," "Family Secret" and "Dangerous Acts."

In the early ’90s, he was the Israeli producer for two American TV films, "Held Hostage" and "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible."

Evan, an upbeat kind of person, is optimistic about the current and future state of Israeli films and their greater acceptance in the United States.

"Our films are becoming more mature, we have better production values, and we’re getting a new crop of talented young directors," he said.

Film festival viewers will see a more urban aspect of Israeli life in Amos Gitai’s "Alila," set in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, bordering Jaffa.

Gitai has populated a shabby apartment building with a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and small share of happiness.

As Israelis of diverse backgrounds, they naturally fight and stick their noses in each other’s business, but when the chips are down they pitch in and come to their neighbor’s aid.

"Alila" is Gitai’s 30th film feature or documentary in as many years, which include, most recently, "Kedma," "Eden," "Kippur" and "Kadosh."

At 53, Gitai is arguably the most controversial of Israeli filmmakers, who insists on pressing his countrymen’s most sensitive nerves. As a British journalist put it, "Gitai is a director with a mission to tell the country of his birth the truth about its intolerance, its insecurities and its willingness to bowdlerize its own recent history."

In an interview with The Journal a couple of years ago, Gitai accepted the description, adding, "I have great compassion and passion for Israel, but I want it to remain as human as possible. I will never legitimize what Israelis may do wrong, just because I belong to them."

In the strife-ridden Middle East, Gitai sees movies as a possible bridge between Arabs and Jews.

"To me, cinema is not just a commodity to be sold like hamburgers, but it represents a form of dialogue," he said. "Beneath the surface, there is already an undercurrent of cultural dialogue in the Middle East.

"For instance, Israeli music is affected by Arab music," he continued. "When the time comes for a real peace agreement, it can’t be just a piece of paper. There must be, at the same time, a cultural dialogue."

A Towering Achievement


At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

How Do We Pass on Our Jewishness?


All of us struggle with the problem of how to transmit our commitment to Judaism to the next generation. There are all sorts of suggestions — but no solutions. How do we reproduce ourselves Jewishly?

I have a passion for Jewishness, for every manifestation of it, from Workmen’s Circle to Chasidic shtibls. My passion came to me as mother’s milk, from wanting to emulate the Jews around me.

My father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to say, “I have a daughter. I love her dearly. And I would like her to obey the commandments of the Torah. I would like her to revere me as her father. And I ask myself the question again and again, what is there about me that would be worthy of her reverence? Unless I live a life that would deserve her reverence, I would make it impossible for her to live a life of Judaism.”

For both of my parents, childhood was not easy. My mother grew up during the Depression, and at the same time, her father lost his eyesight due to diabetes.

My grandfather died when my father was 9, and he and his mother and siblings were left in terrible poverty in Warsaw. Yet while my father was deprived of a father, he spoke of being surrounded by Jews who inspired his reverence and emulation. He often said that his greatest gift was to grow up around people of spiritual nobility.

He wrote, “In my childhood and in my youth, I was the recipient of many blessings. I lived in the presence of quite a number of extraordinary persons I could revere. And just as I lived as a child in their presence, their presence continues to live in me as an adult.”

I’ve often wondered how to explain the phrase “religious nobility.” What kind of person is worthy of that description? What inner sensibilities and values have to be cultivated to produce such a person?

Like my father, I feel I was privileged to have been exposed to people of religious nobility: my father, my uncle and a few other people, some of whom I met only very briefly. Each left me with a sense of awe that a human being is capable of such extraordinary spiritual refinement.

Jewish texts tell us that human beings are made in the image of God, and that it is our duty to imitate God in our lives. What is it to be created in the image of God?

To be a reminder of God, my father wrote, you should look at someone and think of God. And that, in turn, means that our imperative is to live our lives in such a way that if someone looks at us, they are reminded of God. Such are the people of spiritual nobility who surrounded my father.

Such was his life, too. The opposite of good is not evil, he wrote. The opposite of good is indifference.

When he looked at human beings, even the most dissolute, he saw the divine image. For him, it was impossible to be indifferent to the suffering in our society caused by social inequality and the civilian tragedies incurred by war. I saw him in pain, sleepless and agonizing over the miseries of human beings.

Simply to teach that human beings are made in the image of God is not a solution to the rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation. I don’t think there are any easy answers.

But I do believe that both of my parents taught me how I must transmit my Jewishness to my children: to lead a life worthy of their reverence and emulation. I want to expose them to people of religious nobility, of spiritual refinement and delicacy.

I want them to learn that the greatest gift is compassion, and that callousness and indifference are antithetical to the life of a Jew, who has commitments to society as well as family. Because I grew up in the presence of people who inspired me with awe, their presence continues in me, and one day, I hope, will become part of my children’s lives as well.

This essay originally appeared in Hadassah Magazine.

Susanna Heschel, Eli Black associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, will be scholar in residence at Pasadena Jewish Center and will speak on March 14, 2:30 p.m. at the center. For more information call (626) 798-1161.

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."

I’m Dreaming of My School’s Sukkah


The sound of metal folding chairs scraping against rocky parking lot asphalt always gives me the chills — but only in a good way.

To me it’s the sound of Sukkot in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, where I ate soggy tuna sandwiches and carrot sticks out of rumpled paper bags for most of my childhood Sukkots.

Days before Sukkot, my friends and I would leave our classrooms at Yavneh Hebrew Academy and parade down Beverly Boulevard to Shaarei Tefila, where we would sit in the palm-dappled sunlight gluing bright construction paper strips into garlands. We would wrap those chains through the schach and all around the plywood walls, where scraps of faded decorations clung to staples from years past. Sometimes we would attach all the stretches of garland together, seeing just how far we could make that chain snake along the sukkah walls.

In my early childhood, before my family started building our own sukkah, this was Sukkot for me.

These are memories that most Orthodox day school children of today won’t have, since day schools started closing for Sukkot in the last 10 or 15 years.

As a working mother, I find the eight-day vacation to be an inconvenience at best, a disaster at worst — it comes a few weeks into school, just when kids have finally transitioned into their new environment.

But as a day school graduate, I am hit much harder by the loss of Sukkot at school and the lifelong memories and positive associations that will slip away because of it.

During Sukkot we could always count on a special field trip and at least a couple hours worth of sukkah hopping. My Yavneh classmates and I would chatter along Martel Street, up Fuller and down Alta Vista, pulling carob pods off trees and visiting sukkahs of classmates and even teachers (they had houses and families and life out of school?). At each stop we got a treat — dates, ice cream, candy — and usually a bit of Torah and a song or two. We benched lulav, saying the blessing and shaking the flittering palm and twisting the fragrant etrog.

Sukkot is a holiday whose physicality can’t be denied. It’s all about where you are sitting, what you are smelling, touching and tasting. It’s about guests and community and inviting people in.

All of that sensory input has the inevitable effect of penetrating through to your soul, making the rituals deep and memorable. It’s why Sukkot, to this day, is my favorite holiday of the year, why I still sit down with my kids to cut the construction paper into strips and tape them into interlocking rings.

Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, the new dean at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, said he too laments the loss of Sukkot in school.

“When you experience sitting in the sukkah, decorating the sukkah, not only with family, but also with your friends, and visiting each other, and sukkah parties — what happens is you actually feel it and you actually internalize the message of Sukkot,” Sufrin said.

Rabbi Zalman Uri, head of the Orthodox day schools division for the Bureau of Jewish Education, said the change came about to rectify a situation that was considered a halachic compromise. While most of the halachic prohibitions in effect on Yom Tov don’t apply during Chol Hamo’ed, the intermediate days of Sukkot, the rabbis wanted to be sure that the days were still recognized as mo’ed — festive. They prohibited certain actions — writing, commerce — unless there was a significant loss that would be incurred.

When the Yeshiva Principals Council originally considered the matter under Rabbi Uri’s direction decades ago, they came to the conclusion that what would be lost was the opportunity for children who did not have sukkahs at home to celebrate Sukkot. They decided to keep the doors open.

“Now times have changed — thank God for that,” said Uri. “We have a good number of parents — the majority — who have a sukkah and lulav and etrog at home, so the rationale is no longer relevant.”

Add to that the fact that the staggered days between Yom Tov were usually taken up with things like a longer davening and special activities for the holiday, leaving less time for real academics, and there is enough there to close the school doors.

But that also closed the doors on a joyous, hands-on experience that surely had more impact than sitting in a classroom learning about which greens go where on the lulav, and in what order it gets shaken.

The Conservative and Reform schools still meet on Sukkot, knowing, perhaps, that many of their students don’t have sukkahs at home, but also recognizing that Sukkot is one of the few chances in the year to have a living holiday workshop.

“Rather than teaching about Sukkot, we do it,” said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, Judaic director of the elementary school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Aside from eating in and decorating the sukkah, students have music, storytime and reading groups in one of the school’s two sukkahs.

“If you think of it and treat it as a natural extension of the classroom, it becomes just that,” Ben-Naim said.

Back in the Shaarei Tefila sukkah, by the end of the week the construction paper red had faded to pink, the green to a queasy yellow. We never tried to save those decorations from year to year, knowing we would be back the next year to make fresh ones.

Then, one year, the students didn’t come back to continue the tradition and the chain was broken. And that’s too bad, because there’s a whole pile of construction paper waiting from some good, strong glue to keep it together.

‘Camera’ Exposes Director’s Past


While growing up on his Encino cul-de-sac in the 1980s, Darren Stein made films with his father’s video camera, bossily directing the other Jewish kids like a baby Roger Corman. The sets were backyards; production was every afternoon save for Hebrew school hours at Leo Baeck and Stephen S. Wise temples. The scripts included zombie flicks, campy gay comedies and a Holocaust drama in which a bicycle pump doubled for a canister of Zyklon-B.

Today, the movies and the adult Stein and friends are the subject of an edgy documentary, “Put the Camera on Me,” which premieres at Outfest 2003 July 10-21. Narrated by Stein — who is gay and the director of several feature films such as “Jawbreaker” — it explores the power structure of a neighborhood clique through the eyes of a child auteur. The portrait is reminiscent of films, such as Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which expose the darker side of childhood in Jewish suburbia.

The bully of “Camera” is often Stein, who relished the power he wielded over his neighbors because he felt powerless and unpopular at the formerly all-male Harvard prep school.

“I gave orders. I was the provocateur,” he said.

His “Camera” co-director, Adam Shell, noted how Stein would promise him a role, then give it to another boy.

Another friend recalls in the film: “If Darren said, ‘Dress up in your mom’s tights,’ you dressed up in your mom’s tights.”

Cut to 1999, when Shell and Stein were discussing how to restore the videotapes — then stored in a torn-up shopping bag — and came up with the idea for a documentary. The two-year production was sometimes painful because “we were forced to deal with our childhood antagonism toward each other,” Shell said.

But the process was ultimately healing. “It was profound for me to be able to ask for forgiveness,” Stein, 31, said of his years as a tyrannical child director. “But I’m still bossy.”

For information on “Camera” screenings at Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, call (213) 480-7065 or visit www.outfest.org/fest2003. Other Jewish-themed Outfest films include the feature “Yossi & Jagger,” about male lovers in the Israeli army.

Lifeline for Kids


Talia Hill, 11, was born with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and bone deformities. She is hearing impaired, speech impaired, mobility impaired, fine-motor impaired and neither her two arms nor her two legs are the same length. In her short life, she has had multiple surgeries, a hearing aid and has had to take several kinds of medication on a regular basis.

"We have significant issues in every area," said Talia’s father, Danny Hill. "We spend a lot of time agonizing about what decisions to make for her, because we are not experts," he said. "The challenges are endless."

But one of the greatest challenges facing the Hills, who have two other daughters, is giving Talia a normal childhood. "We spent the first couple of years in hospitals," said Leah Hill, Talia’s mother. "And when you have a kid that has all these issues you never know when something is going to flare up, or how serious it might be. I felt so bad for our carpool people, because I was always had to call to say I can’t pick up carpool because I was at the doctors’ office or at the hospital. You are constantly imposing on somebody, and even if it is family, it is such an awful feeling to always be taking like that."

Which is why the Hills felt so relieved when Chai Lifeline came into their lives and offered them much-needed support without asking for anything in return. A social services organization that helps families with pediatric illnesses, Chai Lifeline took the Hills and other families to Boomers amusement park in Irvine during chol hamoed Sukkot.

On this sunny Wednesday, Sept. 25, Jewish music blared out of the park’s speaker system, sukkot were set up around the park to eat in and kosher food was sold from kiosks. All over the park, attentive volunteer counselors tended to children in wheelchairs playing arcade games, while other children afflicted with congenital illnesses tore around in bumper cars, rode ponies, and climbed the rock wall.

"We try to bring the kids to these events so that they can be around other families and other situations and connect with them," Leah Hill said. "They get to see that it’s not just our family that is different, and Talia sees that there are other junior high girls going through similar things."

Started in 1986 by Rabbi Simcha Scholar of Brooklyn, N.Y., Chai Lifeline opened its West Coast branch three years ago. Scholar had been a teacher and a community rabbi, and in his years of community service he saw how devastatingly pediatric illness affected families. "I really saw the pain of families when dealing with a sick child," said Scholar in a phone interview. "There was a compelling need in the Jewish community to normalize a sick child’s life."

Chai Lifeline now assists 3,000 families around the world, and 120 families on the West Coast. Their programs, which are available to Jews of all affiliations, are free, and include home childcare, tutors, transportation, support groups, individual counseling, family retreats, family fun days at amusement parks, art therapy programs for ill children and their siblings, homework buddies and insurance advocates.

"Their philosophy is that the family has a tough time, and they want to make it nicer for the family," said Danny Hill. "They don’t just focus on the kid with the disability, they focus on the whole family."

"Chai Lifeline is wonderful," said Debbie Gordon of Valley Village, the mother of two teenage boys with Familial Dysautonomia, a rare genetic disorder of the autonomic nervous system that primarily affects people of Eastern European Jewish descent. "We are not Orthodox, and they haven’t looked down on us that we are not. They just treat us like human beings."

"They have been a godsend," said Lainie Sugarman of Pacific Palisades, the mother of Alon Sugarman, 11, who has Ewing’s Sarcoma, a malignant tumor that occurs in the tissue. "We were one of their first families [to use the program] in Los Angeles, and it was the first time that someone had said to us, ‘What can we do for you?’ I said Alon needs visitors, and so Randy Grossman [the West Coast regional director of Chai Lifeline] had some volunteers come and visit him."

Every summer, Chai Lifeline runs two camps in New York, Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special. Camp Simcha is for children with cancer and blood disorders and Camp Simcha Special is for children with medical and chronic disorders. At Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special, the children enjoy a normal camp atmosphere, while all their medical needs are taken care of. There is a 1-to-1 camper to counselor ratio, and the children are taken on rafting trips, motorcycle and helicopter rides and riverboat cruises. There is also a video game arcade, canteen and soda machines. The children are allowed to order anything they want from the camp kitchen and — best of all — everything, including transportation to and from the camper’s home city, is free to the campers.

Scholar estimates that it costs Chai Lifeline approximately $10,000 per child to send them to Camp Simcha. "We spoil them with a lot of love and candy," he said. "We shower them with love."

There are approximately 15 Los Angeles-area children who attend Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special every year. "I loved it," said Alon Sugarman. "You could go to the canteen and say you wanted Now and Laters and potato chips, and you would get Now and Laters and potato chips. It was really, really fun."

For parents of children with pediatric illness, Camp Simcha offers them much needed respite as well. "Chai Lifeline also provided me with a rest while the boys were away at camp," said Gordon, whose two boys require a feeding tube to eat. "I’ve never had a night — unless the boys were in the hospital — where I didn’t have to hook them up to their pumps; it was nice not having to do that…. Also, since coming back from camp, my boys have received calls from their counselors who are now in Israel, and they received letters from counselors in England. It is really a compassionate and caring organization."

In fact, Camp Simcha’s reputation is so esteemed that counselor positions have become one of the most coveted and hard-to-get summer jobs in the Orthodox world. "Everyone you speak to who comes out of there says it was a life-changing experience" said Ari Adlerstein, 18, from the Fairfax area, who was a counselor at Camp Simcha Special this past summer.

"Before I went to camp, I thought these kids were different than me, and I had no connection to them. Now when I see a kid in a wheelchair, I don’t look at him so strangely anymore. I will think he is a great kid just like any other kid."

‘Invincible’ Obsession


In the 1920s, the son of a destitute blacksmith from Lodz, Poland, amazed the world with his feats of strength. Heralded as the modern Samson and the Iron King, Zishe Breitbart became a Jewish folk hero, twisting bars of iron, pulling trains by his teeth and killing bulls with his fists.

While other kids heard bedtime tales of princes, frogs and giants, my brother, Gary Bart, and I were weaned on the Circle of Death, a motordome balanced on the strongman’s chest bearing two motorcycles chasing each other in a circle.

The fact that a Jew had become famous for his strength was remarkable; the fact that he was a cousin was riveting.

While I moved on to other things, the little boy who was my brother — so fascinated with the strongman’s heroic deeds that his friends actually began calling him "Zishe" — became obsessed, and when "Invincible" opens in Los Angeles in September, my brother, the producer, will have realized a lifelong dream.

"I felt since childhood that I was on a mission to discover everything about him," he says, "and tell the world that at a time when there was a great perception of Jewish weakness, there was an enormously strong Jew who defended and inspired his people."

My brother’s quest led him through archives and libraries where he discovered that almost everything written about Breitbart was in Yiddish, German, Polish, Czechoslovakian — everything but English. He hired translators and researchers, placed ads in Jewish newspapers around the world, consulted curators and experts in circus history, vaudeville and the physical culture movement, even obtained nine original Breitbart circus posters from a dealer who had bought out the contents of a bankrupt East German museum.

A researcher he hired in Vienna uncovered the dramatic story of a conflict between Breitbart and a famous hypnotist named Hanussen (played in the film by Tim Roth), who eventually became Hitler’s clairvoyant. In a sensational trial, each accused the other of defamation.

"I think what fascinated Tim about the role," Bart says, "was that here was a man who fancied himself the minister of the occult in the emerging Third Reich, who had published a newspaper that supported Hitler and raised funds to support anti-Semitic organizations, and who we later discover in the film is Jewish himself."

Getting the film made proved my brother almost as invincible as his hero. After working for a year and a half with an English playwright on a script, a producer friend mentioned the idea to famed German director, Werner Herzog, who accepted the project on the condition that he write his own script. "Although he would be faithful to the character and major events, he wanted artistic license to tell the story."

"When Werner finally agreed to do the film, I flew up to his home in San Francisco," Bart says. "We had a fine dinner. He opened a bottle of wine, and I said I thought it was a great leap of faith on my part turning the project over to him, a German, not a Jew, that I thought we could heal some wounds and be an example to others."

Securing financing for the film was accomplished through Fine Line for American rights and Channel 4 England for world rights.

Nothing prepared Bart, however, for the actual experience of filming in Germany — a country that our dad would never set foot in because he had lost so many family members in the Holocaust — or for eating lunch with actors dressed as Nazis, armed with authentic Nazi rifles.

The shtetl scenes were filmed in the Latvian village of Kuldiga. "Here was a formerly Jewish town that looked totally untouched by the war. It’s exactly like all these photos you see. The only thing missing were the Jews."

Other scenes were shot in Vilnius, formerly Vilna, the seat of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe. "There’s virtually nothing Jewish left there at all," Bart notes. "I searched for a mezuzah, or even nail holes where a mezuzah might have been, and found nothing."

Knowing that he would spend Passover in Germany, Bart had packed haggadot and managed to locate a kosher caterer in Cologne who brought everything: seder plate, matzot, even kosher wine. "Although only myself, the assistant director and head wardrobe designer are Jewish, the main actors attended, as well as Werner, who, being the consummate director that he is, started directing and virtually took over the seder!"

In all, Bart spent five months in Europe. "I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility," he says. "Since Werner is not Jewish, I wanted to be sure all things Jewish were done properly and that Breitbart’s portrayal was true to his character."

The Lost Yiddish World


“In many ways, it was a good world. In many ways, it was a hard world,” observes narrator Elliott Gould in introducing “A Yiddish World Remembered.”

It is not easy to evoke a lost era through television footage, but “Yiddish World” largely overcomes the difficulty.

There are lively interviews with half a dozen elderly men and women who remember the shtetls from their childhoods, vintage photos and some newly discovered archival films, including one showing the bloody aftermath of a 1919 pogrom.

The views of shtetl and city life in the pale of Eastern Europe tend to be more “good” than “hard,” but shade into the sentimental only in the vignettes of childhood life recalled many decades later.

The smells and savors of mama’s heavenly cholent, chicken soup, gefilte fish or even herring and potatoes all but leap off the screen in the ecstatic reminiscences.

“Rockefeller wasn’t as happy as I was on Friday nights when we made ‘Kiddush,'” recalls one former shtetl child.

The vibrant cultural life of the time and place is perhaps familiar , as are the political and religious rivalries among Chasidim, bundists and Zionists. Still, it gives one pause to learn that there were no less than 24 competing Yiddish dailies in Poland at the turn of the century.

In the end, though, it is the language itself that embraces all other aspects of the lost world.

“Yiddish is the soul of the Jewish people, it speaks by itself,” says one old-time immigrant to America. “Sometimes I want to talk in English, but it comes out Yiddish….Even if you don’t know the language — you feel it.”

The one-hour PBS special will premiere Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. on KCET. Formore information, go to www.kcet.org. .

O.C. Olim


David and Lori Melman, former Santa Ana residents, look out their window to see a mountaintop covered with scrub oak and bay

leaves that could be mistaken for coastal California foothills. The idyllic country lifestyle and its neighborhood feeling is what lured them to Har Halutz, a Galilee community established by the Reform movement, in 1985. “When I compare life in the U.S. to life in Israel, Israel always wins,” Lori says.

Both Melmans had spent time in Israel as children. David was there for the 1973 Yom Kippur War and returned to attend Tel Aviv University. Lori grew up in a home that emphasized Zionist values. After meeting at UCLA, the Melmans made aliyah and joined the first group of 70 families in Har Halutz and never looked back.

Spending time in Israel as a child and an ability to cope with practical considerations appear to be important for Americans to make the transition to the Israeli lifestyle. While technology simplifies how olim (Israeli immigrants) stay in touch with their U.S. families, adjustments — such as learning one’s way around the supermarket, health-care system and bureaucracy — are very real.

In 1986, Michael Taslitz and Liora Asa, who grew up in Fullerton, started out in Haifa before moving to Har Halutz. “Average olim call California frequently, read California newspapers on the Internet and follow their favorite baseball teams,” Michael says. “We don’t have to leave everything behind and remake ourselves, but there are strong relationships among Israelis. Everything is a few degrees of separation from you. Issues affect you locally and nationally.”

Liora, daughter of Elaine and Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah, spent summers in Israel as a child but “came open-minded, wanting to have an international experience and seeing where it would lead us,” she explains. “We had no preconceived notions. Then we found jobs, a great place to live, friends and a sense of community. We felt that Israel was a positive — and economical — place to raise a family.”

Language was the biggest challenge for Michael, who says he is “hard-wired for English.” As a technical writer, he speaks English at work but is making progress at learning Hebrew. Liora is a consultant for a social services agency. They have two daughters, Meital and Liza, and are expecting their third child in November.

“Acclimating to Israel is a natural process that has built on itself,” Liora says. “You have to do this in your own way, in your own time.”

Liora’s sister and brother-in-law, Aviva and Daniel Zahavi-Asa, live in the religious community of Efrat, five miles south of Bethlehem in the West Bank area known as Gush Etzion. Although both are the children of Reform rabbis, they underwent an evolution toward traditional Judaism. Married in 1984, they moved to Israel in 1997, “because this is home, it’s where a Jew belongs,” Aviva says. Daniel is “ecstatically happy to see how the kids — Liel, 11, Gavriella, 7 and Eliav, 2 1/2 — are blossoming,” although the first year was hard.

The Palestinian situation has totally changed people’s lives, according to Aviva. “People have to consider whether going to the supermarket or the shopping mall is worth risking their lives, but some people don’t even think about it.” The couple’s car is equipped with bulletproof vests and the children ride in bulletproof buses. Daily life in Har Halutz is fairly safe, according to Liora, though “people are choosing to stay home.”

Despite the conflict, economic downturn and distance from family, Liora believes the percentage of olim returning to the United States has not changed. Aviva doubts that someone would leave due to the Palestinian situation, but thinks it could be a deciding factor given the poor economy, too.

“We’re very clear on why we’re here, so that makes it possible to stay in spite of any difficulties,” Aviva says.

Man of Action


If there is a name for comic book action, it must be “David Goyer.”

When the 36-year-old screenwriter is not bringing superheroes to life in hyperactive flicks — such as the just-released “Blade 2,” starring Wesley Snipes — Goyer is doing it in the pages of D.C. Comics. “Justice Society of America” often charts as the fourth best-selling comic book. Goyer’s gift for scripting pulse-quickening action has made him a hot name in Hollywood and in comics, industries pioneered by Jews.

“I think it comes from persecution and a certain amount of wish-fulfillment,” Goyer said of the reason Jews gravitate toward the mediums.

Goyer knows of what he speaks. Being Jewish is “definitely something I’m proud of,” but he’s admittedly turned off by organized religion. During his childhood in Michigan, “a lot kids beat me up, saying that I killed Christ. I was very consciously different. I didn’t have a ton of Jewish people around me. I grew up with something of a chip on my shoulder.”

Goyer and his brother, Jeff, were raised in Ann Arbor by their single mother, of Lithuanian descent, who took her boys to Israel after their father left. Goyer, then age 10, lived in Jerusalem for several months — an enjoyable experience, he says, which now seems surreal.

“My brother and I collected bullet casings. We had pillow cases full of them,” he remembered. “We were sort of unaware. I remember seeing the police shoot a guy dead in front of us on the street. I remember the jets and windows shattering from the sonic booms. But I wasn’t afraid.”

Six months after graduating from USC Film School, Goyer sold his first script, the Jean Claude Van Damme action flick “Death Warrant.” Even in Hollywood, Goyer encountered anti-Semitism when an extra asked him if he was Jewish.

“I said, ‘Yes I am. Why do you ask?’ He said, ‘You smell like one.’ And I punched him,” Goyer recalled. “People were shocked. It seemed so strange. So out of the blue.”

That episode aside, “Death Warrant” turned out to be fortuitous for the young screenwriter.

“Not the world’s best movie, but it got me my start,” said Goyer, who later penned “Dark City.”

With “Blade” in 1996, Goyer not only brought the half-human vampire hunter to the screen, but put Marvel Comics on the Hollywood map. This tertiary character from the sleeper ’70s “Tomb of Dracula” series was the first Marvel hero to inspire a hit movie.

Goyer pitched a trilogy to New Line “that was Wagnerian in scope — the ‘Star Wars’ of vampire films,” he said. Former New Line executive Michael De Luca “went crazy” over it, he added.

Goyer put a ’90s gloss on “Blade” with a hybrid urban/Hong Kong flair that was a year ahead of the stylistically similar “Matrix.” After “Blade” became a hit, Goyer became Marvel’s “it” guy, writing scripts based on “Nick Fury,” “Dr. Strange” and “Ghost Rider.” He said he may work on Snipes’ pet project, “Black Panther,” if he can also direct.

Yet it was Marvel’s competitor, D.C., that approached Goyer about writing for comics.

“It’s important to write in different mediums,” Goyer says.

And to direct, since even writers get typecast. But Goyer doesn’t take things sitting down. He just premiered his directorial debut, “Zig Zag,” at South By Southwest Music Festival. The independent production, that he wrote, stars John Leguizamo (“Moulin Rouge”) and Natasha Lyonne (“American Pie”).

“It’s the polar opposite of movies I’m known for,” says the drama’s proud papa, now prepping to direct another drama written by Ted Tally (“Silence of the Lambs”). Then he’ll write “Blade 3.”

Full circle for a tough hombre who is one tough act to follow.

Frequently Asked Questions


I was the oldest child at the Passover table during two decades of social turmoil, and so invariably I was the one to whom questions were directed.

"Why does your generation think it can have everything its way?" my relatives began after the afikomen was eaten. They wanted my opinion on everything: civil rights, interracial dating, Vietnam, communism, women’s rights. Seder after seder, their questions reflected a world turning upside down fast. And I was expected to account for it.

Passover is only days away. Decades after my childhood seders, the world is still spinning, and I am still doing my accounting.

The young men and women at this year’s seder table might ask about Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat or Enron.

But young and old alike are just as likely to ask other more personal questions. They may ask about cancer.

In a year of dealing with lung cancer, I continually face the ultimate decisions of illness. But disease, like history, does not belong to me alone. I inevitably report to my daughter, parents and brother, my cousins and wide extended family and friends whose love and concern make every night a seder and every phone call a meeting with the Four Children. They ask:

What is your prognosis?

Do you know how long you have to live?

Do you know about X or Y secret treatment in Germany/Mexico/Canada?

How do you feel?

No matter how well-intended these questions, they always cut to the bone. It can be no other way. There are always Four Questions, themselves angry, brash, insouciant and designed to one-up the self-satisfied, reflecting the Four Children of love.

A question in Hebrew is kasheh (difficult), and it is anything but the softball, Larry King-type of inquiry designed to keep people superficially serene. "Kasheh," writes Avivah Zornberg, is the hard-edge of resistance that changes worlds. A question is a radical act. When we ask each other questions, we go to the wall of what life and love can bear. A father who asks a daughter what is your prognosis has to be — fears to be — prepared for the worst. He cannot tolerate anything but the truth.

We are trained at the seder table to ask about the worst. Why were we slaves? How were we freed? If the questions mean anything, they are about essential connections: between parent and child, between Jew and non-Jew, between God and ourselves. They shake us up, set us free.

I have struggled with this hard-edged, radical, rude, crude, know-it-all Jewish tradition all my life. Every questioner is an expert; every probe comes from yet another Wise Child second-guessing and undermining some of the most difficult judgments a person can ever make.

Yet how could it be otherwise? The seder table pits the Wicked Child, the "I" who makes decisions for herself, against the Wise Child, the "we" who wins liberation as a group. This tension between the "I" and the "we" is the undercurrent of Jewish life. No wonder we relentlessly ask our questions, pushing and probing the limits of the truth, hoping and praying for the Outstretched Arm to liberate us once again.

Anxiety is the tremor of the powerless. Questions are the weapons of self-control.

I have never asked my doctors for a prognosis, and, gratefully, they’ve never offered one.

I have no idea how long I have to live. And neither do you.

I am open to all scientific wisdom; Western medicine, including that in the United States, has a lot to offer.

I am feeling fine, thank God.

Making a ‘Beautiful Mind’


When Akiva Goldsman was growing up in Brooklyn Heights, his playmates were the mentally ill children who lived in the group home his parents had founded in their rambling old brownstone. The children suffered from autism and schizophrenia — weeping and raging were de rigeuer — but Goldsman, the only child of Jewish psychotherapists, regarded them as "just my peers."

The 39-year-old screenwriter drew upon those memories to write "A Beautiful Mind," the unsettling portrait of a schizophrenic mathematician that won him the Golden Globe Award late last month. It will almost certainly make him an Oscar contender.

"The truth is, I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to dream when you were awake," Goldsman says of his early childhood. "I didn’t know that at a certain age everybody was supposed to have begun talking. The children gave me a keen vision of the very thin line between what’s real and what isn’t."

Goldsman ("A Time to Kill," "Batman Forever") criss-crosses that line in "Mind," based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Princeton mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe). Speaking in a rapid-fire staccato, he says his goal was to depict schizophrenia "from the inside out."

"With the rarest of exceptions, one finds oneself going to movies [about mental illness] and having an experience that is not unlike going to the zoo," he adds. "There is the person with the disease and there is the normal person’s surrogate, but that doesn’t allow us to empathize with the mentally ill person. I wanted to close the gap."

It’s a kind of cinematic tikkun olam Goldsman learned from his parents, Tev and Mira, who viewed their work as a way of carrying out the Jewish value of repairing the world.

Inspired by the high drama of the group home, Goldsman aspired to become a writer around the time of his Reform bar mitzvah. He wrote every day for years, but received only boxfuls of rejection letters.

Meanwhile, as a teen he was distancing himself from the disturbed children who "seemed to get more of my parents than I did." That changed when at 16, he "fell in love" with an autistic 5-year-old boy he met at his folks’ summer camp and decided to enter the family business. Eventually, Goldsman founded a psychological-consulting firm while earning his master’s degree in creative writing from New York University.

His career crisis came one day when he was 28. "I was lecturing at Harvard, and I looked across the room and realized that I had spent the better part of a decade telling parents what to do with their children, but I didn’t have any children, so what if I was wrong?," he says. "Then I thought, ‘I have become my mother.’ And while I love my mother, I didn’t want to be her."

Goldsman shut down his consulting firm and penned a screenplay, "Silent Fall," about an autistic boy who’d witnessed a murder. He describes that period in his life as "terrifying and heartbreaking," but writing what he knew paid off. Goldsman’s screenplay became a 1994 Bruce Beresford film and led to a gig adapting John Grisham’s novel, "The Client," for director Joel Schumacher.

Around 1999, he read an excerpt of Nash’s biography in Vanity Fair and knew he’d found a story that would allow him to return to a subject close to his heart. When he learned that Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer had bought the movie rights, he says he "scampered over there and actually begged [Grazer] to hire me." When the go-ahead came, he says his intention wasn’t to write a biopic but "to evoke what it felt like to be John Nash."

Some have criticized Goldsman for taking broad liberties with Nash’s life story and for omitting juicy details, such as the scientist’s alleged gay liaisons. The screenwriter counters, "even a biopic is fiction. You can’t really tell a life in less than a life."

Goldsman’s life is currently bicoastal. The divorced screenwriter maintains homes in Los Angeles and New York, where his mother continues to live in the old family brownstone. When asked about about his Jewish identity, he cites Mira’s Holocaust experience, stating "That is my identity."

He says he didn’t know the specifics of her story until she broke her lifelong silence and told all the day he turned 34. "It was my birthday present," says Goldsman, who now struggles with whether or not to transform her harrowing journey into a screenplay.

The writer felt he was honoring both his parents the night he won the Golden Globe for "A Beautiful Mind." While he was "utterly shocked" when his name was called (his hands violently shook as he read his acceptance speech), the moment was more than gratifying. "For me, the film is a tribute to my mother, my father and every one of those [mentally ill] children I had ever known," he says.

Childhood’s Sweet Sharp Imprint


It is summer, a long time ago, and I am lying on a terrace overlooking an ancient garden full of rosebushes and fruit trees. The days have been so hot, the asphalt on the sidewalk melts under my feet if I dare step out of the house. At night, the temperature drops. My sisters and I take the hose to the yard and stand there as the day’s heat rises out of the brick floor in a cloud of white steam. My mother spreads our bed on the terrace, and we crawl into it, hours before we can actually fall asleep. We thrash about in the cool sheets that smell of dust, summer and lavender bleach; listen to the music that drifts up from our grandmother’s radio downstairs; eat fresh mulberries we have picked from the tree in our own yard.

Our mother, 16 years old when she had her first child, has already lived a lifetime by 20. She is so young that she can play with us all day without losing her patience, so old she knows a thousand tales from a thousand lives already spent.

"Tell us a story," I ask, and she does.

"There is a girl," she says, "so fair, boys follow her home from school just to get a glimpse of her on the way, so kind, she cries at the sight of poor children begging on the streets of Tehran. Her mother has to buy her shoes every week because she keeps giving them away to kids who come to school barefoot. Once, she gives her uniform to a girl who doesn’t have one and walks home herself in her undershirt.

"Who is this girl?" I ask.

"My sister," she says.

"What happened to her?"

"She died of typhoid fever. Her spirit became a white butterfly and came back to visit our house every year."

The summers in Tehran are long and slow and smeared with boredom. I play cowboys and Indians in the yard with my sisters. My mother teaches me to cook rice, to embroider white handkerchiefs. My teachers have given me homework for all three months of vacation: "Copy the text and the drawings of entire books, word for word, including title and copyright pages. It’s good for your penmanship," they say. "It’s even better for your parents’ peace of mind. "

Sometimes my parents take us to the seashore in the North. We get up in the dark, four in the morning, so we can be there by sunrise. My sisters and I haven’t slept all night from excitement. We drive out of the city and into the mountains beyond. We cross passes so narrow, one false move would land the car at the bottom of a valley. We go through emerald jungles, past crystal waterfalls, across golden rice fields. On the other side, we can smell the sea.

"Tell us a story," we ask my mother in the car.

"There is a woman," she says, "so alone, she lives in a single room in the basement of a house in a town no one visits. She’s not old, but she’s beaten, not mute, but she won’t talk. She sits in her room all day and embroiders white handkerchiefs, signing her name and a blue butterfly in the corner. She has embroidered so many handkerchiefs, her room is overrun by them, stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. In her youth she had been so beautiful, her father used to hide her for fear of avid suitors, so cherished, her mother braided her hair into a dozen strands, then tied each braid with a golden coin. But she fell in love with a man who wasn’t a Jew, and she ran away with him, and when he became old and died, she could not go home to her own people anymore.

"What are the handkerchiefs for?" I ask.

"To dry her tears," she says, "over her sorrow for leaving her home."

In the fall, my mother sends us to school wrapped in coats and shawls and too many sweaters.

"Eat your lunch and keep your sweater on," she says every morning. "Pay attention in class and study hard. You have to go to college, get a job, have a career. A woman is nothing if she doesn’t have a job. Most of all, though, remember not to take your sweater off."

Years later, in America, my son will call her "the sweater police."

"Why does Giti always make me wear sweaters?" he asks, and I find that the answer is on the tip of my tongue, embedded in my consciousness, ready to pour out.

All winter, we walk through snow piled knee-high on the streets to get to school. At home, we do homework till the late hours of the night, watch "Days of Our Lives" on television once a week, eat salami sandwiches on white bread with pickles. My father’s relatives visit every week, sometimes every day. A few of them live with us year-long; a few stay for months at a time. An uncle leaves for Canada with $700 in his pockets and will become one of the richest men in the world. Another uncle sits by a brazier day and night and smokes something I am told is tobacco. My older sister listens to Barry White albums and declares she is going to live in Europe, or America, or anywhere people make that kind of music. My younger sister plays with Barbie dolls and speaks French like a native. I linger around the house, watching my mother and the people she interacts with, listening to their conversations, recording their emotions.

"I am going to send you to Europe to study," my mother declares. "You’d better get good grades and go to a good college. A woman needs higher education, independence, freedom."

I am 13 years old. I must have gotten good grades because I’m about to leave for Europe. My mother buys me a suitcase full of new clothes. She gives me a bracelet made of gold, my name carved on the plate. The day before I am to leave, her own grandmother, the famous Peacock, comes to say goodbye. She’s 80 years old by her own account, 110 by others’. She walks around the streets of Tehran dressed in layers of pink and red and yellow chiffon, her head covered with a scarf, her hair dyed with henna and tied in braids. She gives advice whether you asked for it or not. She tells my mother that birth control is a sin — especially if you are preventing the birth of a boy. She says antibiotics kill people. She says divorce is madness: "A husband," she says, "is like a crown of jewels. With it, a woman is a queen. Without it, she’s nothing but a woman."

She should know, I think. She divorced her own husband a thousand years ago, refused to go back, made a life for herself selling jewels to women with husbands.

In our dining room that day, she puts her hands in her pockets and scoops out fistfuls of color.

"Look here," she says, letting a string of jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires the color of the night — roll off her hands and onto the table. "You can pick what you like."

Through the years of school in Europe and later in the United States, I carry these stories, the voices of the people who spoke them, the mystery that surrounded them, as if they were an arm’s-reach away. In America, I hear different versions of the same truths. I discover facts that my mother had censored in her long-ago tales, I come to conclusions that she will neither deny nor confirm. I find humor, tragedy, drama. I even learn what the great-uncle really smoked in that pipe.

When my stories are published, my mother goes to every one of my readings and brings along her entire family. She reads all the reviews, checks the best-seller lists every week, buys copies of the book at every store in town. She gives the books to her friends, her hairdresser, her kosher butcher, the Israeli Minister of Defense. She brings them to me to autograph before she gives them away. "Write something good," she says. "Make it personal."

I am signing books by the dozen, wondering how to get personal with the butcher, what the Israeli Defense Minister will think of my tales of women who cry into tear-jars and men who balance gold coins at the tips of their male organs.

"Who’s buying all these books?" a reporter asks me when the sales figures show up.

"My mother and my sisters," I say, and the woman laughs, thinking it must be a joke.

But then the dust settles, and the excitement wears off, and my mother actually begins to read this book she has a thousand copies of. She calls me daily to tell me what I got wrong, what I have neglected to mention, what I should have left out. She asks other people what they thought of the book. Everyone has an opinion, especially those who have not read it and do not intend to. They, in fact, are most convinced of what I should and should not have put in these stories, and my mother records their thoughts and repeats them to me loyally.

As if to help her along, my friends confront me and say they never knew what kinds of thoughts circled in my mind. Strangers come up to me at parties and complain that they cried reading a passage, that they were pregnant when they read the book, that crying is bad for pregnant women. American audiences come to my readings and ask me specific questions about individual Iranian neighbors and business partners — as if being Iranian has given me a window into the mind of each and every one of my countrymen, as if we are all the same — predictable and uniform as they have imagined us to be.

I should be writing by consensus, I think. I should take a poll before I start my next book.

This is what I want to say to my readers, what I have tried to conferee in the books: that we are all one and the same — Iranians and Americans and everyone in between; that with a bit of luck, perhaps a bit of skill, I can tell a tale, however personal, which will resonate with readers as foreign to me and my culture as they want to be. That it will resonate with them and remind them of their own lives and bring us, neighbors and strangers alike, together.

It’s spring, just before Mother’s Day, and my mother has called.

"Sign one more book for the rabbi at my temple," she says. "Write something good. Make it personal. I’m coming over to pick it up."

I hang up the phone and watch my children, dressed down to their T-shirts, scramble around the house, looking for their sweaters.

Winona Ryder– Girl Interrupted


At first glance, the author Susanna Kaysen and the actress Winona Ryder have little in common. Kaysen, who is in her 50s and the author of several well-received volumes, grew up upper-middle-class and Jewish in Cambridge, MA and is the daughter of an economics professor. And Ryder, the movie star, spent many of her formative years in a Northern California commune, the daughter of a Jewish hippie intellectual who often chatted around the kitchen table with poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD guru Timothy Leary.

What the two women share, however, are dark memories of childhood’s end; a time in their late teens when each descended into severe depression and landed, for a while, in a psychiatric hospital. Kaysen eloquently wrote about her experience in her best-selling memoir, “Girl Interrupted” — a book that Ryder’s rare book dealer father, Michael Horowitz, chanced to give her in galley form in 1993. At the time, the actress was emerging from her own two-year crisis, and Kaysen’s book was the first she had read, from a women’s perspective, that articulated her own sense of “feeling you are going crazy.”

Which perhaps explains why Ryder became obsessed with the novel and, subsequently, used all her Hollywood clout to bring the story to the screen. It took all of six years, and the actress, who is also making her producing debut, persevered despite the emotional toll. Ryder’s youthful anxiety attacks returned during the three-month shoot at a real psychiatric ward, one that strongly resembled the grim, brick structure where Kaysen was incarcerated in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the Oscar-nominated actress endeavored to finish the film, which, because of the personal connection, she regards as perhaps the most important of her career.

The waiflike Ryder, who has enormous, intense brown eyes, has explained that she did not have to conduct research to portray Kaysen. By the time she was 19, she was in the midst of an identity crisis, the result of virtually growing up on screen, and was suffering from paralyzing insomnia and anxiety attacks. She was exhausted and overworked; there was a painful and public breakup with her first love, actor Johnny Depp, and most troubling of all was that she could not describe her feelings even to her loved ones. “And then, of course, actors are not allowed to complain,” she told the Journal, with a thin smile. “When actors complain, it sounds a little nauseating.”

And so Ryder checked herself into a psychiatric ward, a “stark, bare, scary place where they take everything away from you,” but left a week later, feeling that the stay had not helped her. It was only slowly that she recovered, with the help of a good psychiatrist. But her memories of the experience, she says, were invaluable as she brought “Girl, Interrupted” to the screen.

During the recent Journal interview, Ryder said she has been influenced by another Jewish girl, interrupted: A Russian-Jewish cousin, also an actress, who looked like her and was about her age when she died in the Holocaust. It was Ryder’s grandmother Horowitz, who is now 99 and a resident of Brooklyn, who first showed her the photographs of the young woman and the other relatives who died in the camps. Sometimes, she has said, the dark-haired cousin has been almost like a spirit guide, perhaps as much an influence on her life as Kaysen. “I learned about my family history when I was of the right age to hear about something so tragic,” she says, softly, “and it has been a very big part of my life.”

“Girl, Interrupted” opens this week in Los Angeles.

Mothers and Daughters


White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

Little, Brown, $24..

When author Janet Fitch was 9, her longtime friend disappeared into the netherworld of the Los Angeles foster care system.

The girl’s mother had died, then her father and an elderly aunt. When her older brother, a junkie, was arrested, the terrified child was whisked away to parts unknown and Fitch never saw her again. “That haunted me,” the author says. “To know on a gut level that things could happen, through no fault of your own, and you could just disappear.”

Fitch’s acclaimed, best-selling debut novel, “White Oleander” (Little, Brown $24), explores her childhood concern. The book examines how an adolescent’s life disintegrates after her mother, Ingrid, a coldly beautiful, self-absorbed poet, murders her faithless lover and goes to prison. Twelve-year-old Astrid roams from foster home to foster home in every corner of Los Angeles, struggling to fashion an identity in the company of strangers.

The book’s protagonists are Nordic and non-Jewish, but Fitch says the novel reflects her own Jewish concerns. “White Oleander” began as Fitch was attending a 12-step program and searching for spirituality seven years ago. It was a turning point in her life, she says. Raised in an “overly-assimilated” family in Los Angeles, she wanted her young daughter to have the solid Jewish identity she lacked. She purchased her first menorah and attempted to celebrate Chanukah, though she didn’t know anything about the Festival of Lights. “We sang ‘Light My Fire’ and anything that had the word ‘candle’ in it,” laughs Fitch, who went on to light Shabbat candles and attend High Holiday services.

She also began to think about one of her favorite books, “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon,” which describes a moral system that was anything but Jewish. Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Heian Empress Teishi in 11th-century Japan, lived in a cruel, beautiful world where the sensibility was strictly aesthetic. “I began to wonder, ‘What if a person like that were forced to live in a crummy apartment and work a crummy job at the end of the 20th century?'” says Fitch, who promptly created Ingrid, the monster. “I thought Ingrid was funny, but no one else did. So I gave her a daughter, and then it wasn’t funny anymore. It was a crime against nature.”

Fitch, like the fictional Astrid, is a survivor. A shy, intense child, she once sought to win the favor of a third-grade teacher with a lovingly-rendered short story. “I wanted her to like me,” the Silver Lake author recalls. But the paper came back with nary a remark, save spelling and grammar corrections. “I did not write again until I was 21,” Fitch says.

She cobbled together a living by working as a typesetter and an entertainment journalist, a discipline she loathed. She didn’t sell her first short story for 12 years. During a nursery school exercise, Fitch’s daughter was once asked, “What kind of mail do you receive?” “We get rejection letters,” she replied.

One of them was encouraging, however. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote Fitch that her short story was too long for the Ontario Review, but might make a strong first chapter for a novel. “I kept that Post-It on my computer for years,” says Fitch, who turned the chapter into “White Oleander.”

When the book hit the stores this year, the author was thrilled just to have a publisher. Then Oprah called. The famed talk show host loved the novel and picked it to join her book club. “White Oleander” shot to the top of the best-seller lists and a Warner Bros. movie is in the works.

All the attention has been “surreal,” Fitch says. But, like Astrid, she knows that “anything can happen,” so she has matter-of-factly gone back to work, this time on a novel inspired by her Jewish grandmother’s experience as an exiled New Yorker in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, she is looking forward to appearing on a panel about mothers and daughters at the People of the Book, the Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 16. “The act of considering moral questions is Jewish,” she says of Astrid’s journey in “White Oleander.” “The active, personal involvement with developing an ethical system is one of the major components of Judaism.”

Janet Fitch will appear Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. at the West Valley JCC in West Hills. For information, call (818) 464-3300.