Judaism, neuroscience and the free will hypothesis (Part 2)

The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed.

Not surprisingly, and despite the caveats, some interpreted Libet’s experimental results as proof that one’s actions are not freely made, but, rather, predetermined by unconscious neural activity. In the years following the publication of Libet’s report, other experimenters have not only replicated his work, with more sophisticated measuring devices, they have extended it.

For instance, experiments reported in 1999 by Patrick Haggard and Martin Eimer involved index fingers on both hands, and they calculated both RP and lateralized RP. Subsequently, scientists at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences also utilized right and left index fingers, this time to press a button, and his subjects reported awareness of action not by observing a clock, but by identifying one of many letters streaming by. Brain activity was detected by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”) signals. In a 2008 publication in Nature authored by Chun Siong Soon and others, Soon et al. claimed that brain activity encoding a decision could be detected in the prefrontal and parietal cortex for up to ten seconds before the subject became aware.

Also not surprisingly, the assumptions in and the interpretations of results from these experiments drew criticism, beyond the obvious concern about mistaking correlation (of recorded brain activity) with causation (of a decision to act). And they continue to do so. After all, the average human brain contains billions and billions of nerve cells called neurons. We have recently learned the number of neurons is approximately 86 billion. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by perhaps thousands of synapses, junctions through which neuroactive molecules or electrical impulses travel. The total number of these synaptic connections exceeds 100 trillion. Moreover, while we once believed the brain to be fixed, now we know that is more plastic, and changes constantly.

Even if we were thoroughly familiar with all of these connections, and all of the electrical and chemical processes which operate (or not), and when and why they do (or do not), and also had a complete grasp of neuroplasticity, which understandings we do not currently possess, we clearly do not understand what has been called the Hard Problem, the nature of consciousness. If we do not understand that, then obviously we also do not understand the nature of sub-consciousness. So, what exactly, if anything, Libet and Soon were observing other than some sort of recordable activity is not apparent.

More narrow objections could be and were raised, as well, to the early tests. Florida State philosophy professor Alfred Mele suggested that because subjects might have different understandings of the “awareness of the intention to move” they were to report, the term was too ambiguous to measure to any degree of scientific value. Moreover, even if some readiness potential could be measured, isn’t it possible that RP itself is indicative of nothing more than the result of various stimuli, including being placed in a control room, hearing instructions, and focusing on a specific task? In this view, it would be akin to heightened anxiety that a patient might feel prior or during a conventional physical examination.

In addition, the tests performed were narrow in scope and duration. They generally involved very simple motor functions to be undertaken, or not, within seconds of some signal. But Princeton psychologist and Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman teaches that we think fast and slow. His core observation is that humans operate with two different thought modes. In the first, known as System 1, the brain “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” In the other, known as System 2, the brain “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.” Kahneman associates the operation of System 2 with what we feel as agency and choice.

Is it possible that a person’s brain activity, as recorded by an EEG, an fMRI or some other mode of neuroimaging, would display different results in circumstances where more complex actions are involved, especially over an extended period? Is it conceivable that brain activity would be different if the subjects were in a kitchen and asked to choose how many, if any, eggs they wanted for breakfast, and how they preferred them cooked, and with what bread, what spread and what fruit and drink? And might that kind of brain activity be different still than the kind involved in deciding over the course of a presidential campaign which candidate to support or during courtship deciding whether to select a certain someone for a life partner?

We have no EEGs or other scans that address breakfast or political or marital choices, but some recent experiments suggest that the death of free will, as announced by Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, may have been not just premature, but unwarranted. In 2012, French neuroscientists published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concerning a study about RP which included a variation on Libet’s experiments, specifically an audible cue to the participants to make a movement in response to an unpredictable noise. Rather than reflecting the final causal stages of planning and preparation for movement, Aaron Schurger et al. found that neural activity in the brain fluctuated normally and that decisions about self-initiated movement were “at least partially determined by spontaneous fluctuations” in such activity. In other words, movement might not be determined subconsciously, but may simply occur when the brain is in a sufficient state of arousal.

Similarly, a study undertaken by graduate student Prescott Alexander and his team attempted to isolate motor and non-motor contributions to RP. As reported in 2016 in Consciousness and Cognition, they found that “robust RPs occurred in the absence of movement and that motor-related processes did not significantly modulate the RP.” This suggested to Alexander et al. that the RP measured was “unlikely to reflect preconscious motor planning or preparation of an ensuing movement, and instead may reflect decision-related or anticipatory processes that are non-motoric in nature.” They concluded, in part that “RP does not primarily reflect processes unique to motor execution or preparation, and may not even be primarily generated by the neural activity involved in making a free choice.”

What does this mean? At a minimum, Schurger and Alexander, and their teams, have interrupted what seemed to be developing scientific support for hard determinism and against free will. They have provided scientific grounding for an alternative understanding of previously accumulative data. In the words of cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth (speaking of Schuger et al.), they have opened “the door towards a richer understanding of the neural basis of the conscious experience of volition.”

Consequently, when Alfred Mele argues that science has not disproved free will, he is correct. Science has not falsified the free will hypothesis even once, let alone in the kind of replicable experiment that is the hallmark of the scientific method. At the same time, science has not confirmed the free will hypothesis either. The unsettled state of affairs is not necessarily bad, though, for at least two reasons.

First, the reality is that we are at the early stages of our understanding of both the human brain and levels of consciousness, and we undoubtedly do not even know what we don’t know. For instance, in 2015, neuroscientists were acknowledging that no one knew how the human brain was wired and bemoaning the fact that they could not even map a mouse’s brain, let alone a human one. About a year later, scientists were able to produce a map of the brain’s cerebral cortex with a “new mapping paradigm,” but even so, a participating researcher conceded the limitations of the new map. (See map below.)

Similarly, in early March, 2017, researchers led by neurobiologist and physicist Mayank Mehta at UCLA published a report in the journal Science in which they claim that the brain is much more active than previously believed and that neurons are not purely digital devices, as scientists have held for 60 years, but also “show large analog fluctuations . . . .” If so, according to Mehta, this changes the way we understand how the brain computes information.

The idea of a more powerful, dynamic brain may trigger yet more revisionism concerning free will, as well. Indeed, it is at least conceivable that the reductionists are looking at the picture in the wrong way, zooming in to try to locate and record each signal the brain emits, rather than stepping back for a broader perspective. That is, for all its amazing discoveries and insights, perhaps neuroscience, as commonly practiced today, is too narrow a science. Perhaps there must be some consideration for the possibility that the vast number of neurons and synapses, and their intricate interconnectedness, in conjunction with neural plasticity, yields something greater than the individual cells themselves, even as water is more than its component molecules made of hydrogen and oxygen. Perhaps consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. (See Nelson, The Emergence of God (University Press 2015) at 32-35.) In this view, at a certain level of collective complexity, consciousness emerges. And with it, free will.

From the history of science and technology, we can assume that the pace of our progress will be uneven and the results surprising. Perhaps we will move faster than did our ancestors on the centuries long path from Ptolemy to Copernicus to Hubble (both the man and the telescope). But how much time we will need is not clear. Consider the journey from Wilbur Wright’s first step onto a biplane at Kitty Hawk to Neil Armstrong’s first step off the lunar module Eagle on the Moon, and whether neuroscience is arguably more complex than rocket science.

Second, another reality is that the stakes in the multi-disciplinary debate between free will advocates and determinists go far beyond the musings of philosophers and the reputations of neuroscientists seeking grants and fame. Should science somehow disprove free will, should it show that we are not just influenced by our genes and our physical and social environment, but that our response to each option available to us is truly compelled rather than chosen, it is not too hard to imagine at least two dystopian results.

In the first case, should it be generally known that humans have no free will, and that conduct is in fact predetermined, significant numbers of individuals might well feel released from whatever tenuous social bonds now attach to them and engage in disruptive behavior. We already have some experimental evidence from psychologists Kathleen Vos and Roy Baumeister that supports the idea that weakening a belief in free will leads to “cheating, stealing, aggression, and reduced helping.”

A second worrisome situation that might arise concerns potential screening of individuals for genetic or environmental or other predispositions to anti-social behavior. Might individuals found to possess an anti-social gene be incarcerated or subjected to gene therapy to alter or remove the problematic genetic material? If so, it is not too difficult a leap to rounding up groups of people who, by virtue of their color, ethnicity, geographic origin, socio-economic status or other trait likely share having the offending gene. The infamous Nazi medical experiments on Jews, Roma and others provide a chilling example of the depraved capacity of some humans to mistreat the Other, and to do so ostensibly in the “interest of science” or some asserted “greater good.” Social historian Yuval Harari has warned recently about the merger of Big Data with Big Brother. It is a warning worth heeding.

In many ways, then, the free will hypothesis is more important than the understanding laid out in Genesis with respect to creation and evolution. We have learned a great deal about how our universe came into existence and how life forms have evolved. And we have learned that we can survive quite well with such knowledge. But if the free will hypothesis is incorrect, if we are only products of our genes and our environment and of the purely mechanical interplay of chemistry and physics, if we do not have any meaningful capacity to make choices, then we could still proceed as if we were free and our decisions mattered (a path advocated by some determinists like Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky), but there would be a cloud hanging over us, and, worse, we could not dissipate it. We could not overcome.

Yet, even in the most dire circumstances, some do overcome. Recounting the horrors of the concentration camps, psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl noted that despite the conditions, the actions of some showed that “everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms –to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Why some react one way under pressure (or without it) and others do not remains a mystery, as even Sam Harris has acknowledged. Maybe science will solve that mystery some day, but maybe not. So, perhaps Descartes (1596-1650) was not quite right when he declaredCogito, ergo sum,” that is, “I think, therefore I am.” Perhaps thinking is a necessary but not sufficient element of being. Perhaps we need to be able to choose to be fully alive and vital. Consequently, until, if ever, the scientists prove otherwise: Eligo, ergo sum – I choose, therefore I am. Or at least I think I do. And at least once every year I am grateful to the Deuteronomist for reminding me of the extensive menu of blessings and curses that is set out before me, and for his emphatic call to choose life.

Which do you choose — blessings or curses?

As we journey through the month of Elul, it is customary to comment on the weekly Torah portions in light of the upcoming Days of Awe. Parshat Ki Tavo is
read a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and its overriding theme is one that we encounter several times during the High Holy Days: blessing vs. curse.

“And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to the word of God” (Deuteronomy 28:2) Moses says as his introduction to a beautiful description of blessings presented as a reward for following the covenant with God. By way of contrast, Moses also warns: “If you will not listen to the voice of God … all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15), and for the next 53 verses Moses describes a list of dark and devastating curses as punishment for abandoning the word of God.

This “blessing vs. curse” motif, so prevalent on the High Holy Days, is uniquely expressed in Sephardic customs. For instance, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy opens the evening service with a poem whose refrain is “May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.”

When we come home from Arvit, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is the rooting out of curse and the aspiration for blessing. We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for “tear up” is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will “tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God.”

We eat pieces of a fish or lamb’s head, and in a blessing lifted straight from Moses’ blessings in this week’s parasha, we say “May we always be the head, and not the tail” (see Deuteronomy 28:13 — “And God will make you the head, and not the tail”).

One of the most popular expressions of “blessing vs. curse” on the High Holy Days is the image of God seated with two books open before Him: The Book of Life (Blessing) and the Book of Death (Curse). Our liturgy says “Oh God, the Books of Life and Death are opened before You today.”

In the Sephardic tradition, as an expression of alienating ourselves from curses, the custom is that when the hazzan chants this prayer, he changes it to “Oh God, the Good Book of Life is open before You today.”

I guess we assume that God does not have a High Holy Days machzor, or, perhaps it is the outgrowth of another custom, one associated with this week’s parasha. When reading the sixth aliyah, which begins with the blessings and then transitions into the curses, the custom is that when the curses begin, the hazzan lowers his voice and reads the entire lengthy section in a whispering voice. As much as the “Book of Death” or the curses are clear and present in the machzor and in the Torah, it’s unpleasant to chant them in a loud voice.

Throughout Moses’ dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.

Around the same Sephardic table, the Rosh Hashanah seder also includes dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say “She-yitamu oyvenu” (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu — consumed — sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say “She-yikartu oyvenu” (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu — cut off — sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say “She-yisalku oyvenu” (May our enemies disappear; yisalku — disappear — sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life’s most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.

The section describing the blessings continuously repeats the word mitzvot, associating the performance of God’s commandments (mitzvot) with a life of blessing. The Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder concludes with this theme, as we eat pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds mixed with sugar, both prefaced by saying “May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds” or “May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and sweet as sugar.”

This fitting end to the seder is a reflection of our deepest yearnings to live a life filled with the blessings that can come when performing God’s mitzvot.

As I read this parasha going into the High Holy Days, I feel blessed with many things, one of which is my rich Sephardic heritage. Even if you’re not Sephardic, you might want to try bringing these blessings into your own home. It’s certainly more diverse than a mere apple dipped in honey.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Shopping for back to shul

It can be an exhausting process. And it can sometimes be exhilarating. Because of the hundreds of possibilities among Los Angeles’ shuls, success in finding the perfect one for you and your family too often seems just one more visit away.

Whether you are new to organized Jewish life, have kids, are pinching your pennies or just want a spiritual home base, there are four questions that are best answered before you begin your shul shopping.

First and foremost is your denomination, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other special non- or trans-denomination. Then there is the question of community: Are you becoming a member of a congregation because of the religious aspect of Judaism, to find friends or both? Most congregations offer a mix of social and sacred activities, but it’s worth asking yourself where your priorities lie.

Now for question No. 2: What specific features must your synagogue have?

If your main priority is a high-quality religious education program for your children, this city is packed with terrific congregation-affiliated day schools, preschools and religious schools. However, a well-regarded school can provide other challenges for small synagogues. For example, Temple Isaiah has struggled for years to retain families who join for the shul’s renowned preschool but split for larger congregations with more to offer post-graduation.

These days, joining congregations with affiliated day schools has become more popular than ever among parents seeking religious education for their children, and, in turn, membership has become necessary for securing a space on the school’s enrollment list. For example, enrollment at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy or Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school is only available to the shul’s members.

Here’s a tip: Becoming a member at a synagogue can sometimes lead to some cost cuts when it comes to the education of your kids. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s nursery and elementary schools are open to the Jewish community at large, but substantial tuition discounts (not to mention higher positions on the waiting list totem pole) are given to member families because the congregation subsidizes the schools.

For those seeking a religious supplement to the secular education of their children, religious school on afternoons or weekends is key. However, in most cases, the right to send your children to these schools is only given to congregants.

Parents or professionals with full agendas might want to find a synagogue with a flexible schedule of religious services. Congregations have progressively become more willing to compromise when it comes to scheduling in order to attract a wider range of members. Beth Jacob in Pico-Robertson (one of Los Angeles’ largest Orthodox congregations) offers three Shacharit minyamim every morning. Other synagogues have experimented with shorter services and earlier Friday night services for families who want to eat Shabbat dinner together.

If you have never belonged to a congregation before, take a look at the shul’s adult education program. Numerous synagogues offer courses introducing new members to Jewish life.

For widows, widowers or divorcees, a synagogue with singles mixers or a mourner’s club may be the place for you to meet new people.

The singles scene has become an active part of congregational life in Los Angeles. Events like Friday Night Live (on the second Friday of every month) at Sinai Temple cater to the 25 to 40 crowd and have become popular for matchmaking and phone number-swapping.

But beyond all this, connecting with a synagogue’s rabbis is often the most important part of a shul search. If you don’t like the rabbis, it won’t be much fun sitting through their High Holy Days sermons every year. Most will be more than happy to take the time to talk with you as you visit their congregation. Let them know your interests and what appeals to you – or doesn’t – about their offerings. How they address your concerns could give you as much information as what they have to say.

Another important intangible is the lay leadership. Temple presidents and boards decide what occurs on a daily basis at the shul, so it can be useful to speak to at least one board member to get a sense of the ruling body’s future plans. In addition, talking to the synagogue’s executive director and event coordinator can give you some insight on what it means to be a part of a congregation. Be careful, though, and take whatever they have to say with a grain of salt – after all, it is their job to convince you to join their shul.

If community outreach is important to you, look for a shul with an abundance of “social action” activities. For the politically minded, find a congregation that has a “social justice” program, a feature that is rising in popularity among congregations throughout the city.

On to question No. 3: How big do you want the congregation to be? Houses of worship like Stephen S. Wise Temple (the largest congregation in the United States) offer countless ways to explore every aspect of Jewish life, including major lecture series and events, but some people prefer smaller congregations. When you make your decision, don’t forget to keep your children in mind. Shared b’nai mitzvahs and large class sizes are staples of shuls like Wilshire Boulevard Temple. At the same time, kids can connect with a wide variety of friends in larger congregation.

Finally, question No. 4: How much are you willing to pay in membership dues? Most shuls have price tags of at least $1,500 for a yearly family membership, but, if money is tight for your family, some dues subsidy may be offered. Do not be shy. The vast majority of synagogues don’t turn away members because they cannot afford the annual fee. You need to sit down with the rabbi or executive director of the shul and tell them about your financial quandary. And for the devout, joining a Chabad might be the way to go, since membership is completely free of charge.

Don’t forget that what is most important when looking for a congregation is to find an environment that provides comfort, community and challenges. Make sure that you take time and are thoughtful on your shul shopping expedition. This is one purchase that is not easily returned.

I’m ready to take the wheel

I turned 16 on June 26. After so many years of impatiently waiting, and six months of misjudging left turns and getting away with some pretty serious traffic violations while my mother sat horrified in the passenger seat, I am finally eligible for my driver’s license. Sayonara, learner’s permit. I can, in theory, do as I please, whenever I please. I am, in short, free.

I had been looking forward to getting my license for so long, because you need to be able to drive yourself in Los Angeles, right? Isn’t it necessary to show off your car to your friends, to finally give your parents a break from chauffeuring you everywhere, to get from Point A to Point B? Isn’t that what driving is all about? As I thought about this milestone, I realized that driving is symbolic of something much greater.

In Los Angeles and at my school, Harvard-Westlake, driving has become a deplorable status symbol, and I fell into the trap. I used to gaze in admiration at the juniors and seniors rolling onto campus in their shiny cars. They all noticed the mesmerized faces of the underclassmen, but they always maintained an air of nonchalant coolness. I could practically read their minds: “I am so awesome because I drove to school. I even picked up a latte on the way here.” Those people were my heroes. I used to think that when I turned 16, my moment in the spotlight of the school driveway would arrive, and I was going to milk it for everything it was worth. I, too, wanted to be awesome and put lattes in my cupholders.

When I finally got behind the wheel of a car myself, conceit and self-importance set in. If ever I saw someone with that familiar awe-struck gape staring at my car during one of my innumerable driving lessons, I would think, with a shameful amount of pride, “I am cooler than you because I am operating a motor vehicle right now.”

Now that I actually am 16 and will soon be taking my driving test, I realize how arrogant I was as I pondered the significance of getting my license. Driving isn’t about showing off or feeling cool. To me, driving represents the freedom I have been given to choose how I want to live my life.

Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said that with great power comes great responsibility. I say that great responsibility comes with great freedom. Driving, in a way, is my platform to make an impact on my own in the world. I now choose what to do with my time, but too much independence too soon can be overwhelming. The laminated card entrusted to me by the Department of Motor Vehicles gives me the opportunity to pick a side in the epic battle of right and wrong. Like the aforementioned web-slinger, I want to use my newfound powers for good.

Before I turned 16, I would often use my inability to drive as an excuse for laziness. If I was sitting at home watching television on a Saturday morning instead of feeding the homeless, I could justify it. “My parents don’t have the time to drive me there,” I told myself. “I don’t want to inconvenience them.” At 16, my inactivity is no longer defensible. I now have the option of either driving to the mall to have fun or driving to an animal shelter or a food bank to volunteer my time and have a rewarding experience. It seems obvious, but I’m not a saint, so I plan to find a balance between serving myself and serving the community. I expect the choices I will have to make about where I will drive to be a source of some serious angst — I’ve never had to make these kind of decisions for myself before, but I’m ready to take the wheel.

I used to wonder why you had to wait until you were 16 to get a driver’s license. I now realize that an incredible amount of responsibility is involved in being in the front seat because of what driving means. Driving shouldn’t be a method of flaunting yourself, but it shouldn’t just be about reaching your destination either. For me, driving means having a choice about what to do and where to go and, at 16, I’m ready to choose for myself.

Derek Schlom will be a junior at Harvard-Westlake this fall. He is interning at The Jewish Journal this summer.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the August issue is July 15; Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Ed Koch wants Prager out — will ask him to resign from Holocaust Memorial Council next week

(WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 12) The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council faces
continuing questions over recent statements by
one of its members, local commentator and writer Dennis Prager.

But the panel, which oversees the Holocaust
Museum on Washington’s Mall, has no answers,
since it had no role in appointing Prager and no
way of removing him. Prager was appointed to the
Council in September, but has not attended any
meetings since it has not met since then, and has
not been appointed to any committees.

Prager generated protests from across the
political spectrum when he wrote that Keith
Ellison, elected to the U.S. House on November 7,
shouldn’t be allowed to take the oath of office on a Quran.

In January Ellison will become the first Moslem
in Congress; although members do not get sworn in
on any holy book, he has said he would bring a
Quran to the private ceremony that many members use as a swearing-in photo op.

That offended the conservative Prager, who wrote
that allowing congressional oaths on a Quran
“undermines American civilization. “If you are
incapable of taking an oath on (the Bible), don’t serve in Congress.”

A long list of Jewish leaders quickly condemned
his comments, and former New York Mayor Ed Koch
demanded that he quit the Council.

Koch is also a Council member, and in an
interview he said he will seek Prager’s
resignation at the December 18 Council meeting.

“If they permit it, I will introduce a motion to
condemn him,” Koch said. “I am hopeful he will
resign, because I think he can’t do anything
other than discredit the Museum with what he has said.”

Koch said Prager’s comments undermine the basic
message the Museum was created to disseminate.

“I believe it is the duty of members of the board
to spread the message that attacks on people as a
result of their religion, ethnicity, race, are
all to be condemned wherever we have an
opportunity to raise our voices,” he said.

Prager, he said, is doing just the opposite by
“creating such an attack on a Muslim.”

Koch — a former member of Congress himself —
said he would have “no objection if sacred books
were used” for swearing in purposes — including the Bible or the Quran.

One Council member expressed frustration at the
position Prager’s comments have put the Museum in.

“We are caught in an impossible situation,” this
source said. “Because the controversy has gone so
public, it is hurting the Museum and its mission
— but we have no control over who is on the
board, we have no way of getting Prager to resign
other than simply asking him to.”

This source said that far from resigning, Prager
has asked fellow Council members to support him.

The White House has declined to comment on the
Prager controversy, and several Council members
said this week that they do not believe any of
their colleagues are lobbying the administration to remove him.

One of the Museum’s founders said Prager was
probably a poor choice for the panel.

“A pundit’s job is to stir up controversy,” said
Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a former
Council member and Museum official. “Prager
views himself as a great ethicist, as a moral
voice, but on this issue he has gone off on a
profoundly alienating tangent. He sure doesn’t help the Council.”

Berenbaum said Prager’s comments suggest a
“religious test for public office. And that’s
wrong; it goes against the whole thrust of Jewish activism in this country.”

The issue is especially nettling because the
Museum, caught up in several explosive
controversies in its early years, has largely
steered clear of public flaps under the
leadership of Fred Zeidman, a Bush confidante and the current Council chair.

Prager won’t apologize after slamming Quran in Congress

Conservative pundit Dennis Prager has come under fire from Muslim and Jewish groups after he attacked an incoming Muslim congressman who plans to bring a Quran to the House swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4.

But Prager said he stands by statements made in his column published Nov. 28 on the Townhall.com Web site and has no intention of apologizing to Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or his critics.

“I called on [Ellison] not to break a 200-year tradition,” Prager, who is also a radio talk show host, told The Journal. “He thinks it’s important, and I think it’s important.”

“If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” Prager wrote, adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”

Ellison’s decision to carry a Quran into the ceremony has infuriated some conservatives, who draw a fine line between constitutional rights and American tradition. However, Ellison has some defenders in the GOP. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told McClatchy Newspapers that Ellison’s ability to hold the book of his choice while he takes his oath embodies freedom of religion.

Prager is also being taken to task for equating Ellison’s proposed use of the Quran at the swearing-in ceremony with a racist toting a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” “On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?” he wrote.

Prager defends the Quran-“Mein Kampf” parallel in his Nov. 5 column, saying he was presenting a slippery-slope argument and was not defaming Islam. He writes thatpeople who draw such conclusions are “deliberately lying to defame me rather than respond to my arguments. A slippery slope argument is not an equivalence argument.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called for Prager, who broadcasts locally on KRLA-AM 870, to be removed from his recent appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prager’s five-year term as a presidential appointee to the council expires on Jan. 15, 2011.

CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote in a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, council chair: “No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had and continues to have on every society.”

The Anti-Defamation League labeled the Nov. 28 column as “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American,” adding that Prager’s recent appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council holds him to a higher standard.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wants Prager to apologize directly to Ellison, who converted to Islam from Catholicism as a 19-year-old college student. “The notion that the exercise of your first amendment rights should be banned because someone else might misuse your words or misinterpret your actions violates two centuries of Supreme Court rulings,” Saperstein said.

Prager is a popular speaker among Jewish groups around the country,
commanding appearance fees upwards of $10,000.

While most of these groups, contacted this week by The Forward newspaper,
declined to comment on Prager’s remarks, several said they would reconsider
inviting Prager barring an apology from him.

“There’s lines you draw, and Dennis probably crossed the line,” Stephen
Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said in
an interview with the Forward. “Just because we can get by with the first
Five Books and some people say it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay for the next
guy to stand up and say if they can’t swear on a Christian Bible, they’re
not qualified. He’s pandering… [and] I wouldn’t want the Muslim community to
bring in a panderer. So that’s what we’d have to think about.”

In his Nov. 28 column, Prager claimed that all members of Congress, including Jews, use a Christian Bible for the swearing-in ceremony.

However, members of Congress are sworn in together in a simple ceremony that only requires that the representatives raise their right hand. Individuals may carry a sacred text, but its presence isn’t required. Representatives can bring in whatever they want, said Fred Beuttler, House of Representatives deputy historian.

In his column, Prager also claimed that no “Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.” In 1997, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), a Mormon, carried a Bible that included the Book of Mormon to his swearing-in ceremony.
But Ellison’s use of a Quran isn’t without precedent. In 1999, Osman Siddique became the first Muslim to serve abroad as a U.S. ambassador, and he took his oath using both a Quran and a Bible.

Prager told The Journal that he would have no problem if Ellison brought along a Bible in addition to the Quran. And while he agrees that Ellison has the constitutional right to use only the Quran, Prager thinks the incoming freshman should consider the cultural and historic implications of his act.

“It’s an unbroken tradition since George Washington, and he wants
to substitute it with his values,” he said.

Prager said he will not take Saperstein up on his call for an apology to Ellison. Instead, he believes groups like the ADL and the Religious Action Center have wronged him.

“I think Saperstein owes me an apology,” Prager said. “It’s chutzpah … arrogance on his part.”

To read Dennis Prager’s column on Ellison, click here.

A night at the homeless shelter

545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.

It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.

During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food.
The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.

As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.

“Hi, I’m Jackie, how are you doing today?”

She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.

Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.

During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.

The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever.

My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.

Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.

The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (julief@jewishjournal.com.

Loyalty to Jews or to humanity? There is no ‘either-or’

The question is whispered and must be answered in a forthright manner: Darfur or Israel? Is your loyalty to your people or to humanity? Is your loyalty to Judaism or to mankind? Are you essentially a Jew or a human being?

Be wary of the framing of the question, because it forces a stranglehold on us, a hard disjunctive either-or choice. It is like the question my aunt asked me as a child: “Tell the truth, dear. Do you love your father or your mother?” That is a cruel option.

For a Jew, to love Judaism is to love humanity. That is basic Jewish theology. God of Israel is global, not tribal. The traditional formula for our liturgy reads, “Blessed are Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.” Melach ha-olam. We are the custodians of the world and its inhabitants.

The righteous indignation of the Jewish prophets was not restricted to Jews or Judaism. The prophets' call to repentance was not for Israel alone. In Judaism, the defense of human dignity never was, or is, for Jews only. When we open the Bible, we learn that the first Jew, Abraham, first defended not Jews but the pagan citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah and confronted God: “Shall the Judge of all the world not do justice?” Abraham spoke to God in passionate defense of the people of Sodom, none of whom were Jews.

On Yom Kippur, we read that the prophet Jonah was sent to prophesy to the people of Ninevah, none of whom were Jews. They repented for their transgressions, and God repented for his punishment.

The prophet Amos addressed God's concern not only for Israel but for the people in Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab.

Do you love your people or humanity? We reject the premise.

To be a Jew is to love humanity. To love God is to love His creation. On Rosh Hashanah, we do not celebrate the birth of any of our Jewish patriarchs — not Abraham nor Moses. Our High Holy Day calendar does not celebrate the birth of a Jewish messiah or the accomplishments of any of its Jewish prophets. The Jewish calendar is calculated not as 2006 C.E. or sixth Century B.C.E. but commemorates the birth of the universe and of all humanity.

In the beginning, God created Adam. Adam has no race, no ethnicity and no creed. Adam is each man and each woman and each child created in the image of God. So, in the first chapter of Genesis, we read: “And God created the human being in God's image, male and female, created He them.”

When the sages ask “from what continent? From what corners of the earth — south, west, east or north — and from what color earth was Adam formed?” they reply, “Adam was formed from every corner of the earth and out of black, white, red and yellow dust.”

If you hurt my brother or my sister — black, white, yellow, red — in Europe, Asia, Africa or America — if you humiliate, torture, torment them, you rip apart the image of God. It is my flesh, soul and heart that you wound. It is my flesh that is pierced and my tongue you cut out and my eyes you make blind.

The God of the universe did not create Islam or Christianity or Judaism. God created Adam, the human being, who through his religious choice cultivates religious culture, conscience and compassion.

Wise people repudiate the making of false either-or choices. The choice is not either-or: either our own or others; either we shed tears for our family alone or for the other families of the earth.

Compassion and justice are not like pieces of pie. Cut a slice for yourself; you take away from the other. Your pie is too small. Your god is too small.

True love and mercy are inclusive, expansive, embracing, enlarging. So, our sages taught “mitzvah goreret mitzvah” — one good deed leads to another. Love of the Children of Israel leads to love of all the children in God's world. The moral choice is not either-or. The Jewish response is “both-and.”

Like charity, love begins at home, but it must not end there. If it ends at home, it is not love and charity but tribal narcissism. Therefore, in our tradition, we are mandated to care for the poor, the pariah, the diseased, the murdered of all humanity. We are mandated to feed the hungry of the stranger, together with the hungry of Israel. We comfort the bereaved of the alien, together with the bereaved of Israel. We visit the sick of the nations of the world with the sick of Israel.

Above all, Jews and non-Jews must not fall victim to the humiliating game of “one downsmanship” — “my genocide is worse than your genocide.” Your blood is not as red as my blood. Genocide, no matter its color, ethnicity or religion of any fabric is the ultimate blasphemy to the image of godliness.

Loyalty to Jews or humanity? The Torah teaches a kinship of suffering, whether the victims threatened are in Judea, Armenia, Chad, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur — all souls are threatened. And on Yom Kippur, we fast for all who are afflicted with drought and famine.

It is a false choice: Do you love your children or the children of others? On the contrary, because we love our children, we love other children. Because we love our families, we love other families. Because we mourn our Holocaust, we mourn the holocausts of the world.

It is perilous to abandon the particular in order to love the universal. It is equally foolhardy to abandon the universal for the particular.

As the philosopher George Santayana noted: “You cannot speak in general without using any language in particular.” Judaism is our particular language through which we address humanity. From out of the depth and memory of our own pain, we cry to alleviate the pain of our brothers and sisters.

A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’

Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

The Right Choice

“It’s terrible,” a friend of mine said this week. We ran into each other outside Peets, hot beverages in hand.

“What is?” I asked.

“What Israel is doing,” she said.

When you want to avoid a confrontation over Israel sometimes it’s best to act like an Israeli. So I shrugged and made that annoying little clicking sound with my tongue and teeth. She waited for a longer answer, but I hadn’t had my coffee. In a world where people get their news 24 hours a day, there is the expectation that other people actually want to talk about it 24 hours a day. I don’t. Especially with someone whose mind is already made up.

But I felt I was disappointing her, so I offered a tidbit. The mayor’s office had called me to say that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was about to place an early morning “solidarity call” to the mayor of Sderot, whose Negev development town has suffered an endless barrage of crude and often deadly rocket attacks since Israel left Gaza in Palestinian hands. Then they called back to say that in the midst of the call, the mayor’s expression of support was interrupted by three more Qassam rockets slamming into Sderot.

She looked at me. “He wants to be governor,” she said. “He’ll do whatever he has to.”

Her cynicism isn”t impossible to understand. The more chaotic the violence in Israel, the more predictable the reaction in Los Angeles.

Take the recent maelstrom in Gaza: the unceasing barrage of missiles from that godforsaken strip into Israel, the long-premeditated kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas, Israel’s harsh and bloody incursion into the region it unilaterally surrendered less than a year ago.

These developments served as curtain calls for a cast of surrogate actors here, 10,000 miles away.

First came the anti-Israel protests in front of the Federal Building in Westwood and the Israeli consulate on mid-Wilshire. The protesters are Arab Americans and Israel’s critics on the left. They boil their Chomsky down to placard-size slogans for the evening news: “Israel Out of Palestine,” “Stop Israeli Genocide.”

Across the street the hard-core pro-Israel counter-protesters gather. Clued in to the gathering via the ANSWER Web site, they use e-mail and phone trees to alert their own forces.

At some point the local news looks for man-on-the-street reactions. The camera trucks prowl Fairfax or set up in a synagogue for a rabbi’s remark. Someone from the Wiesenthal Center stands up for Israel. Someone from MPAC stands up for the Palestinians. Cut to weather.

If the violence builds, there will be vigils, letter-writing campaigns, op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, angry letters in response to the op-eds, debates on local public radio stations between political opponents and, of course, dialogues over tea and baklava between those Arabs and Jews still in a civil mood.

And so it goes, as well-meaning people try to mobilize their constituencies, or gain the sympathy of a largely apathetic public, or simply try to insert themselves in a life-and-death struggle that they care about but can scarcely affect.

The effect is to make it seem that nobody’s using their head, just their heart. The same actors make the same points with more current facts, and then disappear until the next wave of violence hits.

In the midst of the latest kabuki, what stood out — what made this fight different from all other fights — was the mayor’s call.

There is no way I could argue that politics had nothing to do with the call, because the mayor is a politician. But there are a lot less risky ways to please Jewish voters than taking sides in an awful fight. The images on the nightly news are of Palestinians — men, women and children — bloodied or killed by Israeli attacks. Occasionally, there’s a picture of a Palestinian Qassam rocket leaving a ditch behind in Israel. The controversy is raw and unsettling, yet the mayor made a call.

Another fact: the mayor already has the Jewish vote, and he shows up in shul more often than most Jews I know. All he stood to gain by making his call was angering the anti-Israel left, alienating a good many of his Arab American constituents, and leaving some Angelenos carping that an L.A. mayor’s time is better spent stopping drive-bys in South Central rather than missile launches in Gaza.

But there’s nothing wrong in pointing out, if only symbolically, that the TV images aren’t telling the whole story.

It is true that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has launched a military reaction to the kidnapping and rocket attacks that has been unnecessarily cruel and destructive. In doing so, he has squandered the vast sums of moral capital Israel has accrued in dealing with Hamas.

But Israel’s missteps don’t erase the fact that Hamas, with Gaza as its own, still chose to fire rockets into Israel. With the Israelis finally out, Hamas still attacked. Olmert no doubt looked north, to southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah terrorists have followed Israel’s withdrawal with more attacks and a continuous buildup of missiles, and sought a way to make it clear Israel wouldn’t stand for it.

But don’t take a Jewish journalist’s word for it. Many Arab commentators have also, correctly, known where the blame lies. Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, writes in Lebanon’s The Daily Star, that Hamas is trying to turn the Palestinian quest for statehood into a pan-Islamist movement.

“Indeed, some Hamas leaders are acting as if they might even prefer to avoid resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since the pan-Islamic movement and those states supporting its activities stand to benefit more from keeping the cause alive and the conflict going than by ending it,” he writes. “What is happening is an attempt to subordinate the Palestinian cause and national movement to a broader Islamist regional program and the states exploiting this. Palestinians need to recognize that if, having freed themselves from the grip of the interests of Arab states, they allow themselves to become pawns in a regional Islamist strategy, this could well signal the end of the Palestinian national movement.”

Take that into account, and tell me if you don’t think the mayor made the right call.

Top 10 Things to Do Before the Change

No matter where you are in the menopause transition, it’s never too late (or early) to get your health act together to ensure the next 40 or so years are as terrific as or better than the first were. Here are 10 things you can do right now.

1. Choose the right health-care provider

Perimenopause is the perfect time to find a health-care provider you can trust to help you manage any serious medical problems, should they arise in the future. Ask your friends for recommendations or check out the NAMS list of credentialed Menopause Practitioners (

Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past

“Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America” by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).

Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child’s hero and an adult’s hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and ’90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press’s father’s colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper’s bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.

The release of “Absolute Convictions” could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, “would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders,” Press writes.

It would also deeply affect the career of Press’ father and the life of his family — who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like “24-hour surveillance” and “death threats” into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian’s death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of “life,” “choice” and “freedom” that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian’s murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement — political and religious — to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult’s understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family’s history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.

Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms — the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout “Absolute Convictions,” however, Press’s admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of “My dad does the right thing” into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.

The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck’s Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck’s office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics — including Press’s father’s practice — was “one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in,” Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.

“If I place myself in Schenck’s shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration,” he writes. “At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters — they were doing their best to make my father’s life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me — a world where every unborn child represents God’s creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture — the ethical imperative is clear.”

At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press’ account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants — some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press’s complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.


Eco-Friendly Parties Mix Mitzvah, Simcha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links related to this article:

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

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


Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move

The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.


PASSOVER: 10 Contemporary Plagues

In the Passover haggadah, we read of the 10 Plagues that God sent to convince Pharoah to let the Hebrew slaves go free. The plagues — bloody, violent, magical — are a dramatic highpoint of the narrative. Mindful of the pain these plagues brought even to innocent Egyptians, Jews have traditionally spilled out a drop of their festive seder wine at the recitation of each plague.

We don’t suggest that these modern plagues are the work of a punitive God or punishment for society’s wrongdoing — we’ll leave that analysis to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But we recall that with the original plagues, the rabbis tell us, the purpose was to instruct the Israelites as much as to punish the Egyptians. In that light, we offer 10 contemporary plagues, named in Hebrew, as an opportunity to mourn their victims and discuss how we can prevent them and their like from plaguing us next year.

PASSOVER: Don’t Be a Slave to Tradition

When I was growing up, I never had to ask my mother what she would be serving at the seder. It was essentially the same menu every year: dishes like homemade chopped liver, chicken soup with matzah balls, turkey with gravy, mom’s special “Shabbos potatoes” (first boiled then roasted with seasonings) and matzah farfel with mushrooms. All tasty foods, of course, but the predictability was not that exciting, to put it mildly, in deference to my mother, who surely worked hard.

Why is this night the same as every other seder night? I’d ask. “Because that’s what my mother made,” she’d reply.

As she talked about the seders she’d had with her parents and grandparents, her face glowed, as if they were there preparing the seder with her. She even used my grandmother’s cooking methods: She chopped the liver by hand, in a large wooden bowl, using a hockmesser — a sort of cleaver with a rounded blade. She cut up fresh horseradish for maror, instead of using milder romaine lettuce.

Here was my dilemma when I came of age and began making my own seders: Should I maintain tradition even though I didn’t have the same associations with these foods that my mother did? Since Passover celebrates freedom (another traditional name for the holiday is Zman Cheiruteinu, or The Time of Our Freedom), I wanted to express my freedom by making foods of my own choosing, rather than feeling bound by a menu that was “traditional” only due to its roots in Eastern European cuisine.

Over the years I’ve served at some nontraditional dishes at seders, including beanless chili, gazpacho, short ribs and bruschetta served on small pieces of matzah instead of the traditional toast. But my favorite dishes are those that tap back into the deep roots of this holiday. They allow me to create new traditions via foods that took on Passover-related significance.

Another name for the holiday is chag ha’aviv, or the spring holiday. So I focus on foods that are seasonal, whose flavors evoke the freshness of spring. Other dishes aim at connecting with the many ceremonies associated with Passover.

Ceviche is a fish dish of Peruvian origin, now served widely across South America. The fish is marinated in lime or lemon juice, with the citric acid actually cooking the fish without the use of heat. In this version, the two different kinds of fish present a nice mix of color and texture, while the vegetables also add color and flavor. The tangy freshness of this blend awakens the palate, as spring weather does to the body.

While Sephardim have it a bit easier on Passover, Ashkenazim have basically two starches to choose from: potatoes and matzah. Nearly every other starch falls under the category of kitniot, which are literally legumes, but include rice and corn, and are forbidden to Eastern European Jews.

There is, however, another choice that offers variety, along with taste and healthfulness. Quinoa. The grain was never classified as kitniot because it was unknown in Europe at the time the custom was established. It has a vaguely nutty taste, is extremely high in protein and low in carbohydrates. In this recipe, the lemon juice picks up on the ceviche’s citrus, and the dish is prepared almost like tabouli. But the key ingredient is certainly the fresh mint, which adds a perky crispness that clearly recalls spring.

A great centerpiece dish is lamb and Jerusalem artichoke stew. Lamb has particular Passover significance, connecting with the paschal lamb offering both in Egypt, and later in the Temple. And although Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes (they are actually sunflower tubers with an artichoke-like flavor), the name still reminds us of our annual seder proclamation to celebrate “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Plus, they are fresh in season during March and April, as are many of the wild mushrooms in this hearty stew.

Of course, there are many other dishes that can tap into the seasonal and customary aspects of Passover. Express your freedom by cooking almost anything you’d typically make for a Sabbath meal, just leaving out certain ingredients!

Two-Fish Ceviche

1 1/4 pound tuna steak
1 1/4 pound firm white fish (tilapia, trout or sea bass work great)
2 medium jalapenos, seeds and membranes removed, diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
juice of five to 10 limes
lemon juice
1 avocado, sliced

Remove any skin from fish, using a sharp paring knife. Cut tuna into cubes about 1-inch wide. Slice white fish into strips, about 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inches.

In a glass or plastic bowl, mix fish with jalapenos, cilantro and lime. Add juice of limes. If limes did not yield enough juice to cover all fish, add enough lemon juice to cover.

Refrigerate, covered, for 90 minutes to two hours, stirring mixture every 15-20 minutes.

Serve in small bowls or cups. Garnish each with a half-moon of avocado.

Serves eight.

Note: If made earlier in the day, remove most of the juice after two hours (or once all fish has darkened in color) to avoid over-marinating.

Quinoa Pilaf With Fresh Mint

2 cups raw quinoa (available in specialty markets)
4 cups water
1/2 medium red onion, diced
2 scallions, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix quinoa and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce flame and simmer covered for 15 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed.

Remove quinoa to a large bowl and let cool.

Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.

Serves eight.

Lamb and Jerusalem Artichoke Stew

2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dry light red wine (Chianti or Cote-du-Rhone, for example)
2 cups water
1 1/2 pounds Jerusalem artichokes, peeled, larger ones chopped to uniform size with smaller ones (available in specialty markets, sometimes sold as “sunchokes”)
2 pounds mixed wild mushrooms, chopped thick (cremini or shitake, for example)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 carrots, chopped large
2 small turnips, chopped large
2 white or golden potatoes, chopped large
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh thyme

In a Dutch oven, brown lamb in 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, approximately five minutes. Add Jerusalem artichokes, wine and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and skim any excess fat from the top of the pot.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add brown mushrooms, stirring, approximately five minutes. Remove to bowl. Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, sweet onions and garlic for about three minutes. Add to mushrooms.

Add carrots, turnips and potatoes to lamb pot. Stir to cover vegetables, and cook for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are softened.

Add mushroom mixture, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered until liquid reduces by about one-third, then continue covered, 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Remove thyme and bay leaves, and serve on plates.

Serves eight.

Joel Haber (funjoel.blogspot.com) is a freelance writer and screenwriting consultant. He loves to cook because he loves to eat.

Then Came the Boyfriend

With Passover around the corner, singletons everywhere are faced with a tough choice. Do you bring the person you’re dating to the family seder? Or do you simply wish him or her a “chag sameach” and go off to your separate family celebrations. At the beginning of relationships we all face the issue of the timeline: How soon is too soon for the inevitable family Shabbat dinner invitation? After you become an official couple does that mean that your significant other is now automatically invited to all family events?

For the next few weeks I’ll be wrestling with these questions. Granted, I’m elated to be able to have such issues to deal with, instead of just wishing I had someone to invite. But in the end it comes down to this: Do I want my newly minted boyfriend to be the new guy at the seder table? The one everyone in the family will smile shyly at, not quite knowing if it’s rude to bluntly ask, “Who are you?” The one my cousins will take turns asking me about, “Soooo, who is your friend?” “Is he your friend … or your (put on a fake seductive look and say in a pseudo-musical term) friend?”

Now some might not struggle so much about this issue — maybe their family seder is simply a glorified meal. A wha-bah-haggadah deal that lasts an hour or so and is done before anyone gets sleepy. If that were my family, I’d have no issues; I’d easily invite him: “Come, eat, you’ll enjoy yourself.”

But, you see, my family doesn’t just “do” a seder — we capital “D” capital “O”, “DO” a seder. We sit, we talk, we laugh, we drink, we eat, we sing, we pound the table, we clap our hands, we bob our heads, we rock out…. We scare the neighbors!

So I suppose what I really need to ask myself is: Will he enjoy himself? Will he enjoy the sheer numbers we manage to squish around a large table, or will he be overwhelmed? Will he be captivated that it takes us nearly an hour to get through the first six pages? Will he be able to smile as we listen to the “Mah Nishtanah” for the eighth time and in the third language, or will he be wishing I hadn’t invited him?

How will he react when my cousins start throwing little frogs around the table for the plagues? Will he join us in singing all of our nursery school favorites?

“One morning when pharaoh awoke in his bed….”

“…And it’s dig, dig, dig, every day and every night.

And it’s dig, dig, dig, when it’s dark and when it’s light….”

I wonder if he’ll smile as we move on to eating dinner at nearly midnight, or if he’ll whisper to me, “Are Tums kosher for Passover?” Will he have the patience to sit and watch as the kids barter with the afikomen (hidden matzah) they found, or will he inwardly be wishing the evening was over?

As we move into the early hours of the morning, will he still be awake? Will he join in with the singing or share a lai dai dai if he doesn’t know the words or will he sit quietly imagining he was somewhere else? Will he realize the magnificence of my younger cousins, singing with such intensity and growing so loud that the shadows in the corners seek refuge? Or will he just hold a secret wish that he had brought some earplugs?

I wonder if he’ll laugh when we sing our yearly ode to Mr. Potato Head; if he’ll join in the chorus of “Chad Gadya.” Will he pound his hands on the table watching the silverware rattle and the cups bounce? Or will he play the shy card and just sit?

Will he be able to enjoy my family as much as I do? Or will he be stunned into silence at the craziness that I come from?

I know that there is only one way to find out, only one way to gauge if he’s a serious keeper, or just a trial run. So this year I’ll be sitting next to my boyfriend (that is, if he actually agrees to come after reading this article!) I’ll have a hand to hold under the table and a partner in crime to chant “Carey, Carey, Carey…” as my cousin stuffs an enormous amount of cardboard-esque shmura matzah into his mouth. Someone to start teaching our crazy sandpaper clapping “L’Shana Haba” tradition to, and someone to sit next to on our imaginary flight to Japan (don’t ask).

If he’s tired, with a raspy voice and a happily full belly at the end of the night, I’ll be happy — and if he’s all set to do it again the next night, I’ll know that I have a keeper.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.


A School or a Shul?

Administrators at Yeshivat Yavneh knew that the “No Trespassing” signs wouldn’t go over well with neighbors, especially the ones who used to run their dogs on the plush green stretch that fronts the Third Street main entrance to the Orthodox day school.

But about two years ago they felt they had no choice.

Neighbors had been seen standing outside of Yavneh on Shabbat videotaping everyone who entered, to see whether Yavneh was violating permit stipulations limiting who can pray there on Saturdays. The videotaping was an affront both to the school’s religious sensibilities and to its sense of security.

To neighbors, the “No Trespassing” signs are yet another indication that the school has no desire to fit in.

Yavneh moved into the Tudor estate, which formerly housed the Whittier Law School, in 1999. The school has about 400 students in preschool through eighth grade, and insists it has worked hard to foster a good relationship with neighbors. But things have soured in the last few years, as Yavneh tests the strict limitations of its conditional-use permit.

One clause in that permit states that Yavneh may hold prayer services for its students as part of their religious education. Yavneh interpreted that to mean that the school could hold Shabbat services, on the weekend, for students and their families.

Neighbors say Yavneh has, in effect, established a full-service congregation — one that serves more than just students and their immediate families.

Yavneh maintains that nearly all of the 100-150 people who attend services on a regular Shabbat are students and their family members. At the same time, however, the school plans to request a permit change also allowing board members, alumni and others associated with Yavneh to daven there, but to cap the total number at 300. The current permit does not stipulate a limit. In addition, Yavneh will ask the Zoning Board to approve an 8-foot perimeter fence for general security in this post-Sept./11 world.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association has come out against these requests, asking that Yavneh meet the original permit conditions.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, the head of Yavneh, is meeting regularly with neighbors, part of a conciliation effort by both sides.


A Surprise Might Attract More To Shuls

In many synagogues across the country today, the $64,000 question is the same: How can we get more people to come more often?

Unlike the old days of quaint ghettos and neighborhoods, Judaism has become a choice. Synagogues today compete against Starbucks and other distractions, as much as they compete against themselves.

So how can we better compete?

Everyone seems to agree, whatever the denomination, that we should make the synagogue experience more enjoyable, more engaging, even more spiritual. You want to feel like you got something more than the fulfillment of an obligation.

As someone who’s been immersed in consumer marketing for 20 years, I want to throw one little insight into the mix, and invite anyone who’s interested to build on it.

If there’s one thing in marketing that piques interest, it’s the element of surprise. For synagogues, however, this is easier said than done, because so much of a prayer service is based on repetition. And repetition itself has an emotional benefit: It makes us feel safe and comfortable.

But still, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could add a dash of anticipation — a sense of pleasant unpredictability — to the synagogue experience?

One way would be to not get stuck on the same prayer melodies. Why not have our chazans constantly mix it up?

I was invited to an ultraliberal Ashkenazi Friday night service recently, and out of the blue came this hard-core Sephardic melody that my grandfather used to sing in Morocco. It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard it in years. It was totally against type.

It’s hard to overstate the delight of discovering a new melody or rediscovering an old one. I have a friend who would sometimes sing “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of “Michelle, Ma Belle.”

You don’t have to go that far. You could have a repertoire of three or four melodies for each prayer, and decide on the spot which one to sing. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the standard melody of “Ein Keloheinu,” it’s like a double shot of Valium. I once heard a Chasidic version of that prayer that really brought the words to life.

You get the picture. Mix it up, add, delete, go as far as you can without creating a shul mutiny.

Melodies can surprise and delight the heart, but what can surprise the mind? Most synagogue sermons connect with the calendar, either with the Torah portion of that week or with a specific holiday. It would be silly of me to challenge that imperative, but I do think there is an opportunity to break with the calendar, not just to surprise but to inspire.

We make a big deal about keeping the lessons of our holidays in our hearts at all times. So why couldn’t we pull the holidays out of their time zones and make them more visible throughout the year? In the same way that we can mingle our timeless melodies, why couldn’t we mingle our timeless holidays?

For example, any given Shabbat could honor a different holiday, and weave it into the discussion of the weekly Torah portion. I can envision a very powerful sermon on the subject of Yom Kippur — one month after Yom Kippur — that would play up the continuing relevance of the Day of Atonement.

At the beginning of an actual holiday, why not create a miniceremony that would honor the previous holiday?

When we’re so used to going forward, it really gets people’s attention to go backward, especially when it makes sense. We all have a tendency to go through our holidays and then put them away in storage. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep bringing them back, to follow up and make sure that we are still living their message?

We have such creative minds in our spiritual leadership that I can see a constant flow of holiday ideas at odd times of the year. If Rosh Hashanah is about personal renewal, why not surprise people by celebrating that holiday idea in the middle of the year? When it’s not Shavuot, why not celebrate the spirit of Shavuot with a Torah learning day? During the summer, why not do a spirit of Chanukah event for tikkun olam?

In other words, keep people on their toes and challenge their expectations. Bring back not just the biblical past, but the experiential past that we can personally relate to — our holiday treasures.

Ultimately, whether it’s through changing melodies or going back on holidays, people would get the comfort of the familiar, but they would also look forward to a touch of the unexpected. And who knows, they might even hold off on Starbucks for a few hours. What’s another boring latte?

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


Our Faux Democracy

The average California voter doesn’t know what “redistricting” is. Many voters don’t even know what a “voting district” is. The aversion among California voters to such wonky issues goes a long way to explaining why Proposition 77, a long-overdue reform, is struggling.

Most Californians think that, when they vote, they do so within a community of interest, based largely on geography and community boundaries, known as a “voting district.” That was true years ago. But the advent of highly sophisticated computer software now allows the California legislature to painstakingly divide voters block by block. The Democratic Party and Republican Party use this technological power to divide voters, not based on communities of interest, but on party registration instead.

First, Republican and Democratic voters are carefully separated from one another using computer programs that extensively sort and track personal voter registration data. Then, the Democrats are grouped into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own, and the Republicans into phony and often bizarrely shaped “voting districts” of their own.

Finally, during the spring primaries, the dominant party in one of these dishonest voting districts chooses a highly partisan candidate to spoon-feed to its corralled voters — usually a candidate with little interest in wooing voters from the other side of the aisle. After all, since the dominant party is guaranteed the win in such a rigged “voting district,” the candidates themselves need not be pragmatic types capable of talking to different sorts of voters.

This is not democracy. The California legislature stole our democracy while we slept. All districts in California are now rigged this way. That’s why, in California in the fall of 2004, not a single state legislative or Congressional seat changed party hands.

Because these phony voting districts are designed to stamp out competition between the two parties, the dismal election outcomes can now be widely predicted months before Election Day. As one wag described the untenable situation in California, “Voters no longer pick the candidate. Candidates pick their voters.”

Proposition 77 would halt this anti-democratic practice. The measure would hand the job of drawing up California voting districts to an independent panel of retired judges. It’s a good idea, but many California Democratic elected leaders — instead of doing the right thing — are doing everything they can to torpedo this long overdue reform.

Just like the dominant Republicans in Texas who grossly abused their gerrymandering powers, California’s dominant elected Democrats can see only as far as their next election victory. It’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats would lose their grip on power in the Sacramento legislature, even if they had to compete in elections once again, because California is heavily Democratic no matter how the voting district lines are drawn. But at least voters would have a choice.

The state’s Democratic leadership is spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 77 to make sure there is no choice.

So far, Proposition 77 remains up for grabs. Its fate remains in play despite the Democratic millions. A poll released Oct. 28 by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 77 lagging 50 percent to 36 percent. That looks discouraging, but, as noted by Public Policy Institute of California research director Mark Baldassare, the same percentage of voters opposed Proposition 77 back in August, before the Democrats poured a king’s ransom into defeating it. Moreover, an unusually large number of people — 14 percent — are still undecided late in the race.

“With this many undecideds,” Baldassare said, “it is really hard to know where redistricting will end up. The numbers just are not moving, with that 50 percent opposed figure staying the same since August.”

His past polls indicate that roughly 60 percent of Californians think there is something very wrong about letting politicians pick and choose the voters and districts in which the politicians run for office. So if backers can just transmit their message to voters, Proposition 77 can win.

“In my previous poll, so many people felt it was wrong for the Legislature to have this control,” he said. “That fact, combined with the undecideds, makes me think this measure will come down to how people focus on the issue in these final days.”

So why is Proposition 77 in trouble at all? The problem is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is embracing it and Democrats are demonizing it — and him. The governor’s approval ratings are low, and many Democrats are uncertain whom to believe.

“Voters are looking for cues, or clues, that tell them if this is a measure that might have a political motive, or is an honest effort at good government,” Baldassare said.

For his part, the governor needs to speak plainly and directly to all Californians, without rancor, to explain this wonky-sounding issue. Then, voters must do the rest. People in a democracy must arm themselves with knowledge, or face losing their democracy.

In fact, that’s already happened in California.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

We Must Heal Divide Over Life Views

The first half of the 20th century saw Americans locked in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution of wealth.

In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues of race and gender.

As we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, a perhaps even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells, abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician-assisted suicides, the question of life has become this generation’s great ideological battle ground.

Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh Hashanah is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates the birth of the world. Life is God’s first gift to humanity.

The liturgy of the High Holidays constantly celebrates life, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.

However, Judaism’s emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides’ 13 primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance 2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice.

“What is complete repentance?” he asks. “It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it, because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power … such a man is a master of complete repentance.”

Such a conception of law highlights the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.

But in today’s American society, the complementary qualities of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo “the sanctity of life” or the motto “life without choice is not worth living.” So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in their talk radio extremes, they refer to the other position as the equivalent of communism or Nazism.

Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: “ubacharta b’achaim.”

Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing worldviews might make for good media headlines, tenure at a university or electablity at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a priori theoretical doctrines.

In some cases, we are more open to the pain and suffering of the present. In other cases, we feel more the weight of history and text.

Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled. It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist in every bioethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting rhythms of life.

While the tradition worries about partial-birth or late-term abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research, and while the vast majority of the tradition opposes physician-assisted suicide, much debate and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead.

These rulings might seem contradictory, but on closer examination, they give testimony to a theology not of life or choice per se, but rather a theology of the living. The word repentance, teshuvah, so commonly heard over the High Holidays, has many meanings. Among them is reconciliation.

As we sit and watch the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body politic threaten to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living than life or choice.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.


Service Reaches Out to Jews by Choice

It fit somehow that this recent Saturday service for converts to Judaism took place in a synagogue library. Because this gathering, at Temple Beth Am near Beverly Hills, was both an exercise in worship and in teaching. Maybe it even fit that this was a children’s library, because many of the 40 adults who sat in folding chairs are young in relation to their Judaism.

This program, called Judaism by Choice, is “a way of educating the people while they’re in the service itself, teaching it while they’re doing the service … the terms of the synagogue, the geography of the service,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the program’s creator.

Judaism by Choice moves converts out of the classroom and into a synagogue setting. Developed by Weinberg earlier this year, the explanatory Shabbat service is a helpful alternative to leaving would-be Jews to learn about Shabbat by sitting along in the back of a sanctuary trying to unravel a ritual’s nuances.

“The whole idea behind this is to get people integrated into the synagogue community,” Weinberg said. “Many times when people convert, we leave them dripping at the mikvah.”

In the midst of library book titles such as “ABC Dog” and “I Wish I Were a Princess,” the Conservative rabbi delivered a relaxed but focused instructional service-seminar.

“It goes at a slower pace, and Rabbi Weinberg really goes over every detail of the service,” said Emily Camras, a convert whose brother-in-law is Rabbi Richard Camras at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. “It’s not just any old regular service.”

An Aug. 6 debut gathering at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino attracted about 70 people, said Weinberg, who also runs the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles

The Beth Am service had the typical face of a conversion crowd: a few seniors; a younger Ashkenazic man walking arm-in-arm with a blonde woman; and several 20-something couples, mostly Jewish men with Asian or Hispanic fiancées.

People are free to interrupt the service to ask questions, something they can’t do at regular services. One woman asked if there’s a difference between “Shabbat Shalom” and “Good Sabbath.” There is not, Weinberg said. “We can explain these things to them,” Weinberg told The Journal. “Things we take for granted that aren’t obvious to people who are new.”

This fall, Judaism by Choice will hold services at five local shuls. Funded by anonymous donors in cooperation with participating synagogues, the program is on the verge of nonprofit incorporation.

Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweiss said Judaism by Choice is sorely needed.

“The Conservative movement in particular has to wake up, that you have to reach out,” he said, adding that some converts perceive a typical synagogue as “not cordial” to outsiders.

Among the 80 participants at Temple Beth Am in late August was Fredya Rembaum, the wife of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Joel Rembaum — a sign that synagogue leadership is taking note of those who might be shul shopping.

The group will meet again Sept. 10 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“We hope that by exposing people to who we are, that those who agree with our philosophy will be motivated to join us,” Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe said. He wants the converts to see “all the things that make us special. You don’t only want to speak to people inside your walls.”

Weinberg described Judaism by Choice as “rigorous and consistent with the philosophy of Conservative Judaism.” He also has a slightly altered Shabbat service for the Reform temples he’ll visit with the converts this fall.

The immediate success of the program doesn’t surprise Weinberg, who said converts are eager to participate in religious life.

As the Temple Beth am service came to a close, the rabbi included one last instruction. “Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”

Judaism by Choice services: Sept. 10, Sinai Temple in Westwood; Sept 24, Adat Ariel in North Hollywood; Nov. 5, Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air; Nov. 19, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills; and Dec. 17, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown.


She’s Armed and President

As a Jewish woman and Harvard-educated lawyer who practiced law in Los Angeles, Sandra Froman admits that, at least on paper, she doesn’t seem a natural choice to lead the National Rifle Association (NRA). But the Second Amendment, she said, is all about empowerment.

“I’ve never met a gun I didn’t like,” said Froman, 55, a California native who moved to Tucson in 1985. “I wish I had more time to practice. My favorite gun is normally the one I was able to take out most recently, but I shoot pistols, rifles, black-powder rifles.”

Froman became the newest president of the almost 4 million-strong NRA in April, immediately presenting a different face for an organization whose vibe has been almost reflexively white and male.

Jewish, female, lawyer and Left Coast is about as unstereotypical as it gets for an NRA leader. But when it comes to gun politics, Froman is as NRA as they come.

“Firearms in America today represent freedom,” Froman told The Journal. “They represent the ability to defend yourself individually, and they represent the ability to defend yourself as a country. Firearms are a means of guaranteeing freedom.”

The NRA scored a victory this summer when the U.S. Senate passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which bans lawsuits against gun manufacturers and sellers when their products are used to commit crimes. The legislation now goes to the House.

Froman spoke approvingly of the legislation, but it’s just one part of a crowded agenda. The NRA also has called for a boycott of ConocoPhillips until the oil company drops its ban on letting employees keep firearms in the company parking lot, demonstrating a sense of civics “worthy of the O.K. Corral,” as The New York Times put it. Froman also aims to expand gun ownership among traditionally gun-averse groups, such as ethnic minorities, women and the Jewish community. She’s not shy about invoking historically charged imagery: “Part of my feeling the importance of all of this is what I know about Jewish history. You look at what the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were able to do because they had firearms, and you understand how necessary is the right to own a gun.”

Froman cited her own experience, an attempted break-in when she lived in Los Angeles, as evidence that women especially need guns. A gun, she said, is a great equalizer: “We don’t have the upper body strength. In a fistfight, a man is usually going to be able to prevail over just about any woman.”

Such views put her ideologically at odds with the many Jews on the other side of the gun debate, including Roberta Schiller, former executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, who asserts that it’s criminals and terrorists who are best able to take advantage of the free-wheeling U.S. market for gun sales that the NRA works so diligently to protect.

“While historically it might have been helpful for people to buy firearms,” said Schiller, currently a board member of the anti-violence group, “now we’re in a situation where terrorists coming into this country have a field day buying all sorts of firearms, AK-47s, assault weapons, with literally no background search in many of the 50 states.

“We don’t live in ghettos,” she said. “We don’t have the need for a militia of women to counterforce some unknown enemy.”

Froman didn’t always love the smell of gunpowder or a shotgun’s recoil. She grew up in a Jewish home in the Bay Area, raised by parents who didn’t own firearms.

“I didn’t care about guns,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about them. The most I knew was from westerns, where the good guys had guns, and the bad guys had bows and arrows.”

After attending Stanford University, she headed east for Harvard Law School, returning to the Golden State to practice law with firm of Loeb & Loeb. It was at her home 25 years ago that someone attempted to break in while she slept.

“The noise woke me up,” Froman said. “I came downstairs and saw this man trying to use a screwdriver to break through the lock on the door. I banged on the door. He stopped for a minute, and then kept trying to break in. I was scared to death. I didn’t know what to do.”

The would-be intruder didn’t get in, and he left before police arrived, but Froman’s outlook had utterly changed.

“Here I am trapped in my house with this man trying to get in — it really frightened me. But they say time slows down, and I began thinking, ‘How dare he try to get into my house,'” she said. “I got angry. Real angry. I decided to take control of the situation.”

The next day, after looking up a gun store in the phone book, Froman signed up for firearms training. Soon after, she bought her first gun.

t’s a tale Froman tells persuasively, but it doesn’t pass muster with Schiller.

“The truth is that if a person is breaking into your house, you are probably asleep and it’s unanticipated, so you’re already not in a position to fight back on a fair playing field,” Schiller said. “If you live in an apartment and someone breaks in and you’re asleep, they can so easily wrest a gun from a woman’s hands. The idea that just because you have a gun, it will make you safe is just untrue.”

Having a gun introduces new risks, she added.

“Children always know where guns are, and then you can have a tragedy,” Schiller said. “If you live with older children, they can come in late [at night] or unexpectedly, and you can mistakenly shoot one of your own family members.”

There are dueling statistics on whether guns make their owners safer. Froman dismisses data about the danger of gun ownership as “just lies,” citing the work of researcher John Lott as refuting anti-gun statistics.

Schiller and her organization consider Lott far out of the mainstream of credible researchers.

“Except for John Lott,” she said, “every violence prevention study, every Department of Justice study, comes to the same conclusion” regarding owning guns: that owning guns is more dangerous than not owning them.

Both sides agree on the need for gun safety education, and the NRA has, sometimes grudgingly, accepted gun safety measures that fall short of banning, limiting or registering weapons. But the fine points of the debate were well beyond Froman when she went looking for that first firearm.

“So I found a gun store in the phone book and went to the gun store and told the man behind the counter I wanted to buy a gun and he said, ‘Well, yes ma’am, what kind of a gun are you looking for?’ And I said, ‘Any gun!'”

When her law partners found out, some “were horrified,” Froman said. “They didn’t understand that I had the need to protect myself as a single woman living in Los Angeles.”

One fellow attorney asked her, “What do you own a gun for?”

“For self-protection,” she recalled telling him. “And he looked at me, and he just kind of shook his head, and he said, ‘You’re a dangerous person.'”

A former colleague, Howard Friedman, remembers her as “more of a liberal than I was. It just shows you can’t deal in stereotypes.”

“I was surprised to learn she was a gun enthusiast,” added Friedman, a Loeb & Loeb attorney who also once headed the American Jewish Committee. “I was even more surprised when I heard she became president of the NRA.”

Equally surprised was attorney Robert Holtzman, who’d recruited her to the Los Angeles firm.

“She was well into the top of her [Harvard] class,” he said. “She was enthusiastic and spirited, and had a certain amount of charm and personality as well.

“In her days with the firm, she gave me the impression of being on the liberal side [politically]. I was aware much more recently that she’d been very active for NRA. I was not surprised when she reached the top.”

Froman, a Republican, said she was essentially apolitical prior to her involvement with firearms.

“After I learned how to shoot a gun, it was then that I found out there were people who wanted to take my right away, people who wanted to ban guns, people who wanted to make sure that nobody had guns but the police and law enforcement,” she said. “And my reaction to that, once I learned how to use a gun, was, ‘That’s stupid!’

“Why would anyone think I would be a danger? And why would anyone not want me to be able to protect myself? The police can’t be everywhere at once.”

Such feelings would lead her to join the NRA. She found that the transition from mere member to outspoken activist was fairly easy.

“I thought that it was perfectly appropriate for me to have a firearm, but I realized that there were others who thought that anyone who carried a gun was a criminal,” she said.

Froman left Los Angeles after a divorce to teach at a Bay Area law school. Later, she and her second husband moved to Arizona, where they could have more land and enjoy a different lifestyle. Froman’s passion for shooting is apparent in her personal life: She appears to appreciate a partner who knows how to shoot. Her second husband, who died in 1995, was a law enforcement officer, and so is the man she is currently dating.

One of her early political efforts was getting a law passed in Arizona that would allow most people to carry concealed weapons via an approved permit. Her rise in the NRA followed quickly.

In 1992, Froman ran for the NRA’s board of directors and placed at the top of the ticket. Today, she is the second woman to serve as president.

She still enjoys taking out the uninitiated to the firing range and winning converts — one firing-range target at a time. But will she bring droves of women, and especially Jews, to the fold?

Schiller of Women Against Gun Violence doubts it.

“Periodically, the NRA markets to women, and they do it by instilling fear,” Schiller said. “Every so often, I guess they run out of white males to sell weapons to. So they try to make women fearful.

“And they market pink and purple guns, and holsters that women can wear in their bras or on the hip, or small guns women can put in their purse. It’s just a cycle of marketing.”

Besides, she joked, “I don’t know that Sandra Froman can be more charismatic than [former NRA president] Charleton Heston was.”

Predictably, Froman has a different take, one that she considers legitimately Jewish.

“Our history teaches us that it is our obligation to ensure that there is justice,” she said. “And I believe that people have an obligation to protect themselves, to protect their own lives, to protect the lives of their families. And you can’t do that unless you have the means of self-defense.”

Froman added: “There was a saying when the Colt 1851 revolver was invented that God created men, but Colt made them all equal.”

Portions of this article first appeared in the Jewish Exponent.


A Swiss Family Bind — No Hotel Heirs


In Switzerland, resorts like St. Moritz and Arosa are second only to chocolate and cheese fondue in popularity. But these two disparate destinations, more easily accessible by train than car, both offer something rarely found in other Swiss mountain retreats — kosher hotels.

The Hotel Edelweiss in St. Moritz and the Hotel Metropol in Arosa are Jewish sanctuaries for observant tourists, offering everything from kosher dining and space for simchas to daily religious services and snow-melt mikvahs. They are family-run havens that inspire fierce loyalty in their guests, sometimes drawing generations of families from countries like England, Israel and the United States.

As the hotels prepare for the big Pesach rush that marks the end of the winter season, the couples that run the Edelweiss and Metropol are looking forward to returning home to Zurich. But they are also wrestling with doubts about the future of these kosher hideaways, and one question looms: Who will take over the family business?

In glitzy St. Moritz, women don fur coats as they window shop stores like Gucci and Armani, and the ski instructors suit up in Prada-designed uniforms. People flock to the town’s spas and nosh in its tea rooms, or they turn to funicular-accessible Corviglia for skiing and hiking.

A short walk from the central area of St. Moritz-Dorf brings guests to the Hotel Edelweiss, a family affair that has served kosher-conscious consumers since 1883. Leopold Bermann grew up in the hotel, which catered to Jewish American soldiers after World War II. He is the third Bermann to run the Edelweiss, having taken over for his father at 22 in 1953. His British-born wife, Rita, has worked alongside “Poldi,” as his family calls him, since 1960.

“All of our children have been married here,” said Leopold Bermann, referring to his four daughters and one son.

Now 73, Bermann continues to operate what he says is the world’s oldest-operating Jewish hotel, but he has no clear successor. Only one of his five children, Shoshana, still lives in Switzerland, and while his son, Josef, bought the hotel a few years ago, he leaves the management up to his parents. His son has expressed no interest in returning to Switzerland from Israel, so the Bermanns are pinning their hopes on the grandchildren.

Their 20-year-old granddaughter from Jerusalem, Rachel Bitton, spent her first season working at the hotel this winter. She’s looking forward to starting a family, but she’s not sure if she wants to do it in Switzerland.

“For now, I still want to live in Israel,” she said. “I’m really connected to the hotel, and I feel like I need to be here, but I don’t know.”

Rita Bermann, who left London to be with her husband, hopes Bitton will make a similar choice to carry on the family tradition.

“She’s the best to take over,” she said.

A half-day rail trip shared by the Glacier Express and Rhätischen Bahn takes travelers through Graubünden’s glacial valleys. It’s clear when arriving in Arosa that the resort is the polar opposite of St. Moritz.

“St. Moritz is high society. Here is a place where everyone is welcome,” said Marcel Levin, owner of Arosa’s Hotel Metropol.

One main street is the focus of all activity in this sleepy hamlet, where parents take their bundled-up babies out in sleds rather than strollers, and couples snuggle ensconced under thick blankets in horse-drawn sleighs.

Levin, 52, was born and grew up in Arosa. He talks glowingly of non-Jewish friends carrying schoolbooks for him on Shabbat and putting up a sukkah in more than a foot of snow. His father purchased the Metropol in 1949, and Levin took over the hotel in 1975, one year after he married his Israeli wife, Lea.

Levin happily shmoozes in the dining room, talking with guests as they eat, while his wife works behind the scenes with the staff. But this jovial man turns serious when he talks about the Metropol’s future. Jewish tourism is changing in Arosa, he said, and more people are starting to rent homes, turning to his hotel only for religious services and meals. It’s a sentiment echoed by the Bermanns in St. Moritz.

“Everything is going to private apartments, so we’re a bit scared,” he said.

Levin said none of his six children have expressed interest in taking over the hotel, but he still has some time on his side before he retires. “Maybe one will take it over,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

In the meantime, Marcel and Lea Levin say they still take full advantage of their seasonal stays in Arosa. A few times a week at noon, they walk to the Weisshorn and take a tram to the halfway point, the Mittlestation, to enjoy the view of towering snow-covered peaks and take in the crisp mountain air.

“We’re new people after half an hour,” Levin said.

For more information about the Hotel Edelweiss, call 011-41-(0)81-836-5555. For more information about the Hotel Metropol, call 011-41-(0)81-378-8181 or visit www.levinarosa.com.

For Swiss travel information, call (877) 794-8037 or visit www.myswitzerland.com. Switzerland Tourism paid the writer’s travel expenses.


How to Choose an Elementary School


“No one likes to do it,” said parent Andrea Daniels, who compares it to dating. “It’s like buying a house,” said Bea Prentice, director of the Early Childhood Center at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles. “There are so many options to think about.”

One could also liken it to a root canal: necessary, painful and potentially costly. But regardless of the analogy chosen, those involved agree that deciding where to send a child to elementary school is a complicated and angst-inducing process. And it’s a decision that will have to be made soon, as most private school applications are due either this month or in January.

Daniels started thinking about the decision “the minute he was born,” she said about her now 5-year-old son, Jonah. A Beverlywood resident, Daniels sent her son to Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles for preschool. She assumed that once it was time for elementary school, she would send him to a secular private school, along with the synagogue’s religious school.

After touring several private schools last year, Daniels reluctantly looked at her local public school, Castle Heights Elementary. There, she found “grass and gardens, a new art program, enthusiastic parents and teachers, a fabulous library and a computer lab,” Daniels said. “It had everything the private schools talked about. And the financial benefits can’t be ignored…. There was no reason not to go there.”

Daniels, who has joined the school’s parents group and knows many peers from Temple Isaiah who will be sending their children to Castle Heights in September, said that community is a large part of the public school’s appeal.

“We’ve got our Temple Isaiah community and we’ll have our Castle Heights community,” she said. “It’s kind of a retro way to rear a child these days — go to your community school and … to Hebrew school.”

While Daniels was fortunate enough to favor her local school, many parents looking for public education find their neighborhood schools unsuitable. They must then navigate a confusing maze of available options, which include charter and magnet schools. Charter schools, which are exempted from certain state mandates, are bound by agreements with local or county school boards. Magnet schools generally have a particular focus, such as art or technology. Both types of schools may draw students from throughout the district.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, priority points increase odds of getting into a school other than the one your child is assigned to, such as a magnet school. Points are given for various factors such as being enrolled in an overcrowded school or one with more than 70 percent minority enrollment, already being on a waiting list or having a sibling enrolled in the same school.

For other families, public school is not even a consideration. Debby and Rabin Soufer are still deciding where to send their son, Ari, next September. But there’s no question for Rabin Soufer that it will be a Jewish day school.

“You need to make the roots grow the right way from the beginning,” he said, adding that he would make whatever sacrifices were necessary.

While touring schools, the Soufers looked for clues about the character of the students.

“The children that your child will be around is as important as the school,” Debby Soufer said.

The Soufers’ choice is one that more Jewish parents are making than their parents did. According to the National Jewish Population Study for 2000-2001, 29 percent of American Jewish children between the ages of 6 and 17 were enrolled in a Jewish day school or yeshiva, whereas only 12 percent of those ages 35-44 reported having attended Jewish day school.

Demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey in 1997, found that 21 percent of Jewish children in Los Angeles were attending Jewish day schools at that time. He believes that figure may have decreased due to growing economic stresses on the Jewish community. According Gil Graff, executive director of Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, there are more L.A.-area children enrolled in Jewish day schools today than in 1997, but a greater percentage of them are in high school, a trend that does not portend well for the future.

Encino parent Lori Marx-Rubiner is one of those parents who has chosen to take on the financial burden inherent in the $10,000 to $15,000 tab that comes with private school.

“We only have one child,” she said. “I don’t know how other families can do it.”

When Marx-Rubiner looked at schools last year for her son, Zach, she knew she wanted a Jewish day school to, among other things, “keep weekends family-centered” by avoiding Sunday school. Marx-Rubiner made an extensive list of necessary criteria that included the academic success of graduates, state-of-the-art facilities and availability of enrichment programs.

Once she started looking at schools, however, a different set of requirements emerged.

“What became important was whether they were willing to transmit values with intent and whether they were my values,” she said.

Marx-Rubiner, whose son attended preschool at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, decided to stay with the synagogue’s day school. “The single biggest factor was who Zach would become. Adat Ari El has the menchiest kids I’ve ever seen,” she said, describing how a teenager they’d met weeks earlier sought them out at High Holiday services to say hello.

Psychologist and educator Wendy Mogel would say that all three of these families are on the right track when it comes to selecting a school. She advises attending a school play to observe how the parents and students comport themselves. She also recommendes looking at the children in the older grades.

“Their level of vitality or cool and their general spirit reveals important information about what you can expect your child to become,” she wrote in a 2001 Jewish Journal column.

But perhaps Daniels puts it most succinctly: “You can spin the facts any way you want. Go with your gut.”

For more information about school options, as well as detailed school profiles, visit www.greatschools.net.

What to Look For

Bea Prentice, director of the Early Childhood Center at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles, offers the following tips for evaluating potential schools:


• Fit: Identify your child’s nature and your values and preferences before visiting schools.


• Parents: Get the real scoop from other parents; also look to see whether the parent body is one you are comfortable with.


• Proximity: Is the school easily accessible from your home or workplace? “In Los Angeles, parents are often part-time or full-time chauffeurs, and it really puts a strain on parents and children.”


• Flexibility: Can the school accommodate special needs, such as developmental delays? “To me, a hallmark of an excellent school is if they mainstream children.”


• Instinct: “Don’t dismiss it and don’t ignore it even if it conflicts with what other people tell you.”


• Experience: Look for small class size, credentialed teachers and low faculty turnover.


• Breadth: Look for a variety of enrichment activities.


• Philosophy: Find out the educational approach of the school.


• Environment: “Later schools should have the same goals as preschool: To keep curiosity alive and make learning a delight.”

Freeing Barghouti Could Benefit Israel


Once again, Israel is facing one of those moral dilemmas that are so much a part of life in the Middle East. This time, the question at hand is whether Jerusalem should release a convicted terrorist, Marwan Barghouti.

The convict, a former head of the Palestinian grass-roots movement, Tanzim, might be the only person who could unify the fractured Palestinian entity and lead it to a peace deal with Israel. At first glance, the stakes are clear; substantive and procedural notions of justice suggest that Barghouti should serve his time in full.

He was involved in the killing of Israeli citizens and was convicted for his deeds. Pragmatism, on the other hand, dictates for a release.

Israel’s long-term political interests could be best served if Barghouti is out of jail. Faced with similar choices in the past, Israel has always preferred pragmatic calculations over the subtleties of justice.

Israel, after all, allied with dictatorial regimes in Africa and South America in the ’60s and ’70s and made multiple deals with the PLO and Hezbollah in the ’90s and ’00s, in which hundreds of terrorists were released. In the latest demonstration of pragmatism, Israel freed hundreds of terrorists last January in return for one Israeli citizen who was deemed valuable because he had access to highly classified information.

Even if we leave behind the simple pragmatic argument in favor of Barghouti’s release, there are other good reasons why he should be freed.

First, releasing Barghouti may, in fact, be morally justified. Many experts think that Barghouti is the only person that stands between chaos, or even worse, a Hamas government in the Palestinian areas. Both outcomes would be bad for Israel and would lead to many more years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in which thousands more innocent civilians would suffer.

So isn’t the right moral decision the one that will prevent further fatalities? The one that will create a moderate Palestine that one day will live at peace with Israel?

Second, there is the issue of Barghouti’s trial. He is the only Palestinian leader that has been brought to trial in Israel in four years of conflict.

Israel’s preferred strategy in dealing with leadership figures in the Palestinian uprising has been, simply put, to kill them. By mid-October, Israel had assassinated 179 people who were suspected terrorist leaders.

A number of those assassinated were as central as Barghouti in the Palestinian struggle: Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi both killed in 2004, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Abu Ali Mustafa killed in 2001.

In other words, Israel made an informed choice to keep Barghouti alive and in jail. One Sharon adviser admitted recently in The New York Times that in arresting Barghouti, Israel “had in mind possibly releasing him some day as an alternative to Mr. Arafat.”

It is no surprise then that Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz suggested two weeks ago that releasing Barghouti is a possibility. In short, freeing Barghouti will merely conclude Israel’s original strategy.

Third, Barghouti’s arrest and trial expose an inconsistency in Israel’s position. Israel has treated the conflict with the Palestinians as more of a war than a law enforcement issue.

Military forces bore the brunt of the conflict, and suspects in terrorism were killed rather than arrested. Yet, when it came to dealing with Barghouti, the paradigm of law enforcement was invoked.

Those who object to his release argue today that it is his conviction that should prevent Israel from releasing him. Although Israelis don’t like to admit it, Barghouti’s status is more akin to that of a prisoner of war than that of a common criminal. By freeing Barghouti, Israel will merely be applying to his case the same standards that have been applied to the conflict as a whole.

The Barghouti issue is not a simple one, and a decision to allow a convicted murderer out of jail is a stomach-turning choice. Yet there is a lot at stake. With Arafat’s death, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is coming to a crucial crossroad, and Barghouti’s release offers at least one possible road to a more stable future.

Given that there are good moral arguments both for and against releasing Barghouti, in terms of consistency with Israel’s broad strategy in the conflict to date and for good pragmatic reasons, allowing Barghouti to go free is the right decision.

In the last four years, Israel missed a number of opportunities to end the cycle of violence. Let’s not miss this one.

Ehud Eiran is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University and a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School. He served as an assistant to the foreign policy adviser in the Israeli prime minister’s office (1999-2000).


Wilshire: Boulevard of Sanctuaries

Wilshire Boulevard’s stature as the grand concourse of Los Angeles is due in part to its many architecturally distinct synagogues and churches. Those located in the Wilshire Center district, between LaFayette Park and about Western Avenue, are some of the most notable and serve some of the city’s oldest congregations.

The boulevard in the 1920s was the natural place for the institutions and their members to relocate. They saw that, in the future, downtown’s narrow, congested streets would no longer be the center of the community. Los Angeles was turning into a driving city, and Wilshire became the nation’s first Automobile Age thoroughfare. Religious establishments that wished to be part of the exciting future moved to Wilshire Boulevard.

On the boulevard of big dreams they constructed edifices on a grand scale to suit the surroundings. It was in the same era that architects gave Los Angeles proud, new symbols of aspiration, such as the marvelous City Hall and the museum-quality Bullock’s Wilshire department store. The new houses of worship also aspired to greatness. Their membership typically numbered in the thousands, and the pews were filled with mayors, judges, publishers and other movers.

Congregations didn’t need to advertise their addresses, just the corners: Wilshire at Berendo Street for Immanuel Presbyterian, Wilshire at Harvard Boulevard for St. Basil’s Catholic Church, Wilshire at St. Andrews Place for St. James Episcopal. They formed a community that crossed denomination lines. During the years around World War II, the Christian churches joined for an annual procession on Easter Sunday. At the conclusion of services, worshippers would jam the sidewalks to watch cars promenade along Wilshire.

Neighbors took care of one another. The congregation at Wilshire Boulevard Temple welcomed offers to hold High Holy Days services in the larger sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian, a few blocks to the east. The temple also held services inside the gorgeous Wilshire Christian Church, built at Normandie Avenue on land donated by the Chapman family, for whom Chapman University is named.

Likewise, when the original St. Basil’s burned down, Wilshire Boulevard Temple invited parishioners to worship in its sanctuary until a new Catholic church was finished. At the dedication of new St. Basil’s in 1969, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin sat as an honored guest at Mass alongside John Francis Cardinal McIntyre.

Congregation B’nai B’rith had been the leading downtown synagogue at the time its members voted to relocate at Wilshire and Hobart boulevards. The new Wilshire Boulevard Temple served some of the city’s most respected and influential Jews.

At the dedication in 1929, banker Marco Hellman presented the ark, and Jack Warner, one of the studio-owning Warner brothers, bestowed colorful murals depicting the history of the Hebrew people painted by Hugo Ballin. The artist, whose work also decorates Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the lobby of the Los Angeles Times Building, painted on canvas in his Santa Monica studio, then mounted the murals around the 100-foot-high, mosaic-inlaid dome in the octagonal sanctuary.

Placing such prominent artwork in the synagogue was not typical of the time. But Rabbi Magnin hoped it would add warmth and an element of mysticism to the surroundings. The temple’s architecture by David Allison and Abraham Edelman is regarded as a work of art in itself. With Italian and Belgian marble, carved mahogany and inlaid gold, it is the only Wilshire Center religious home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Allison was the Wilshire architect of choice in the 1920s. He is credited with designing the cathedral-like First Congregational Church on Commonwealth Street, across from LaFayette Park, the similarly regal Wilshire United Methodist near Windsor Square and the imposing First Baptist Church off the boulevard behind Bullock’s Wilshire. Allison also contributed the design for several of the original Italianate buildings at UCLA, including the stunning Royce Hall.

Like Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Immanuel Presbyterian opened in 1929. The acquisition of the land five years earlier had stirred up controversy among the members. Some opposed the idea of giving up the prestige of being downtown to start over as a country church. Today, Immanuel Presbyterian is the most Gothic-looking structure found along Wilshire, dark and brooding with a soaring bell tower and windows by the historic Judson Studios and Dixon Art Glass Co. Gothic chandeliers hang inside the massive sanctuary, capable of seating 2,000 worshippers.

These days, the congregations in mid-Wilshire are not as large as at the district’s peak. But their establishments all stand as important monuments to the dreamers who saw where Los Angeles was headed and knew how to get there.

Adapted from “Wilshire Boulevard” by Kevin Roderick, to be published next year.

Mizrahi Music Travels West

Eitan Salman is at the far end of his store, leaning against a shelf lined with the new CD by Sarit Hadad, one of Israel’s more popular Mizrahi, or Eastern, singers.

Business at Salman’s music store has fallen 80 percent over the last decade, but it’s not altogether a bad thing: Mizrahi music has grown so popular in Israel that it no longer is the exclusive domain of mom-and-pop shops like Salman’s but is sold even at Israel’s Tower Records outlets.

"Mizrahi music is now available across the country, in all the stores," laments Salman, whose shop is located across the street from where Tel Aviv’s old central bus station used to stand.

Indeed, with the superstar status of singers like Hadad, Zahava Ben and Moshik Afia, Mizrahi music now tops the charts in Israel and its popularity crosses ethnic lines.

Salman and neighboring store owners remember the "cassette music" heyday, a time when Mizrahi music was the exclusive domain of Mizrahi-run stores like Salman’s, near bus stations and in souks.

"In the 1980s, Mizrahi music was not sold in record stores," explained Barak Itzkovitz, musical editor of Galgalatz, Israel’s popular army music radio station. "Today, there is a lot of consciousness about this music, and it’s one of the most popular musical genres."

The roots of Mizrahi music in Israel date back to the 1950s and the mass influx of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Every community arrived with its distinct religious music, commonly known as piyutim, as well as its favorite Arabic music.

As Iraqis, Moroccans, Egyptians and Persians mixed, they exchanged musical sounds as well.

"They found out they had commonalities in their music," said Shoshana Gabay, co-creator of "Yam Shel Dmaot," or "Sea of Tears," a 1998 documentary on the development of Mizrahi music in Israel.

Children born in Israel in the 1950s grew up with other influences as well: American rock music, Indian movie music, French and Italian pop music and Russian-inspired Israeli music. The result was fusion music far ahead of its time.

"Years later there was this world music combination in other countries," Gabay said. "But in Israel it started very early, with the Asian Jews."

By the 1960s, Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter was home to a brand new sound.

"They had all these parties, and at those parties they took what they had learned in school — Russian-inspired Israeli songs, some Chasidic songs — and made them Oriental sounding," Gabay said. "They blended these songs with popular Arabic songs and traditional Yemenite songs and made a mix out of them. They were making an interpretation, their own interpretation."

Musicians blended not only musical styles but instruments: electric guitar and oud, synthesizer and kanoun — a classical string instrument from the Middle East and North Africa — drum kits and darbuka, a Middle Eastern and North African hand drum.

Despite the ingenuity of this new groove, Israeli fusion music stayed in Mizrahi neighborhoods until the invention of the cassette recorder, when recording suddenly became economically viable to a community with meager financial resources.

The first Mizrahi music became available on cassette in 1974, and the hit bands Lahakat Haoud and Lahakat Tslelei Hakerem couldn’t produce recordings fast enough. Tapes flew off the shelves and into the hands of Mizrahi Israelis hungry for more.

But mainstream Israeli radio stations played few Mizrahi songs.

"The people in radio were mostly from Europe," said Yoni Rohe, author of the newly published "Silsul Yisrael," which documents the development of Mizrahi music in Israel over the past 50 years. "They didn’t like the Mizrahi sound. It was not easy for them to relate to."

"The popularity of Mizrahi music was a process that happened over 15 years," Itzkovitz said. "Like hip-hop in the United States, it came from the hood, from the bottom up. It just couldn’t be stopped."

Following the success of the first recorded Mizrahi music bands, Mizrahi pop stars suddenly began to appear around the country: Avner Gadasi of Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, Shimmy Tavori from Rishon Le-Zion, Nissim Sarousi from Ramle.

Despite the dearth of Mizrahi music on mainstream radio stations, the Mizrahi music industry blossomed.

Zohar Argov, the poster boy for Mizrahi music, came onto the scene in 1978. Argov created Israeli country music, Ron Cahlili, film director of "Yam Shel Dmaot," told the Jerusalem Post in 1998.

"His subjects were the pain of love, betrayal, loss and sorrow," Cahlili said. "Argov was hard core, unafraid to sing about his reality and his life as he saw it."

At times compared to Elvis Presley, Argov lived on the edge: He died at 33 from a drug overdose. His albums continue to be best-sellers, however.

"Nancy Brandes did production for Zohar Argov," Rohe recounted. "Brandes came from Romania, and his connection with Zohar Argov made a new blend of music — a blend of big band and Mizrahi. This was a historical turning point. From there, in the 1980s, Mediterranean Israeli music went professional."

Meanwhile, other Mizrahi musicians developed new fusion sounds.

Ahouva Ozeri, a Yemenite-Ethiopian Israeli singer who became popular in the 1970s, mastered an Indian string instrument called bulbul tarang and gained a reputation as a world beat musician. She also helped pave the way for women in Mizrahi music.

Machismo was not the only obstacle to female Mizrahi musicians: In traditional Mizrahi households, a music career was equated with prostitution, and many families forbade their daughters from performing.

Hadad’s defiance of her parents is legendary in Israel. As a girl, she would climb out of her window at night to perform at local clubs. Her father, who died in 1997, refused to attend even a single concert of his superstar daughter.

Gabay and Rohe say the turning point for Mizrahi music was the development of commercial television and radio in the 1990s, which opened up new avenues for national broadcast of Mizrahi music, as well as other alternative sounds.

Today, Itzkovitz said, Hadad is hands-down the most popular Mizrahi musician in Israel. Afia and Itzik Kala are runners-up, and each puts out at least one platinum album per year.

"Mizrahi music is very, very popular on Israeli radio today," Itzkovitz said. "On major stations like Galgalatz, we pick only the songs that sell the best, the most popular ones that people love. Today, about 40 percent of what we play is straight-up Mizrahi music."

In addition, Itzkovitz noted, Mizrahi music has influenced musicians closely associated with the Ashkenazi kibbutznik movement. Among them is David Broza, who combines his style with the Mizrahi genre, and bands like Ethnix and Tea Packs, which combine rock and Mizrahi music.

Today’s hottest new sound is the fusion of Mizrahi music and hip-hop, Itzkovitz said. Indeed, Mizrahi musicians have blazed the trail for Israeli hip-hop, and children of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Yemen are at the cutting edge of Israeli music today.

Somehow, it seems, the music of the streets has became the music of choice.

"In the last years," Rohe said, "this mix of the new generations, the blend of music that came from Ashkenazi and Mizrahi homes, has brought a new sound to the ear that is as Israeli as you can get."

Article reprinted courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Loolwa Khazzoom (

For Whom Poll Tolls

The Gallup Poll recently released its newest data on Jewish political attitudes, and it holds bad news for George W. Bush and for Republicans searching for Jewish votes. Based on polling from 1992 through May 2004 (of admittedly small, rolling samples of Jewish voters), the Gallup organization found great stability in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party and a significant decline in Jewish approval for Bush. Jews continue to differ dramatically from Protestants and Catholics on these measures.

From 1992 through the present, a remarkably consistent 50 percent of Jewish voters have called themselves Democrats, roughly one-third independents and 16-18 percent Republicans. When "leanings" are analyzed, however, the picture gets even more strongly Democratic. In the most recent surveys, conducted between 2002 and 2004, 68 percent of Jewish voters lean Democratic, and only 28 percent Republican. By contrast, 51 percent of Protestants lean Republican and only 43 percent Democratic. (Presumably, the difference between Jews and non-Jews would be even greater if African Americans, the majority of whom are Protestants, are taken out of the equation and the comparison is made with white Protestants.)

The Gallup Poll found low approval ratings for the Bush presidency among Jews in the latest surveys; only 39 percent of Jews approved, compared to 63 percent of Protestants. And Bush’s approval rating has dropped farther among Jews over the last several years than among other religious groups, a 17 point free-fall from an earlier 56 percent rating.

Based on this data, Gallup staff writer Joseph Carroll concluded that "Bush will be hard-pressed to win the votes of Jewish Americans." What happened to the high hopes of Republicans that this was finally their year to win over the Jews? Early polls had shown a significant bloc of Jewish voters considering voting Republican in 2004.

Bush has pursued an unprecedented and risky plan for winning Jewish votes. He has thumbed his nose at every issue that has ever counted for the majority of Jewish voters: choice on abortion; fairness in economics; standing up to the religious right; respecting the viewpoints of Democrats and moderates in the formation of public policy; respect for international alliances.

He has given Jewish voters one thing, and one thing only: absolute support of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That is no small thing, and it has certainly won some goodwill and trust among many Jewish voters; unconditional love is hard to turn down. But Bush’s plan presumes that Jews will trade everything that has characterized the American Jewish political ethic going back to the eras of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt for a single-minded Middle East approach devoid of nuance or long-term thinking.

It also assumes that the Democrats will nominate a national ticket that abandons Israel. With John Kerry as the presidential candidate, and any of the short list of vice presidential candidates currently being considered, the Democrats are likely to select strongly pro-Israel candidates with significant foreign policy experience who are in close accord with Jewish voters on other issues.

Had the Iraq war gone as advertised, many Jewish voters might have felt that Bush’s unilateralist vision of the Middle East would make Israel safer: perhaps, as the Bush folks promised, "the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad." But instead, Bush has bequeathed a quagmire, strengthened the regional hand of Iran, another foe of Israel (possibly even allowing Iran to obtain critical American military secrets), and endangered the political position of Israel by linking it to an increasingly unpopular war and by weakening and diluting the American political, fiscal, diplomatic and military strengths that have been pillars of Israel’s security.

Bush will probably lose badly among Jews, therefore, for the same reasons that he is in trouble across the board, and his narrowcast pro-Israel position will not solve the problem.

So will Republicans, ever vigilant for Jewish votes, learn the obvious lesson? The key to winning Jewish support lies not in changing Jews, but in changing the national Republican Party. The right wing’s semi-biblical attachment to Israel and to little else about Jews is a dead end. We would never want America to buy world popularity at Israel’s expense. But an isolated, even hated, America is less able to exert its influence on Israel’s behalf.

The case of Ronald Reagan, however, gives one pause. Here was a Republican right -winger, who by this analysis should have completely alienated Jewish voters. While Reagan never won a majority of Jewish votes, his pro-Israel stance did make it respectable to be a Jewish Republican. Democrats, wandering in the foreign policy wilderness during the Reagan years, seemed insufficiently strong and determined in world affairs.

But as we can see in the increasingly intense battle between Reaganites and the Bush administration about who owns the Reagan legacy, Reagan’s assertiveness in foreign policy lacked the unilateral and interventionist zeal of the Bush group. Reagan, who was tough in rhetoric but inclined to avoid risky military conflicts, would have been unlikely to undertake and pursue the misguided and incompetent Iraq adventure. Even though many foreign leaders were initially alienated from Reagan, by the time he ran for re-election in 1984, he was seen as less dangerous overseas than he had been at first. One senses an impending world celebration, by contrast, if Bush is defeated.

Other than unusual characters like Reagan, who could mix conservative ideology with an appealing persona, the people who hold the key to Jewish support are precisely the Republican moderates so reviled by conservatives. History shows that numerous moderate Republicans have won substantial Jewish support. Republican politicians who have won Jewish votes have never sought to turn Jews into conservative Republicans. While Reagan was an aggressive Republican partisan, he was largely content to turn lifelong Democrats into temporary "Reagan Democrats," a strategy that avoided the traumas of seeking partisan conversion.

To see an example, one needn’t go any farther than Sacramento, where Republican Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger is following a path likely to win many Jewish voters over. Schwartzenegger is socially liberal, listens to the views of Democrats and moderate Republicans, and shows at least some interest in the human impact of cutbacks in state budgets. And he visits and supports Israel. As a result, the prospects for California’s Republicans to win significant Jewish support (even without a partisan conversion) have suddenly gone from hopeless to hopeful. At the national level, by contrast, it will take an extreme makeover by Republicans and a suicidal wrong turn by Democrats to turn the tide of Jewish voters in 2004.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton U. Press, 1993).

Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She was magnificent," he said.

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