Sepulveda Pass class


When he greets students next month who have enrolled in his four-session class “The Sepulveda Pass: From Creation to Carmaggedon,” instructor and historian Erik Greenberg will be returning to familiar territory. 

Geographically speaking, so will his students. From their classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center, Greenberg and his pupils will be learning about the pass from the pass. 

The Skirball, which opened in 1996, has become a kind of ground zero for Jewish cultural life within the Sepulveda Pass, along with its neighbors, American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), Stephen S. Wise Temple, Milken Community High School and Leo Baeck Temple.

In addition to being a hub of Jewish culture, the Sepulveda Pass is a thoroughfare between two significant concentrations of Judaism in Los Angeles: L.A.’s Westside and the San Fernando Valley communities of Sherman Oaks and Encino.

“One concept I very much like thinking about is the pass as the Brooklyn Bridge of Los Angeles,” says Greenberg, who grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. “Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sepulveda Pass and the San Diego Freeway bridge two major communities, and they do it by crossing this really challenging geographical boundary.”

Adele Lander Burke, vice president of the Skirball’s Learning for Life adult programming, says the class aptly and uniquely tackles the center’s aims. It will meet Feb. 10 and 24 and March 3 and 17.

“Part of our mission at the Skirball is to link Jewish heritage and values with the broader story of America and American values,” Burke says. “We get a sense that this is not just a freeway connector you might see as you zip through. The positioning of several Jewish institutions in the pass is a part of the story of how Los Angeles has changed physically and how the Jewish community has moved geographically. This is something we have not looked at before.”

Greenberg’s fascination with the pass — its geography, history and cultural significance — is a mixture of scholarly and personal interest. The director of education for the Autry National Center, Greenberg lives and works in the eastern San Fernando Valley. He ventures onto the actual Sepulveda Boulevard stretch of the pass — as many Angelenos do — only when the 7.5-mile section of the boulevard between Valley Vista Boulevard and Brentwood proves a more traffic-friendly alternative to that demon known as the 405. 

These days, ongoing Sepulveda Pass/I-405 improvements, which will result in the relocation of bridges and widening of the freeway, have turned the area into an ever-shifting maze of road closures, detours and construction vehicles. The strategic closing of sections of the I-405 within the Sepulveda Pass — and the anxiety that created for many area residents — helped birth and popularize the term “Carmaggedon.”

But as Greenberg’s class will remind people, there was a time many years ago when there was no I-405 for Angeleno pioneers to brave. In the 18th century, the first Europeans crested the pass and moved down into what Miguel Costanso, part of an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola, called a “very large and spacious valley.” He was referring to what would later be known as the San Fernando Valley. 


Instructor Erik Greenberg. Photo by Emma Greenberg

Traveling the pass would not have been an easy trek back then, Greenberg notes, but that hasn’t changed with time.

“It’s outrageously steep,” Greenberg says of the pass. “It rises very quickly and descends very quickly. Anybody who has ever walked, biked or driven a car with a manual transmission on the pass knows it’s unrelenting.” 

Greenberg says his class will chart the history of the place, including how land that once belonged to the Tongva Indians gave way to Spanish mission and ranchero use. It will consider the formation of suburbs, but also will talk about people- — the Sepulvedas, who lived in what is now the South Bay, and engineer William Mulholland. 

Moving closer to the present, he’ll talk about the relocation of the former University of Judaism (UJ), which had previously been at several different L.A. sites, to its Familian campus on Mulholland Drive. Schedule permitting, the final class will feature a visit by Skirball Chairman and CEO Uri Herscher and a discussion of how the area known as the top of the hill became a Jewish hub. 

“I always perceived the development of the pass to be linked to the development of Stephen S. Wise and the University of Judaism, which came about through the late 1950s to the 1970s,” Greenberg says. “But Uri points out that really the first Jewish institution on the pass is Leo Baeck Temple at the bottom of the pass.” 

Greenberg’s connection to the pass began in 2000, when his wife, Amy, took a four-month conversion class at the UJ and went through formal conversion a year later. Their then-3-year-old daughter, Emma, was immersed in the mikveh as well. 

Although his own academic work prevented him from taking the classes with his wife, Greenberg found his commitment to his faith increasing the more his wife learned. The concept of journeying to the top of a hill — in this case, the UJ — and returning with knowledge now had a personal resonance. The subject became a theme of a seminar paper Greenberg wrote for an environmental history class at California State University, Northridge, in 2004. 

“Almost every Jew is a Jew by Choice,” Greenberg says. “Through her learning at the top of the hill, Amy gave us the opportunity to make that choice, to learn what we didn’t understand and to choose.

“The Sepulveda Pass has an intensely personal connection for me,” he adds. “My interest in the past emerged from my personal experience, so I’m excited to come back to the pass and think about it again.”

Students will have the opportunity to share their histories with the Sepulveda Pass, to review photographs and readings and to think about the concepts of names and neighborhoods. It will be a class heavy on student input, says Greenberg, who, at the Autry, has been known to make mountains out of crumpled paper and flow water through them as a way to demonstrate environmental phenomena.

“I hope to come up with some good fun stuff having to do with land and earthquakes,” he says.

Perhaps even a field trip for students?

“Maybe if the class is successful,” Greenberg says with a laugh. “If I do it again, we could put them all on bikes or something.”

Some retirees make aliyah to San Miguel de Allende


This coming week, Angelenos of all races and creeds will join in Cinco de Mayo celebrations that the local Mexican American community has adopted as its major holiday (even though it is different from Mexico’s actual Independence Day, which is Sept. 16; May 5 marks a victory of the Mexican army over French invaders during the U.S. Civil War).

Two weeks later, the Jewish community will celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, which falls on May 14, according to the Gregorian calendar but is celebrated on 5 Iyar, or May 18, this year.

Although the history of Mexican-Israeli relations has sometimes been strained — while several Central American countries voted in favor of the U.N. partition plan creating the State of Israel, Mexico abstained — the two L.A. communities get along just fine. Moreover, a growing number of American Jews have chosen to retire to Mexico, creating a different kind of dual allegiance than the one usually associated with moving to Israel.

Two of the largest American expatriate communities are located in the charming city of San Miguel de Allende, three hours north of Mexico City, and Ajijic, a lakeside community near the city of Guadalajara. The latter has a retired Reform rabbi to lead the community, while the former has gone through some turbulent times while attempting to establish lay spiritual leadership.

Just like the proximity of the Mexican and Israeli celebrations this month, in the early fall, the Jews of San Miguel de Allende celebrate Sukkot, while the city as a whole celebrates its name day. Jews join in, as well, because unlike many of Mexico’s often religiously tinged fiestas, San Miguel de Allende’s autumn celebration is not marked by pilgrimages carrying crucifixes and religious images. Instead, native residents from the state of Guanajuato and beyond flood into the narrow, cobble-stone streets of historic San Miguel dressed in traditional Native American garb, typically wearing flamboyantly feathered headdresses and dancing with abandon to occasionally frenzied drumbeats.

It is a three-day spectacle that rivals the most famous of the world’s storied carnivals, and it is capped off by a spectacular display of fireworks, featuring whirling rockets that take off from temporary pillars erected in the city’s fabled central square.

The Jewish community of San Miguel de Allende is almost as unique as the city itself, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its distinctive beauty and history as a cradle of Mexican independence. Virtually all of its members are North American retirees: San Miguel de Allende is consistently ranked by American publications as one of the top retirement cities outside the United States for its affordable quality of life and pleasant year-round climate.

With but a few exceptions, no Jews lived in San Miguel de Allende prior to 30 years or so ago; nor has there ever been any more than the handful of Jewish children that are there today.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is no synagogue in San Miguel de Allende. Organized Jewish life was never a priority for American Jewish retirees relocating here, compared to the city’s other attractions, including a vibrant arts community. For this reason, it is extremely difficult even to estimate the number of Jewish residents. The best guesstimates are several-hundred souls marginally identified as Jews. In the winter months, known as the “season,” the arrival of American and Canadian snowbirds multiplies this number several times over.

In recent years, an organized Jewish community of sorts has emerged. For several of the initial years, the community identified more or less with the Jewish Renewal movement. Then a traditional, egalitarian American Conservative-style minyan began operating on Shabbat mornings. For some reason, as tiny as the number of actively engaged Jews is, a serious schism developed, with the result that today, these two groups do not talk with one another.

The mantle of an organized Jewish community now rests on an entity called Shalom San Miguel, which itself has already seen splits and defections among its small board of directors. Nevertheless, Shalom San Miguel has managed to score some impressive accomplishments: It has secured a meeting place at the downtown Quinta Loreto Hotel, where services and adult education classes are held, and a sukkah is built in the courtyard.

Twice weekly classes in Talmud and Kabbalah are led by Shalom San Miguel President Larry Stone, formerly of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Carole, also teach Hebrew to the community’s children. According to Stone, the crowning glory of Shalom San Miguel’s activities is the weekly Torah study shiur held at 11:15 a.m. every Saturday.

“In the season, we have been known to attract more than 50 people to Torah study,” he noted, adding that High Holy Days services drew similar numbers from residents in San Miguel de Allende and cities up to several hours’ drive away.

The star of High Holy Days services is clearly the Jewish community’s elder statesman, Sidney Yakerson. At 91, he blows the shofar effortlessly, sounding clear blasts whose length would be the envy of many a younger man.

Stone envisions Shalom San Miguel as an umbrella organization comprising secular individuals, as well as groups representing both Reform and Conservative services: “Ideally, we would like to see a Reform Friday night service that would complement nicely the Saturday morning Conservative service,” he said.

In the meantime, according to the organization’s weekly e-newsletter, several Shalom San Miguel families, including the few who drive to Mexico City from time to time to purchase kosher provisions, are planning to hold monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners in members’ homes. The community also occasionally invites visiting scholars-in-residence and receives visits from Chabad emissaries. .

Finally, San Miguel de Allende may not have a synagogue, but it does boast an interesting landmark building in the downtown area with the intriguing name of Casa Cohen. Adorned with a Magen David and a frieze referencing the Arca de Noe, Casa Cohen houses a decorative metalworking shop where a shopper may find a chanukiah or mezuzah for sale.

The building is owned by a Sephardic Jewish family with roots in the large Mexican city of Guadalajara. True to Mexican form, whether or not the local Cohens choose to travel to Guadalajara to celebrate the Jewish holidays, they would not be found worshipping with Ashkenazic Shalom San Miguel de Allende.

Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.


L.A. woman


Ruthie Rotenberg couldn’t make up her mind. She had to choose between two amazing jobs. One was connected to the future of Jewish education in America; the other could potentially re-energize the Los Angeles Jewish community.

In the past, Ruthie would always seek the advice of her father before making major decisions. She was Daddy’s girl, the little baby who was born a decade after her two brothers, the one who could do no wrong in her father’s eyes. The feeling was mutual. The father, with his quiet wisdom and deliberate ways, could do no wrong with his high-strung, mile-a-minute daughter.

On this occasion, however, it would not be easy to seek the father’s advice. He had recently suffered a stroke and could hear but could not speak.

But Rotenberg had something up her sleeve. She knew her father’s body language. So when she spoke to him about her job options, she noticed that he seemed to light up when he heard about the second job: executive director of Limmud in Los Angeles.

That little reaction was enough of a blessing for her, and, as it turns out, for our community.

You could argue that Rotenberg was better suited for the first job: to run a new Charter English-Hebrew day school in Miami that was providing government-funded secular and Hebrew education. This had the potential to be revolutionary, and with her background in Jewish education, seemed like a perfect fit for Rotenberg, who has always lived on the East Coast.

But there was another side to Rotenberg: the high-energy city girl who loves to engage with people from all walks of life. You might call it her Limmud side, and it’s the side that won out.

I first met Rotenberg about eight months ago, a short time after she took the Limmud job, and I remember feeling a little nervous about her career direction. The Limmud goal, she told me, was to get a cross-section of 400 to 600 L.A. Jews to pay good money to spend a holiday weekend in Orange County to learn more about their Judaism. This is in a town where you’re lucky to get a handful of Jews to show up in Beverly Hills for a Judaism class when it’s free and there’s valet parking.

But I got really nervous when she asked me for names of key people in the local Jewish community — rabbis, speakers, philanthropists, opinion leaders, etc. — and I noticed that when I gave her names everybody knew, she had no idea who I was talking about.

As the months went by, though, I could see her confidence growing. It helped that she had the support of a prominent circle of Limmud devotees who had been working on the project for some time — like co-chairs Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, and a 14-member steering committee — as well as a host of other volunteers who have chipped in on a daily basis.

And there’s been plenty of work to go around, from finding co-sponsors to organizing “Taste of Limmud” events to recruiting volunteers to producing podcasts to actually signing people up for the conference. When I caught up with Rotenberg recently over lunch, by the time the coffee came, she had 20 new e-mail messages on her Blackberry. She had just returned from the Limmud conference in London — where the idea originated 27 years ago — and she seemed rejuvenated.

Her energy has certainly helped put Limmud on people’s radar, but I think there’s something else going for her. She hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. She’s an ardent fan of the Limmud idea — to gather Jews of all denominations to celebrate the kaleidoscope of the Jewish experience — but she’s not one of those cuckoo evangelists dripping with single-minded fervor who will pummel you with the greatness of their cause.

In a town where “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a form of religious practice, you can’t come on too strong and hope to charm people into buying something they’re not sure they want.

Of course, when you’re offering classes like “Sexual Obsession and Repression in Traditional Jewish Practice,” it makes the marketing a little easier. In fact, if there’s one thing that sells Limmud above all else, it’s the range of classes they offer.

For the conference coming up at the Costa Mesa Hilton on Presidents’ Day Weekend, Rotenberg tells me there’ll be up to 14 different classes to choose from at any one time, including some that move (Jewish yoga and dance), inspire (Israel through the lens of poets), instruct (Talmud text study), surprise (the place and role of Arabs in Zionist thought), entertain (various film screenings and musical performances), nourish (the making of a great couscous) and even profit (marketing your Jewish cause).

When you think about it, there’s actually something very L.A. about Limmud: it’s Judaism for freedom junkies with a short attention span who don’t want to be told how to be Jewish.

And the numbers are coming in. After a slow start, they now have almost 400 reservations from Jews of all denominations, and they have maxed out on presenters — all without valet parking.

So Rotenberg is starting to see daylight. Maybe that’s why, at the end of our lunch, she got in a more pensive and reflective mood, and told me the story of how her father passed away a week after she took the Limmud job, and how she might have crumbled without the support of her new Limmud family in Los Angeles.

The morning after her father died, she decided to say “Kaddish,” which she continues to this day. She says that reciting this prayer for her father every morning and hearing Jews say “amen” has been her secret source of energy.

It might also be her way of showing gratitude for her father’s last blessing, the one that helped her come to a place she loves and now calls home.

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

The Calendar Girls: Picks, kicks and plugs


SAT | JANUARY 26

(KIDS)
andeebhdspa@yahoo.com.

(FILM)
” target=”_blank”>http://americancinematheque.com.

(LECTURE)
Have a thirst for higher education, but don’t want to deal with the hassle of test taking, registration and studying? Now you can go “Back to College For a Day” and learn from renowned USC and UCLA professors, among others. Lecture topics include the impact of stress on behavior and the brain, the coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews in Medieval Spain, and law in a multicultural world. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $179 (parking and lunch). Mount St. Mary’s College, Chalon Campus, 12001 Chalon Road, Los Angeles. (818) 704-4207. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/thrillme or ” target=”_blank”>http://maccabilosangeles.com/.

(SINGLES)
The Jewish Single Parents and Singles Association has a lovely Sunday all planned out for you: start out with a hearty omelet or toasted bagel with cream cheese at local favorite Katella Deli, then spend the rest of the day with the group, wandering the glorious art-filled halls of the Getty Center Museum. Exhibitions to check out include the photographs of Andr�(c) Kert�(c)sz, the history of the nude in photography and Nicole Cohen’s critically acclaimed video installation, “Please Be Seated.” 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Katella Deli, 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos. (714) 964-7031.

(THEATER)
Harry Boychick is inviting you to his bar mitzvah. Don’t know him? Doesn’t matter. None of the guests know Harry, but they will be joining him and his family at a rollicking reception. Amy Lord, the creator of “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral,” brings us her new interactive show, “The Boychick Affair: The Bar Mitzvah of Harry Boychick,” where the audience joins in the insanity, mingling with actors, dancing, laughing and even partaking in the celebratory meal. This promises to be unlike any show (or bar mitzvah) you’ve ever been to. Sundays at 2 p.m. (open-ended run). $36 (twice chai for the bar mitzvah boy!). Price includes meal. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (800) 838-3006. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.westsidejcc.org.

(VOLUNTEER)
Drag your honey out of bed to do some good today. ATID’s Couples Havurah, for young Jews (married or dating) between the ages of 21 and 39, has planned a volunteer day where you and your other can help prepare kosher meals for people with HIV/AIDS. “Project Kitchen Soup” will leave you feeling so warm and fuzzy inside that you’ll forget you woke up at 7 a.m. 7:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Free. Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen, 338 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. required, (310) 481-3244. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Erudite composers Hans Gal and Robert Kahn were forced into exile when they fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Their music was removed from libraries and destroyed, and they were stripped of their prominent posts. Tonight, contemporary musicians on cello, bassoon and piano will reclaim the banished music of their forbears during an evening of “Recovered Music by Exiled German Jewish Composers.” Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Kehillat Israel are underwriting the program and proceeds will benefit the Alfred and Miriam Wolf Scholarship Fund of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 4 p.m. $36. Second Space — The Stage @ Santa Monica, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Santa Monica Boulevard (between 10th and 11th streets). (310) 434-3414. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Comedian Wendy Liebman confessed something during a Hillel fundraiser last summer that deeply shames her: “I have separation anxiety … so I can’t do laundry.” The fundraiser was so successful, it’s happening again. Hillel 818 Presents “Comedy Night” is a cacophony of L.A.’s most wicked, witty and wild talent: the handsome Elon Gold, Lisa Ann Walter, who’s not sure if she’s naughty or nice, and Liebman. With nights like these, the partnership between the Pierce and Valley Colleges Hillel and the CSUN Hillel seems like a match made in heaven. 7 p.m. (VIP reception), 8 p.m. (show). $10-$75. The World Famous Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (818) 886-5101 or

‘Secular Yeshiva’ answers young Israelis’ questions


Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel.

A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.

“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”

Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, nonreligious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.

The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, which receives funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv, where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.

The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.

Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.

The yeshiva is a project of BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.

“One of the reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.

“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.

About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.

The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.

Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the Modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, as well as from federations in Los Angeles and New York. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.

Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.

“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.

“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”

Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.

“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.

The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.

Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.

“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.

If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”

Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.'”

Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.

Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.

Special Delivery – Jewish Lamaze Class Reunion


We were so much fatter then — and younger and more naïve.

We were nine pregnant women, accompanied by our husbands, sitting together on the floor of a Temple Sinai classroom for 10 Thursday nights in the fall of 1983. Strangers to each other and strangers to the concept of becoming parents, we were preparing to welcome our firstborn into the world according to the traditions of Judaism and the techniques of Lamaze.

It was Jewish Lamaze, a two-pronged childbirth preparation program that had recently been introduced in Los Angeles.

On the physical side, we learned about the anatomy and physiology of pregnancy. And we practiced the focused breathing exercises (the “he-hes” and “he-whos”) developed by Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze in France in the early 1950s and optimistically called “childbirth without pain.”

On the spiritual side, we learned about the customs and rituals, blessings and bubbe meises surrounding the birth of a Jewish child. Some of these included brit milah, the almost 4,000-year-old custom of circumcision; brit bat, an innovative alternative ceremony for girls, and pidyon ha’ben, the redemption of the first-born.

But most important, Jewish Lamaze gave us an opportunity, amid the excitement, anxiety and physical transformation, to take a deep breath (not a “he-he” or “he-who”) and contemplate the emotional ramifications of going from a couple to a family and the spiritual ramifications of raising a Jewish child.

Of course, we wanted to do this perfectly. Thus, in addition to Jewish Lamaze, we took baby care and breast-feeding classes, we read “Secret Life of the Unborn Child” and “The Rights of the Pregnant Parent.” We interviewed pediatricians, researched the best strollers and called day schools to add our babies’ names to the waiting list.

And we planned a reunion for February 1984, to show off our 2- and 3-month-old infants.

Tonight, 18 years later, we’re gathered together for a second reunion, joined by our instructors, Fredi Rembaum, then a consultant for Jewish Family Education at the Bureau of Jewish Education, and Sandra Jaffe, then — and now — a certified Lamaze teacher.

We’re five of the original couples, accompanied by our now-18-year-old children and their siblings. (Of the families not present, two are traveling, one has moved to Minnesota and one, when contacted, said, “I don’t even remember taking Lamaze. It didn’t do me any good.”)

We have come to reconnect and to reminisce at another watershed moment in parenting — as our firstborn have begun or are about to begin their first year in college.

We introduce ourselves and catch up. Some of our lives have intersected through the years — in preschool, day school and day camp, at Jewish lifecycle events, fundraising dinners and at Ralphs. Some of us are remeeting for the first time.

We gather around an enlarged photo of the babies taken at the first reunion.

“Yes, that’s Josh. Crying.”

“There’s Nathan, sound asleep.”

“Sharona, what do you think of your tie-dyed outfit?”

We chat informally. And easily. The talk centers on high schools, colleges and other children. The subtext is middle age and empty-nest syndrome.

After dinner, we gather in a circle. The teens formally introduce themselves.

Some are already in their first year of college — at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. The others are leaving in the fall — also for UC Berkeley and Williams. They talk about Jewish life on campus, about Hillel and about finding kosher food.

“Why did you decide on Jewish Lamaze?” Rembaum asks us adults.

Harriet Sharf answers: “We were having a Jewish baby. Why would we want to go to goyishe Lamaze?”

“I grew up in a nonreligious Jewish family,” Andy Hyman says. “I wanted to learn about the traditions and to instill in my kids a deep love and appreciation of Judaism.”

“I needed help with the Lamaze part,” says Neal Weinberg, an ordained rabbi.

“But that Lamaze bag was worthless,” Debbie Spindel adds. “I remember everything in it — the shoelaces, the tennis balls, the small paper bag.”

“It wouldn’t have been useless if you had needed any of those items,” Lamaze instructor Jaffe says.

“The change for the pay phone was helpful,” Bart Sokolow says.

Jewish Lamaze was first sponsored by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education in the early 1980s and taught in various synagogues until the funding ran out toward the end of the decade.

And while it’s no longer being offered in Los Angeles, as far as anyone knows, similar programs exist elsewhere.

“I absolutely loved our program,” Rembaum says…. The class was not just about birthing but about connecting to the Jewish community.”

Eighteen years ago, together, we welcomed these children into the world.

Tonight we realize we’re releasing them.

“Let’s do this again in another 18 years,” Sokolow suggests at the end of the evening. “With our grandchildren.”

 

A Dying Language Comes to Life


“Gut morgn.”

Teacher Hannah Pollin greeted the group assembled in a large circle around her. Her nine high school students, armed with a page of interview questions and tape recorders, sat interspersed among 13 senior citizens at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. They formed groups of two or three, impatiently awaiting last-minute instructions.

“Ir volt redn nor af Yidish,” she reminded them.

But the admonition to speak only Yiddish was unnecessary as the students, from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, turned on their tape recorders and began firing off questions to their eager partners, native Yiddish speakers whom they were meeting for the first time.

“Vos makh stu?” they asked. “Fun vanen kumt ir?” “How are you?” and “Where are you from?”

Pollin’s class at New Community Jewish High School, an elective for 10th-, 11th- and 12th- graders, is possibly the only full-year, for-credit high school Yiddish language class currently being taught in the United States. Pollin, 23, also teaches Yiddish to the sixth-grade class at Shalhevet Middle School. Last fall she taught an elective Yiddish class to sixth- and seventh-graders at Sinai Akiba Academy, which she plans to continue in the spring.

The classes are part of a three-year pilot program funded by a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation. It was the idea of Aaron Paley, founder, and Dan Opatoshu, a board member, of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture.

To the students and seniors at the Jewish Home that Friday, those abstract goals had the immediate impact of building a bridge across generations.

The Yiddish words flew — sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly and occasionally “shreklich” or awful as the seniors reached for a word long forgotten or the students for a word they had not yet learned. They raised their voices, gesturing with their hands as they spoke.

“Vi heist ir?” asked senior Ami Kurzweil, 17.

He learned his partner’s name was Rose Levin. Now 100, she revealed that she spent the first 12 years of her life in Smargon, a shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, then after World War I immigrated to the United States via Japan.

Across the room, 12th-grader Ari Tuvia, 17, talked with Mildred Cadish, who admitted to being no older than 79. Born in New York City, Cadish told Tuvia how she grew up speaking Yiddish and how she used to read “Der Forverts,” the Yiddish newspaper.

“I understand 110 percent,” she said. “It is the most beautiful language in the world.”

Tuvia understood better than most first- semester language students — he was raised listening to his Romanian grandmother and father speaking the language.

But most of the students, who have been studying Yiddish for only one semester, are still confined to asking questions or describing events in the present tense. They want to learn the language their grandparents used to speak — the 1,000-year-old language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe — and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people.

“We should value this language for the adventure it takes us on,” said junior Zack Sher, 16, who hopes to spend a month this summer studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilna, Lithuania.

That morning, Sher learned the history of Sylvia Gottlieb, 89, originally named Shalamus, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up speaking Yiddish to her Ukrainian-born parents.

“You can go all over the world and find someone who speaks Yiddish,” she told him.

But today that’s less true. The 11 million Yiddish speakers that existed worldwide prior to World War II have diminished to only 1.85 million, according to sociolinguist Dr. Joshua A. Fishman, a visiting professor at Stanford University. Fishman categorizes them into two groups: elderly Jews, for whom Yiddish is the mother tongue, and members of ultra-Orthodox communities who use Yiddish as a daily language.

Pollin approaches Yiddish as a living language and brought her students, even as novice learners, to the Eisenberg campus of Jewish Home for the Aging to experience talking with native speakers.

“The most important goal is to form a relationship,” she said.

Pollin herself, who helped found the first undergraduate Yiddish major at Columbia University, significantly improved her speaking skills when she spent a year in Lithuania on a Fulbright scholarship, doing oral histories of Jews living there. And, in fact, her high school students will be writing histories of the people they interviewed, based on their tape-recorded conversations.

As the students began preparing to leave the Jewish Home, the seniors asked, “When are you coming back? Can we chip in for the bus to bring you here?” They exchanged phone numbers and “zayt gezunts,” hoping to meet again soon.

“It’s good to talk Yiddish,” observed Sara Litmanovich, 81, who was liberated from a concentration camp at age 16, the sole survivor of a large family. “It gives me varemkayt [warmth] and makes me feel again like I have mishpockhe [family].”

 

Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks


A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

Schools to Teach Ein Bisel Yiddish


Linguists have predicted that within 100 years, more than half of the 6,000 languages that exist today will disappear.

For a long time, it’s looked as though Yiddish was among those bound for extinction, but scholars and Yiddish speakers, as well as some Jews who remember their parents speaking Yiddish, have never given up on the language.

And now there’s a better chance that a new generation of Jews will understand Yiddish and the Jewish culture it embodies. This fall, three local Jewish day schools will offer their middle and high school students classes in Yiddish, the language spoken for 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews of eastern and central Europe.

The three schools represent a spectrum of Jewish education and geography in Los Angeles: New Community Jewish High School in the west San Fernando Valley is non-denominational, Shalhevet School in the Fairfax district is Orthodox and Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles is Conservative.

“The purpose of this course is to give [students] the key to unlock the vault that contains the history of their people,” said Dan Opatoshu, who sits on the board of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit that develops programs to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture, which will administer the classes.

About 11 million Jews spoke Yiddish before World War II. Today, the number has dwindled to 2 million, comprising mostly elderly and ultra-Orthodox Jews scattered in the United States and around the world, said Aviva Astrinsky, head librarian at the YIVO Institute in New York, which studies the Yiddish language, Eastern European Jewish life and the American Jewish immigrant experience.

The very existence of the YIVO Institute, an organization founded in Europe in 1925 and moved to New York in 1940, is evidence of concerted efforts to pay homage to, preserve and even revive Yiddish. The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., founded in 1980, has rescued more than 1.5 million Yiddish books, sending them to libraries around the world, from Harvard to Hebrew University in Jerusalem and national libraries in China and Japan.

Learning Yiddish will give young people access to a vibrant culture, a wealth of literature, film, theater and music that has largely been forgotten, Opatoshu said.

Opatoshu came up with the idea for a high school Yiddish curriculum when he realized that day-school students were learning “a truncated history that goes from the Bible to the Holocaust to the establishment of the state of Israel” and skips a millennium of Jewish culture in between.

The Jewish narrative places too much emphasis on the attempted annihilation of the Jews and too little emphasis on how Jews lived before World War II, Opatoshu said.

“For some reason, we’ve decided as a people to commemorate, study, learn every detail, honor the extinction of our civilization … and we don’t spend any time to examine what that history actually was, how we lived, what we created,” he said.

Opatoshu wanted to see Yiddish in the Jewish day school curriculum, not as an after-school program but as a central part of Jewish learning.

The resulting program is called Take [pronounced tahkah] Yiddish, meaning Really Yiddish, as in “not just the punch-line-of-the-joke Yiddish, not just what’s-the-difference-between-a-schlimazel-and-a-schlemiel Yiddish,” Opatoshu said.

The curriculum is being developed from scratch, because while there are a few good Yiddish college textbooks, no new, innovative ones exist for younger students, Opatoshu said.

Hannah Pollin, 23, will teach the classes at all three schools. She has organized her material around themes such as “greetings and introductions,” “time and seasons,” “emotions and sensations” and “holidays.”

Pollin, who majored in Yiddish at Columbia College, said her courses will combine language principles with historical context. While students will study vocabulary and the grammatical structure of Yiddish, a language derived from German and written with Hebrew letters, they will also learn about Yiddish culture. When teaching the days of the week, for example, Pollin said she will talk about the daily routine of Jews in Eastern Europe. She would explain, for instance, how Jews prepared for Shabbat and how they celebrated it. Using photographs, films and songs, she would illustrate the way life was.

This summer, Pollin scoured the archives of the National Yiddish Book Center, for teaching materials. Among the piles of books and magazines through which she had been sifting, she came upon a Yiddish comic strip from the 1940s and ’50s, “Moishe and Friends,” a sort of Yiddish equivalent to “Calvin and Hobbes.”

In one scene, Moishe and his buddies climb atop a statue of Abraham Lincoln, where they discuss the end of slavery and the importance of social equality. In another, Moishe plays baseball with a black friend, who, like everyone else in the comic strip, speaks Yiddish. Pollin said she would use the Moishe and Friends cartoon to spark a discussion about what it means to be Jewish in Los Angeles.

“There are lots of different people out there,” she said she would tell her students. “You live among them, but you go to a Jewish school. How do you balance the two?”

“I’m very excited about it,” said Bruce Powell, 57, head of New Community Jewish High School. He said he expected a dozen students to sign up for the class this fall.

Yiddish does not have to be practical to be worthwhile, Powell said. Some students might go on to become scholars of the language, but for others, “this can just be fun,” he said. Why study Yiddish? “It’s almost the same question as saying, why do we study American history,” Powell said. “It’s extremely important to know from where you came.”

Opatoshu, 58, grew up in New York speaking Yiddish to his grandparents. His grandfather, Joseph Opatoshu, was a leading Yiddish novelist. Friday nights, poets and artists, including the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall, would gather round his grandfather’s table, discussing intellectual ideas in Yiddish.

Opatoshu also learned about Yiddish culture from his father, actor David Opatoshu, who appeared on the Yiddish stage in the 1930s and later became a Hollywood actor, playing the leader of Zionist activists in the 1960 movie “Exodus.”

After years in the movie business as a screenwriter, Dan Opatoshu decided to go back to school to study history, discovering along the way that he had “Yiddish somewhere inside me, in my blood, in my bones.”

Opatoshu started attending Yiddish festivals joined a Yiddish reading group, and got involved in Yiddishkayt Los Angeles.

Opatoshu brought his idea for a Yiddish curriculum to his brother-in-law, Steven Spielberg, who pointed him in the direction of the Righteous Persons Foundation. Opatoshu ended up securing a $130,000 grant for Yiddishkayt Los Angeles to launch a three-year pilot program.

Yiddish experts say the decline of the language can be traced to a number of factors: the Holocaust, Jewish immigrant assimilation and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 19th century.

The “Take Yiddish” project description warns of the “imminent danger” of Yiddish “being forever lost” and says the program’s goal is to create a “revitalized Yiddish education” as a means of “fostering Jewish identity” for “generations to come.”

Whether teaching Yiddish to middle and high school students can stem the decline of the language is up for debate.

“If you don’t catch the kids early and teach them basically from the cradle, then they never really become fully fluent speakers,” said Doug Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund in New Haven. But “if teenagers are still using [the language] on a daily basis, then it’s fairly safe.” Whalen considers Yiddish “moderately endangered,” because some parents are still teaching it to their children.

“We want to see if we can make this work,” said Aaron Paley, 47, founder of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles.

The alternative could be devastating.

“When you lose a language, you face the extinction of an entire … perspective, a worldview and a history,” Paley said. “All of that — all at once — disappears.”

For more information on Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, call (323) 692-8151 or visit

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed or

faxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least three

weeks in advance to:
calendar@jewishjournal.com
.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

April 2 /SATURDAY

SHABBAT

B’nai Tikvah: 6:30 p.m. Hot Dogs and Havdallah Under the Stars. Candle- and spice box-making follows. $15 (per family). 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester. R.S.V.P., (310) 645-6414.

LECTURES

The Emmis Foundation: “The Big Lie: News, Media and the Fiction of Nonfiction” featuring Harvey Sheldon on the untold story of the news media and the Holocaust. 7855 E. Horizon View Drive, Anaheim Hills. (714) 281-5929.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Consulate General of Israel L.A.: 2003 Israeli Academy Award-winner “Nina’s Tragedies,” a film about an Israeli boy, opens this week. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. www.laemmle.com.

April 3 /SUNDAY

PASSOVER

Skirball Cultural Center: 10 a.m.-
4:30 p.m. “Discover Your Personal Exodus Story: A Passover Seminar for People of All Faiths.” Lectures on history and art history, a writing workshop, hands-on ceramics and tour of the holidays gallery. $20-$60, plus $10 for ceramics workshop. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4651.

EVENTS

Hillel Foundation of Orange County/ Israel on Campus Coalition of Orange County/Caravan for Democracy/ StandWithUs: 8:30 a.m. (Sun.)-6 p.m. (Mon.). “Making the Case for Israel: A Two-Day Conference Presenting an Accurate Picture of Middle East Reality.” $36 (students), $75 (per day, nonstudents). UC Irvine and Merage Jewish Community Center, 1 Federation Way, Suite 200, Irvine. (800) 969-5585, ext. 247.

Beth Hillel Day School: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Designer Apparel Fundraiser with up to 93 percent off the original retail. Free admission. Temple Beth Hillel Activities Building, 12326 Riverside Drive, Valley Village. (818) 986-9052.

Temple Isaiah: 11:30 a.m. Steve Platt memorial “Par-tee” Golf Tournament. Golf, light lunch, refreshments, tee prizes and buffet dinner with awards and drawing. $250. Canyon Country Club, 1100 Murray Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. (760) 325-2281.

Valley Beth Shalom Jewish Vegetarian Society: 2 p.m. Dr. Shirley Hon discusses “Protein – Myths and Facts.” Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 349-2581.

Workmen’s Circle: 4 p.m. Comedian Howard Berger opens for Jeff-Chaim Goldberg, who performs original songs and Jewish music. $5-$10. 1525 S. Robertson Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.
Congregation B’nai Emet: 7 p.m. Barbara Lanzet leads a discussion on “The April Dilemma” for interfaith families celebrating Passover and Easter. Part two of an interfaith program sponsored by Jewish Federation.
4645 Industrial St., No. 2C, Simi Valley. (800) 581-3723.

New Community Jewish High School: 7 p.m. Students perform Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” with lighting, sound, sets and choreography by industry professionals. Also, April 4, 7 p.m. $7-$12. The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills.
(818) 348-0048.

April 4/MONDAY

CLASSES

Bais Chana of California Women’s Yeshiva: 11 a.m. “Painlessly Preparing for a Panic-Free Pesach” with Esther Simon. $18. Los Angeles Residence. R.S.V.P., (323) 634-1861.

April 5 /TUESDAY

EVENTS

Stanford Jewish Alumni of Los Angeles: 7 p.m. Book signing with Vincent Brook, author of “Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the ‘Jewish’ Sitcom” followed by vegetarian appetizers and Herzog Cellars’ kosher wines. Beverly Hills residence. $24. R.S.V.P. by April 1, (213) 763-7377.

April 6 /WEDNESDAY

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Jewish World Watch: 7:30 p.m. Ruth Messinger discusses “Genocide in Sudan.” Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.
(310) 474-1518, ext. 3243.

Cinema Bar: 8:30 p.m. Peter Himmelman concert. 3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 390-1328.

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APRIL 7/THURSDAY

University of Judaism: 8 p.m. “Memory and the Monument After 9/11” a slide lecture by James E. Young. Free. Gindi Auditorium. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. R.S.V.P., (213) 470-3405.

Noy Productions: 8:30 p.m. “Rita: The Concert.” See page 31 for more information.

APRIL 8 /FRIDAY

SHABBAT

Ahavah (20s-30s): 7:30 p.m. Shabbat by the Beach potluck dinner for young professional women. $5. Marina Del Rey residence. ahavah_la@hotmail.com.


UPCOMING:

April 11

Chapman University: “An evening of Remembrance and Hope” black-tie dinner with Elie Wiesel. For information call (800) 253-8569.

Singles

APRIL 2 /SATURDAY

New Age Singles: 4 p.m. No-host movie and dinner in West Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 874-9937.

The New JCC at Milken (21+): 6:30 p.m. Syrah wine tasting. $25 (members), $35 (public). 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3269.

APRIL 3 /SUNDAY

Singles Helping Others: 9 a.m.-noon. Sort food items at the SOVA food bank. Light physical activity required. 6027 Reseda Blvd., Reseda. (818) 884-5332.

Elite Jewish Theatre Singles: Noon. American-style Sunday brunch at the Magic Castle. $41.50 (includes admission, brunch, tax and tip). 7001 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles. Prepaid reservations only, (310) 203-1312.

Jewish Singles Volleyball: Noon-3 p.m. Weekly coed beach volleyball game. Court 11 or close to it. Playa del Rey, where Culver Boulevard meets the beach.
(310) 402-0099.

Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza: 3 p.m. Israeli singer Noa Dori joins Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble in “Neshama: Stories of the Soul.” $26-$72. 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 449-2787.

Chef Richard’s: 6 p.m. (reception), 6:45 p.m. (dinner) Family-style Chinese dinner with wine reception. Free parking. $30 (prepaid reservations only). Uncle Chen’s, 16624 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P.,
(818) 995-3455.

New Age Singles: 7 p.m. Starlight Ballroom Dance with mixers and line dances, wine and refreshments. $10-$12. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 472-1391.

The New JCC at Milken: 8 p.m. Swing dancing workshop with an introduction to jitterbug/East Coast swing, foxtrot, waltz, cha cha, rumba and more. $5-$10. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills.
(818) 464-3269.

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APRIL 4/MONDAY

Singles Helping Others: 7 p.m. Monthly meeting to socialize, meet others and hear about new events. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 591-0772.

Coffee Talk (30s and 40s): 8 p.m. Weekly discussion group. $7. 9760 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-4595, ext. 27.

APRIL 5 /TUESDAY

L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connection: Pizza supper and conversation at La Piazza for all ages. 6301 W. Third St., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

Westwood Jewish Singles (45+): 7:30 p.m. “Being real.” $10. West Los Angeles.
(310) 444-8986.

APRIL 6/WEDNESDAY

Nexus: Wed., April 6, 7-9 p.m. The first meeting of the Nexus OC book club will discuss Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case For Israel.” Also, Schmooze and Java Coffee House Night happens on the first and third Wednesday of each month from 7-9 p.m. Coffee Plantation, 18122 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley. www.jewishnexus.org.

APRIL 7/THURSDAY

Conversations at Leon’s: 7 p.m. “Calling in ‘The One.'” $15-$17. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. (310) 393-4616.

UCLA Hillel (18-26): 7 p.m. “Turbo-Dating,” spend seven minutes with seven single guys or gals. Limited seating; first come, first served. Free mocktails and light refreshments. Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. by Wed., April 6, uclaturbodating@yahoo.com.

APRIL 8/FRIDAY

Beach Hillel/Jewlicious: 6 p.m.-Sun., April 10. “Jewlicious @ The Beach” a gathering of the tribe weekend with students and young adults from California and Arizona. $36-$100. Alpert Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. jewlicious.beachhillel.com.

ATID: 7:30 p.m. Friday Night Live Shabbat service and after event with Rapid Networking. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3244.

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Strike a Jewish Pose

Done with downward-facing dog? Try an Aleph instead. This Sunday, Bat Yam Hadassah’s “Under 50” group does Jewish Yoga. Yoga Garden owner Ida Unger leads a one-hour introductory session in “Yoga and Judaism,” which combines discussion and practice of yoga postures that correspond to letters from the Hebrew alphabet. A social hour and light refreshments follow.

Sun., April 3, 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. $18-$20. 30s and 40s. Yoga Garden Studios, 2236 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 478-6596.

A Daf a Day


 

Growing up religious in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I didn’t have much choice when it came to religious studies: it was full time till I was 18. I always felt it was being shoved down my throat.

So I stayed away from religious studies for about a decade — from college, through marriage, a year of service in Vietnam and three children.

During that time I stayed close to religion through observance, community and friends, but I avoided any formal religious study.

After we bought a new house and moved to a new neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I came upon a new, small synagogue — a shtiebl — close to my house where I could attend the (more minor) evening services on weekends. The rabbi of the shul had a soft and pleasing personality. I was drawn to his softness and started to sit in on some of his Talmud classes. I discovered I had a penchant for the back-and-forth, up-and-down method of the talmudic process.

After about a year of these classes, my mother died. Coincidentally (I think), the rabbi decided to start a daily Talmud class half an hour before the 6:45 Shacharit (morning) services. When I finished sitting shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, I decided to attend, because I felt it would be a good way to commemorate my mother’s name.

I attended these classes for a number of years, studying about 12 to 15 masechtot, or tractates. During that time the classes were moved up to a 6 a.m. start and then, to 5:45 a.m., one hour before prayers. Getting up daily for a 5:45 class was tough — but the advantage was that I did not have to take away evening time from my wife or four children. This was my own time I was giving up.

Our small daily Talmud study was actually one of many around the city — and country and world — that learned a daf or a page, a day (yomi), and over seven and a half years would complete the entire Talmud doing this Daf Yomi process.

Before I had started these Daf Yomi cycles, I had spent a number of years playing at a regular weekly card game, feeling in a rut — somehow feeling guilty about not learning, yet having no motivation whatsoever. But somewhere along the line, when I started the classes, I had learned that there was a question of the permissibility of winning money from other Jews playing cards. I decided to give up my card game and continue the learning.

Now instead of spending a night out with the boys playing cards, I was spending the morning out with the other boys: Ravina and Rav Ashi (the compilers of the Talmud).

The days became weeks, which became months, then years. In some way, it became addictive.

Before the Daf Yomi classes, when I took stock of my life, I had felt that I was not really accomplishing anything — despite my career, fatherhood and marriage — I felt I was failing in my role as a Jew, not fulfilling my role in this world; the role that was required of me.

I remember reading somewhere that you should ask yourself where you would like to be five or 10 years from now — and were you doing anything to make that dream come true? The answer struck a chord: What you are now is where you will be later. I remember feeling like I was just going along in life, having some vague ideas about where I’d like to be in life, what I would eventually like to accomplish, but I never had any plan to get there.

The Daf Yomi classes set its own goal. By simply going there on a daily basis, I was following a plan to reach an eventual worthwhile goal. After I got into the Daf Yomi routine, when I looked over my life, I felt it was a way for me to really accomplish something in my lifetime.

I finished my first full cycle, completing the entire Talmud, 15 years ago.

I remember the first time I went to the Daf Yomi Siyum, the giant celebration where participants and observers come together to acknowledge this great undertaking. I felt part of the collective exhilaration, like thousands of people graduating a seven and a half year advanced degree program.

Daf Yomi has been part of my daily life for the last 22 years (I’ve missed classes due to illness but have made them up). These years of study have made me feel that I have accomplished something great in life. I now walk with a different pride, and my self-esteem is greatly improved.

Last night, Tuesday, March 1, I attended my third Daf Yomi celebration. I was one of more than 20,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden, part of a gathering of more than 120,000 Jews throughout the world (some 2,600 gathered at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall). The program of the giant celebration (which was connected around the world through satellite feed) began with the afternoon and evening prayers, followed by a number of moving speeches. But when the actual Siyum (which literally means “end”) took place — when they read the last few lines of the whole Talmud — something happened: The whole Garden spontaneously started dancing in every available aisle. People who could not get to an aisle were dancing side to side in their rows and seats.

Tears began streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know why. Was it the exuberance of the spontaneous dancing? Or seeing this huge mass of Jews exhibiting uninhibited joy? Or was it some pent-up emotion for all the years and hours I put into the daily study of Talmud? Perhaps it was the combination of all of the above.

Today, the next morning, the new cycle has started. I got up early and went to class — because that’s just what I do.

Dr. Warren Klein (father of Managing Editor Amy Klein) is a practicing dentist and a practicing Jew.

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed or

faxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least three

weeks in advance to: calendar@jewishjournal.com.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

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LECTURES

Beth Jacob Congregation: Free lecture by Michael Oren, author of “Six Days of War: June 1967” and “The Making of the Modern Middle East.” 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Gene de Chene Booksellers: 8 p.m. Singer Ross Altman’s release party for his new CD “Singer-SongFighter.” Free. 11556 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-8734.
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EVENTS

Museum of Tolerance: Tribute to the victims and survivors of Bergen-Belsen. 1399 S. Roxbury Drive, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 772-7605.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Temple Beth Emet: 2 p.m. “An Afternoon of Jewish Comedy” with Mike Preminger, Kent Kasper and Steve Mittleman, presented by the men’s club. 1770 West Cerritos Ave., Anaheim. (714) 772-4720.

The Workmen’s Circle: 7 p.m. Cuban Film Series features “?Vampiros en la Habana!” (“Vampires in Havana”). $3. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

LECTURES

UCLA Center for Jewish Studies: 9:45 a.m.-7 p.m. “Lang Lebn Zol Yidish: Has Yiddish Said Its Last Word?” Conference honoring Janet Hadda. Free. 405 Hilgrad Ave., Westwood. (310) 825-5387.

Beth Chayim Chadashim: 10 a.m. Breakfast potluck and discussion on Aaron Hamburger’s “The View from Stalin’s Head.” 6000 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023.

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CLASSES

The New JCC at Milken: 6-7 p.m. Traditional jujitsu classes. Students learn coordination, respect and self-defense in a self-empowering environment with instructor Gregory Portez. Youth classes 6-7 p.m. Teen classes 7-8 p.m. Adult classes 8-9:30 p.m. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 903-3213.

LECTURES

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel:
7 p.m. Discussion on “Miracles: Natural or Supernatural?” $15.
10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 475-7311.2/

LECTURES

Ezra Center: 9:45 a.m. Jerry Silverman discusses “The Blessing that Accompanied the Tragedy of the Destruction of the First Temple.” $6-$7. 10629 Lakewood Blvd., Downey.
(562) 861-9276.

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Don’t forget to vote!
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LECTURES

Klein Chaplaincy Service of the South Bay: 6-10 p.m. “End of Life: Practical Choices Without Guilt” with Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaeffer. $10-$15. 3330 Lomita Blvd., Torrance. (310) 921-2187.

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LECTURES

Hammer Museum: 7 p.m. Lecture by Taalman Koch Architecture’s Alan Koch and Linda Taalman. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.

Chapman University: 4 p.m. Curt Lowens, actor, author and Holocaust survivor discusses “Escape, Resistance and Triumph: One Teenager’s Story.” Free. Beckman Hall 404, One University Drive, Orange. (714) 628-7737.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Stephen S. Wise Temple: 7:30 p.m. Some Kansas students meet Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler in the play “Life in a Jar.” Free. 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561.

Spoken Word: 7-8 p.m. See Rabbi Mark Borovitz, author of “The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light.” $15. 478 Sixth St., San Pedro. ” width=”1″ height=”30″ alt=””>

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SHABBAT

Nashuva: 6:45 p.m. Rabbi Naomi Levy leads a spiritual Shabbat Service. Westwood Hills Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd., Westwood. www.nashuva.com.

EVENTS

Chabad: West Coast Student Shabbaton with students from every major school in California and Arizona. USC. ” width=”1″ height=”30″ alt=””>

UPCOMING

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Pasadena Playhouse/The Jewish Journal: 7:45 p.m. Reception followed by the new musical “Side By Side By Sondheim” at 9 p.m. Special ticket price $25 (Jewish Journal subscribers and San Gabriel Valley temple members), $50-$60 (general). 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. (626) 356-7529.

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Santa Monica College: Free Tay-Sachs testing. Student Health Office. Nov. 10, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Nov. 11, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica

Singles

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Singles Helping Others: 8:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Los Angeles Food Bank, help sort food items. Downtown. R.S.V.P., (323) 663-8378.

New Age Singles (55+): 3 p.m. See the play “Don’t Drink the Water” followed by no-host dinner at a Glendale restaurant. $18-$20. R.S.V.P., (818) 347-8355.

CLAS Jewish Singles (35-55): 7 p.m. Havdalah service followed by a potluck. Private residence in Woodland Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 625-1833.

Conversations at Leon’s: 7:30 p.m. Saturday Night Mixer. $15-$20. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 393-4616.

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Israeli Folk Dancing: Party with dancing, fun, prizes, refreshments and dance contest. 4220 Scott Drive, Newport Beach. (310) 560-4262.

Singles Helping Others: 1-9:30 p.m. Dream Halloween for children affected by AIDS. Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (818) 717-9136.

Elite Jewish Theatre Singles: 2 p.m. See “Side By Side By Sondheim” performed by “Phantom of the Opera” star David Gaines, followed by a no-host dinner at a Mexican restaurant. $50. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. R.S.V.P., (310) 203-1312.

New Age Singles (55+): 7 p.m. Starlight Costume Ball with Johnny Vana Trio, snacks, drinks and prizes. $10-$12. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 473-1391.

International and Israeli folk dancing: 7:30-9 p.m. Beginners class with Avi Gabay open to all. Free. Avant Garde Ballroom, 4220 Scott Drive, Newport Beach. (310) 560-4262.

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Singles Helping Others: 7 p.m. Monthly meeting to hear about new events and socialize. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 591-0772.

Project Next Step: 8 p.m. “Coffee Talk” with coffee and pastries. $7. 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-4595.

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Westwood Singles (45+): 7:30 p.m. Discussion on “Patterns and Cycles in Relationships” with therapist Maxine Geller. $10. R.S.V.P., (310) 444-8986.

The New JCC at Milken: 8-11 p.m. Israeli folk dancing with James Zimmer. $5-$6. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (310) 284-3638.

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Nexus (20s-40s): 6 p.m. Volleyball followed by dinner at a local restaurant. End of Culver Boulevard, near court 15, Playa del Rey.
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L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: Dinner at Madame Wu’s at the Grove. 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

Meet Me Cafe: 7-10 p.m. Wine tasting and fun. $10. 105 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 659-4083.

New Start/Millionaire’s Circle: 7:30 p.m. Social and light dinner in Brentwood, ages 21-49 and in Beverly Hills, ages 50+. For those who are or have the potential to be. (323) 461-3137.

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Happy Minyan: 7 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat services. Downstairs at Beth Jacob, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 285-7777.

Nexus (20s and 30s): 7:30 p.m. Celebrate Shabbat Irish style at the Irish Mist with drinks and music. Free. 16655 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach. R.S.V.P., to www.jewishnexus.org.

Upcoming Singles

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Elite Jewish Theatre Singles: 8 p.m. See “Witness for the Prosecution” a murder mystery by Agatha Christie followed by dinner at a local restaurant. $17. Also, Sat., Nov. 13, 7:30 p.m. See “The Music Man” at the Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theatre. No-host dinner social at a nearbly restaurant precedes the performance. R.S.V.P., (310) 203-1312.

Seniors Flock to OASIS of Learning


“Make the shape of a U with your hips,” coaches belly-dancing teacher Elexa Williams. Her students willingly comply, rolling their shoulders, gyrating their torsos and undulating their hips as they follow the teacher’s example. Around their waists, the participants wear scarves adorned with rows of coins, and as they move, the room fills with a rhythmic jingling sound.

Down the hall, students peer intently at computer screens, struggling to learn the nuances of sending e-mails and creating documents in Microsoft Word.

OASIS, a program offering educational, enrichment and volunteer opportunities. Part of a national network, OASIS in Los Angeles is a program of Jewish Family Service, and is co-sponsored by Robinsons-May, the Los Angeles Department of Aging and the Westside Pavilion.

OASIS provides an eclectic array of classes, many of which are free. Fitness fans can choose among such options as chair exercise, yoga and karate. Art buffs can study French and American impressionism or drawing. Others can explore Jewish spirituality, analyze Shakespeare or play guitar. Some of the classes are even taught by retired professors from UCLA and USC. And seniors who wish to travel can choose among a variety of day excursions and extended trips.

“I think OASIS is wonderful because they have so much to offer,” said Aura, a 72-year-old participant in the belly-dancing class. She also takes “The Rabbi Speaks,” with Rabbi Michael Resnick, and a bridge class, which she said “works the aging matter in your brain.”

“OASIS provides learning and growth opportunities for active people who live at home,” program director Victoria Neal said. “It’s a progressive alternative for those who might feel like they’re with old people’ when they attend senior centers or meal programs.”

Neal estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals ranging in age from 60 to 95 attend classes at OASIS’ Westside locations each week. Most Westside classes meet within OASIS’ warren of classrooms inside the Robinsons-May at the Westside Pavilion. Others meet in community rooms within the shopping center. Satellite locations include the Farmers Market, Park La Brea, Workmen’s Circle and Jewish Family Service’s Pico-Robertson Storefront and Freda Mohr Multiservice Center on Fairfax. In Woodland Hills, classes are offered in conjunction with Pierce College through the Encore-OASIS program.

The national OASIS program was founded in 1982 in St. Louis by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family.

“They wanted to create a program fostering wellness, companionship and vitality for mature adults,” Los Angeles OASIS assistant director Rachelle Sommers Smith said. “They didn’t feel that existing programs offered sufficient stimulation for retired people.”

OASIS is now available in 26 cities nationwide.

For the past five years, Fanny Behmoiras, 66, has been making a weekly trek to Pico-Robertson from Encino to attend the life history writing class.

“I come rain or shine,” said Behmoiras, who has written 153 vignettes, including those describing her family’s flight from Cuba in 1961. During this session, she shares her account of the joy of her grandson’s bar mitzvah, followed days later by the anguish of losing a cherished family member.

Her instructor, Bea Mitz, explains that participants write their memoirs to leave a history for their children and grandchildren. “They do this so that whoever follows will not have to say, ‘I didn’t ask … I wish I knew.'”

Bella Haroutunian, 73, follows life history with an intermediate computer class.

“I started a year ago,” Haroutunian said. “I had very little knowledge about computers, and I wanted to write my memoirs.”

Now she uses the computer not only to compose her life story, but also to e-mail friends and family and research her upcoming trip to Europe and Russia.

It makes me feel that I’m a little bit up-to-date,” she said. “Before, I felt that I was so behind on this technology.”

Neal says many OASIS participants explore new hobbies or careers through the program.

“They’re doing what they love to do and never had a chance to do,” she said.

OASIS also provides volunteer opportunities for seniors, who help keep the program running. Ruth Morraine, 94, has been volunteering twice a week since 1991, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks. She doesn’t seem at all daunted by the need to take a taxi and two buses to reach her destination. As Morraine says, “Age is just a number, honey.”

For more information, visit or call (310) 475-4911, ext. 2200 (Westside); (818) 710-4163 (Woodland Hills); (323) 298-7541 ext. 2517 (Baldwin Hills); (310) 547-0090 (San Pedro) or (562) 601-5010 (Long Beach/Lakewood).

Scholarship Takes No Vacation


Two local synagogues are offering an opportunity for Jewish scholarship this summer, and a third is offering weekly Hebrew classes at all levels.

Through the Community Scholar Program, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will help host a six-day visit by a professor of Jewish history and archaeology from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Professor Lee Levine, a 30-year resident of Israel, is the author of 11 books about ancient Judaism, synagogues and geography. He will hold six talks over six days, July 1-6. Most will be held at either B’nai Israel or an upper school classroom at Tarbut V’ Torah Community Day School in Irvine.

His topics will range from Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" to whether the Passover seder is a pagan invention.

Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet promises an eight-week class that can turn Hebrew illiterates into Hebrew readers able to follow in a prayer book. Four levels of Hebrew are offered at Beth Emet in weekly classes that will meet beginning July 19 at 7:30 p.m. and run through the first week of September.

"The instruction is highly individualized and offers the freedom to move between classes to meet your personal needs," promised Margalit Moskowitz, Beth Emet’s education director.

Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation will host a parenting seminar July 29-Aug. 1 by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a teaching professor from Jerusalem who challenges popular child-raising theories.

A former Harvard and UCLA student, Kelemen began his career as a ski instructor and worked as a news director and anchorman for a California radio station. He then traveled to Jerusalem to pursue the rabbinate, simultaneously conducting a dozen years of intensive postgraduate field research and publishing several books.

Kelemen teaches at Neve Yerushalaim College of Jewish Studies for Women and is the author of "To Kindle a Soul" (Leviathan, 2001) an authoritative parenting handbook.

The Beth Jacob seminar is $36 per person; $48 per couple.

Further details on the programs are available by calling the shuls: Beth Jacob, (949) 786-5230; B’nai Israel, (714) 730-9693; Beth Emet, (714) 772-4720.

Into the Mystic


Marcus Weston is a thin, good-looking Londoner who in his casual attire and unobtrusive kippah could pass for typical Pico-Robertson Modern Orthodox guy. On this cool Tuesday night in December, he offers his audience a reassuring smile.

"Kabbalah is very easy," he says, "I keep saying that."

Weston is an instructor at Los Angeles’ Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, where he teaches what he calls "the most ancient and secretive of traditions." Tonight he’s making a pitch to about 40 of us gathered at the center, famous for its bevy of celebrity devotees from Mick Jagger to Madonna. The pitch is $270 for a series of 10 classes, billed on the group’s Web site as offering "total fulfillment in life" plus "control over the physical laws of nature."

Less interesting than the Hollywood angle is the tantalizing notion that kabbalah can be put to use by anybody who walks in off the street, Jew or non-Jew. Or so the Kabbalah Centre insists. Why do I doubt it? The center contends that its teachings arise from the Zohar, acknowledged by all Judaic scholars as the touchstone of Jewish mysticism, the principle text of kabbalah. Indeed, after Weston’s introductory lecture I notice that the whole time he had open before him on a lectern a volume of the Zohar, in the original Aramaic. He doesn’t cite from it but the center teaches that merely having the text in your presence "creates an impenetrable shield of spiritual protection" — whether you can read and understand it or not.

However, I’ve been reading the first two volumes of Daniel C. Matt’s impressive new English translation of the Zohar, and finding in those parts of it that are comprehensible no trace of the self-help uplift message I’m hearing from Weston.

Can authentic kabbalah be so easy to access? Taking the form of a commentary on the Torah by the second-century Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai and his students, the Zohar is poetically dense, with language that shrouds its already obscure subject matter in still more in obscurity.

Matt’s translation, the first of its kind, is an academic event of high importance. His footnotes alone are priceless scholarship. But they add to the impression that this is not a topic for the general public. Pointing out parallel passages in the Talmud and Midrash, the notes are not rich in applications to our daily lives. Here’s how the text itself typically reads, from the Zohar’s opening discussion of the first verse in Genesis describing the creation of the world:

"A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of infinity — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof."

Got that?

Yet the appearance of Matt’s Zohar, published by Stanford University Press, could reverberate in the world of pop culture, where Barnes & Noble shelves are packed with books supposedly expounding Jewish mysticism. Unintentionally, Matt may have succeeded in giving the lie to the notion that kabbalah is for all.

In a phone interview from his home in Berkeley, where he works full time on the succeeding volumes of his translation, Matt tried to make the case that nonspecialists can indeed get something out of the Zohar. He cited the book’s value as a Torah commentary, with its "hyperliteral or otherwise very radical rereadings of the biblical text."

Yes, very interesting to all you comp-lit professors out there. But radical hyperliteralism is a long way from what Weston has on over at the Kabbalah Centre.

Kabbalah teaches you how to "take control" of your very existence, says Weston, who wears a kabbalistic red string on his wrist. The seven-year veteran of mystical studies asks the group of curious visitors, "What is the real goal of our lives?"

The class appears to have been drawn disproportionately from that most vulnerable of societal groups, 40ish single women. Raising their hands, they start volunteering the things they want most. He writes their answers on a whiteboard: "Ultimate Happiness. Prosperity. Power. Knowledge. Peace. Solitude. Intimacy. Love. Health." A woman in the front wearing a tight red sweater looks up and says, "Sex." Weston, who looks about 30, writes, "Procreation."

Asked why he’s offering kabbalistic secrets to the public notwithstanding the centuries-old Jewish tradition of keeping zoharic teachings quiet, he gestures to the list on the whiteboard: "Why shouldn’t everyone have these things?"

Do the Zohar and its contents really have much to do with what the center teaches? A respected Orthodox kabbalistic rabbi in Toronto, Immanuel Schochet, once dismissed the center and its guru founder, Philip Berg, as "fakers and charlatans." The center sued him for $4.5 million, but the suit remains unresolved and dormant. Berg, who changed his name from Feivel Gruberger, was a Brooklyn insurance agent before turning kabbalistic teacher and author. His most recent book is the "Essential Zohar."

Undeterred by questions in the Jewish community about Berg’s teachings — for instance, about whether just running your eyes over the Zohar is "hugely beneficial," a notion that critics call nonsense — "the Rav’s" eager disciples fan out after the class for an aggressive sell. Including a puppyish kid named Sammy who says he’s just out of high school, they encourage me to take the full 10-session course. Sammy cheerfully admits neither he nor Weston can understand the Zohar still open on the lectern. Later, the young woman who greeted me at the door and wrote out my nametag will call me at my home in Seattle to push the class.

Down a hallway at the center, a busy gift shop hawks $26 red strings to tie on your left wrist for protection against malign spiritual forces. (The strings are not unique to the center — you can buy them cheap from one of the old ladies who prowl the steps leading down to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.) The shop also has half-liter bottles of kabbalah water for $1.75, "imbued … with special meditations to help activate the powers of cleansing."

I buy some kabbalah water. It tastes of warm plastic. Between swigs, I run into Nika Erastov, 28, who sat next to me during Weston’s half-hour intro. About the center’s approach, she is of two minds: "It kind of sucks you in, in a nice sort of way. Maybe it’s all the empty promises."

Matt also has mixed feelings about the Kabbalah Centre. While deploring accounts of people being fleeced, urged to buy $415 Zohar sets in order to ward off dangers, he puts the center in the historical context of Jewish mysticism.

"You have to admit that there are phenomena like this in earlier stages. It’s not unheard of."

He points out the long-established popularity of amulets, said to give the same protections that the Kabbalah Centre claims for its strings and Zohars.

It’s not the price of the Zohar set that’s troubling. A standard Aramaic/Hebrew edition costs around $345. Matt’s Zohar, when its projected 12 volumes are completed, will run about $540. Rather, what rankles is that most of the people buying it from the Kabbalah Centre can’t make head or tails of it, or put it to any real use at all.

Professor Pinchas Giller at the University of Judaism serves on Matt’s academic advisory committee. He too puts the Kabbalah Centre in context, pointing out that it’s not as if the enterprise was invented by Berg out of thin air.

"It began about 70 years ago in Jerusalem. Their ‘mission to the gentiles’ goes back as early as the writings of the founder, Yehudah Ashlag. So they have a long history and have generally been true to themselves." Berg claims he received his mission in 1969 from Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein, Ashlag’s successor as head of the original Kabbalah Learning Centre in Israel — a claim Brandwein’s family denies.

"Unfortunately," Giller allows, "their present business model has been adapted from Scientology," which is also known for its hard sell.

The pushiness notwithstanding, whether the center possesses any authenticity comes down to whether you think "Rav Berg" is in possession of the key to unlocking the Zohar. After all, the Talmud itself in translation reads like a work of little relevance to real lives. Yet in the hands of a worthy teacher, its secrets are revealed, and turn out to be profoundly relevant. The classic text of Jewish mysticism too has its secrets, not necessarily evident from Daniel Matt’s translation.

So is the Kabbalah Centre a bogus rip-off or a legitimate extension of the kabbalistic tradition?

The question may hinge on your attitude toward the Torah’s commandments. The original kabbalists took it for granted that their disciples would be fully observant Jews, since "every mitzvah became an event of cosmic importance, an act which had a bearing upon the dynamics of the universe," as the modern scholar Gershom Scholem wrote in his classic "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism." One of the most important mystics in 16th-century Safed, Israel, in its kabbalistic heyday was Rabbi Yosef Karo, who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, still the standard authoritative work on Jewish law for traditional Jews.

Berg’s perspective is different. On the center’s Web site, I look up the Jewish holy days. Under "Sukkot," there’s nothing about what Karo would say is the central religious responsibility for the festival week, namely dwelling in temporary booths. Instead, Berg advises that "during this week, our thoughts have the power to cleanse the waters of the earth, and to balance its presence in the land! This means that we can control the outbreak of floods as well as eliminate droughts and it is our responsibility to do so."

Perhaps Shimon ben Yohai, the Zohar’s guiding spirit, deserves the last word. In the Zohar’s own introduction, he warns against listening to an "ignorant" kabbalist, "who is unaccustomed to the mysteries of Torah and innovates words he does not fully understand." The disgust evident in Shimon’s words is palpable. "A disciple unqualified to teach who teaches. May the compassionate one save us!"

David Klinghoffer’s new book is the "Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism" (Doubleday).

You Gotta Be in it to Win it


Want to win a full day school scholarship? Or maybe free synagogue membership?

Now you can, in the new Jewish community raffle, Arie Katz, chair of the Jewish Community Scholar Program (CSP), created the raffle to raise awareness of adult Jewish learning in Orange County and what he calls the “amazing infrastructure in our Orange County Community.”

Synagogues and Jewish institutions will help sell tickets, which can be purchased via credit card through The Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Funds raised from raffle sales will go to a variety of local institutions, including Jewish day schools, the Jewish Community Center, local synagogues and day camps. The bulk of the funds will go toward expanding CSP, which brings the world’s leading Jewish thinkers, scholars and artists to Orange County for a series of lectures, workshops and classes. Funds from the raffle will also partially underwrite the costs of a May 2004 community retreat and a proposed community Shabbat celebration in June.

“If the raffle is successful, then the whole community wins,” Katz said.

Tickets for the raffle, which will go on sale from Sept. 1 through Nov. 12, will cost $100. The winner, which will be selected Nov. 14., will be published in the December issue of The Jewish Journal of Orange County. For more information about CSP and the raffle, visit www.occsp.org or call (949) 682-4040.

Valley Yeshiva Seeking to Lure City Jews Over the Mountains


It’s Thursday night at Toras Hashem, an outreach yeshiva in North
Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block’s weekly Torah
portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long
skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming
Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose
little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.

The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone
is following along in an English-translated Chumash. The class is about Parshat
Yitro, the portion of the Torah in which the Ten Commandments are given to the
Jewish people, which is a springboard for Block to talk not about laws, but
about relationships, using the events at Mt. Sinai as a metaphor for marriage.
Block, a New Yorker, delivers his talk with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he
gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his
points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes;
he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75
minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.

Block’s scholarship and liveliness have garnered him a
following in the Valley, where he has lived since 1977 when he came to start a Los
Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach yeshiva. In
1995 Block started his own outreach yeshiva, Toras Hashem, formerly known as
the Aish HaTorah Institute, which is intended to foster individualist,
religious expression in its students. “We never cloned anyone in a particular
fashion,” Block said. “We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we
produced kids who were Zionistic-leaning.”

The original Toras Hashem building burned down in an arson
attack in 1991, although the reason for the fire is still unknown. Not one to
give up, Block collected $1 million in funds to rebuild his building,  and, in
1995, the new Toras Hashem on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, with room
for more than 200 students, was completed. In addition to his fundraising and
outreach efforts, Block also worked as the founding rabbi of the Orthodox Beth
Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew Academy.

With more than 200 people attending classes and services
every week, Toras Hashem has made a name for itself in the Valley. However, it
has yet to draw people in from the other side of Mulholland Drive, which is
something that Block attributes to city Jews’ myopia, although it might be due
to the plethora of options available there.

“I think people in the city don’t realize to what extent the
Valley community has grown,” Block told The Journal. “People consider the
Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico Robertson and Hancock Park,
and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don’t realize that the
Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone
there are a dozen shuls.”

These days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach. He
wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more about
the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a
citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet
in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700
seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror.

“We have an overriding thrust that Israel is our homeland.
We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this concert
fits right in,” Block said. “It is really an effort to galvanize the city of
Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel.”

The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets
are available at 613 the Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brencos. For more
information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras
Hashem, call (818) 980-6934.

Seniors Have Lots of Class


Sonia Mittleman’s class schedule would make most high school students jealous. The school she attends does not give grades, has no penalty for tardiness and assigns no homework.

The Sherman Oaks resident is a student at Adat Ari El Sisterhood’s Multi-Interest Day (M.I.D.), an adult education program for Jewish seniors. From October through May, participants attend weekly classes like current events, getting older finding God, Israeli folk dancing and yoga. While this particular program is in its 42nd year, synagogues around the community are encouraging similar classes, lectures and events for a minimal price to allow our community’s matriarchs and patriarchs to continue to learn.

“Those who are in their 60s and older have the wisdom of life which they bring to their studies,” said Rabbi Michelle Missahieh, who oversees the adult education program at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “Their life experience allows our traditional texts and modern expressions of Jewish learning to take on a special richness and depth.” The shul offers two classes for the 60 and older crowd, including a monthly ethics discussion led by one of the other rabbis and a Jewish-themed movie with a potluck lunch.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who is heavily involved in Sinai’s adult education program, feels that one of the reasons many flourish in such classes is their level of commitment. “In my experience, seniors eagerly absorb the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and many of them are excited about it,” Wolpe said. “Many of them now have the time they did not have earlier to study and learn in a serious way.” The temple’s Sisterhood sponsors a variety of classes for older members and nonmembers including novels, nutrition for life, the Rosh Chodesh club and behind the headlines. The synagogue itself also offers an array of classes that appeal to seniors like Hebrew, bar/bat mitzvah classes, a study of Israel, a Jewish perspective on Islam and a book club.

In addition to increasing their knowledge, classes also give seniors the opportunity to get involved in the Jewish community. Erika Neumann, chairman of the steering committee for Hazak, the senior program at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, feels that the group is responsible for many friendships. “[Hazak] provides a chance for Jewish seniors to meet other Jewish seniors to socialize,” Neumann said. As far as classes go, she has noticed that students are most interested in the ones that provoke intellectual discussions.

One of the most popular discussion classes at Adat Ari El’s M.I.D. is one called “Getting Older with Dr. Sylvia,” taught by Sylvia Weishaus. The class focuses on issues relating to getting comfortable with aging. For the more artsy intellectual, M.I.D. offers a creative writing class. “I think that when this group gets together by sharing their writing, they see how universal their problems are,” said teacher Leah Schweitzer. “And they’ve built up a sense of trust and community with each other so there’s no judgment.”

Besides providing a safe and beneficial environment for seniors, such programs often provide an example for the younger generations. “[These programs are] important both for the seniors themselves and as a model for the community,” Wolpe said. “When younger people see that somebody with all this life wisdom is suddenly turning to Jewish education and growth, it reinforces its importance.”

Above all, classes often help keep older students feeling younger than their years. “We feel like we’re going back to college, but we don’t have to take the exams!” Mittleman said with a laugh while hugging a friend on registration day.

For information on Adat Ari El Sisterhood’s M.I.D. contact Estelle Salberg at (818) 780-1570. For Temple Israel of Hollywood’s program, call Rabbi Missahieh at (323) 876-8330 x225. For Sinai Temple, contact Lisa Goldstein at (310) 481-3243. For Hazak at Valley Beth Shalom, call (818) 530-4096.

A Small School With Big Plans


On a recent Thursday afternoon at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, 20 students fill the biology lab to hear a guest speaker discuss cryogenics. Next door, another 14 teenagers sit in a semicircle as their English teacher describes their next chapter in Homer’s "The Odyssey." Down the hall, four students in the beginning Hebrew classes learned the Hebrew names for other languages.

In other words, NCJHS — or "New Jew," as the students call it — is pretty much like any other high school, only on a much smaller scale.

Located at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, NCJHS opened its first year with 40 students, offering a curriculum split 30/70 between Jewish and secular studies — with an integration between the two.

During the school’s grand opening ceremony on Sept. 17, Head of School Bruce Powell outlined NCJHS’ mission: to be a place "where students take advanced placement kindness, where science and math are the grand tools in tikkun olam … and where the precious legacy that resides in the souls of our children is nurtured, one mind at a time."

A respected educator in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Powell’s holistic approach can be seen in everything from the curriculum to the weekly schedule. For example, the school has a kehillah where students and teachers gather after lunch several days each week for 40 minutes of Jewish song or Israeli dancing.

"Judaism, when given to students only through text and history, can become very dry," Powell said. "You need both the cognitive and the affective, the intellectual and the spiritual."

Spiritually speaking, NCJHS bills itself as non-denominatinal. While over the last decade much of the Jewish community has been moving both to the left and the right, creators of NCJHS hope it will fill a middle ground between the more traditional Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and the Reform-leaning Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.

The process began three years ago, when a group of Los Angeles parents and community leaders decided they needed an option between the Orthodox and Reform schools. They joined a group of parents whose children were attending Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge, who were interested in starting a high school. The two parties merged to form the initial board of directors for what would become NCJHS.

Schools feeding into the new high school include Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills; Heschel Day School in Northridge and its Agoura sibling, Heschel West; plus three synagogue day schools: Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel.

The mix makes for some interesting arrangements. In order to accommodate students from many different schools, a flexible schedule was key, said Rabbi David Vorspan, the NCJHS Jewish studies director and official rabbi-in-residence.

It also makes for a varied student body. "We have kids who have been home-schooled; we have kids who come from public school programs," Vorspan said. "We have kids who did not know an alef from a bet when they came in, and kids who were involved in heavy text study when they were in day school. So we have had to create a program that could meet everybody’s needs."

The NCJHS offers three levels of Hebrew, from basic to advanced, and several tiers of other academic classes such as English and math. There are also innovative electives, like American Sign Language (made possible by a donation from Shirley and Aaron Kotler in memory of deaf relatives), computer science and art classes that take advantage of the Milken’s gallery.

Like any Jewish private school, the cost of Jewish education at NCJHS does not come cheap. Tuition for the 2002-2003 school year is $17,500 — not including the application fee, textbooks and other costs such as school trips that can add another $1,825 or more. Financial assistance is available, and there is a nice perk: once enrolled, students and their entire families automatically become members of the West Valley Jewish Community Center.

In addition, the students get to use the 10,000-square-foot gym and a swimming pool on the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex which opened in 1999.

Although only enrolled for a few weeks, on this hot Thursday afternoon, the students seem comfortable in their new and somewhat quirky environment, where one is as likely — while going from one class to another — to encounter a group of tots from the JCC’s preschool as to run into a fellow student. Elan Feldman, 15, of Woodland Hills was at Heschel for four years and chose the New Community Jewish High School after looking over the descriptions of the teachers and classes.

"My parents said I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted to go as long as I could get good grades," he says. "Dr. Powell was at Milken and my brother went there and it was good. I liked the idea of starting a new school. I want to start something new, be a pioneer."

Feldman says that going to a small school is both challenging and interesting. "It’s nice that I know most of the people that are going here," he says. "It is kind of small and I might like a bigger environment, but the people are so great it makes up for it."

Talya Vogel, 14, comes to NCJHS from Kadima, which she attended since kindergarten. Like Feldman, she chose the school over nearby academic decathlon-winning El Camino Real High School.

"I preferred to come here," she says. "I think the people you meet influence who you are and I would rather be with people more like me. The classes are great, the teachers are great and the faculty makes the school."

Vogel says that some of her friends are considering switching back to public school after this first year. "They just came here to experiment with it. Some of them might go to El Camino or even switch to Milken, just because they are bigger schools. But, I think this is exciting. We are what will start everything, what will be remembered."

As for the future, Powell and the board are in the process of looking for a site on which to build the school when it outgrows the current facility — although the intention is to keep NCJHS a small and user-friendly school.

"I would like to see the school be 100 students per grade," Powell told The Journal. "I believe that is the ideal size for a high school. A lot of research has been done now on high schools showing schools of 250 to 400 are optimum. They are able to offer the programs that are necessary yet maintain the smallness so no child is missed."

The Way of No Way


Drawn in part by the recent movie, "Enough," in which actress Jennifer Lopez uses Krav Maga to even the score against an abusive husband, a long-established Orange County class in self-defense is seeing a jump in popularity.

Sessions in the self-defense training developed for the Israeli army and held at Costa Mesa’s Jewish Community Center are drawing 25 percent more students in the last two years, say its principal instructors, Krav Maga black-belts Mitch Markowitz and Michael H. Leifer, who have taught together for 10 years. Across the nation, other Krav Maga schools have also seen a rise in interest since the Lopez movie opened in May. Despite street-fighting female stars, seen also in films such as "Charlie’s Angels" and "Tomb Raider," women still only comprise about one-third of the students.

Learning Krav Maga, Hebrew for "contact combat," appeals to fitness buffs and those who desire greater self-confidence, the instructors say. "Everybody wants to be able to defend themselves," says Leifer, a lean, muscular lawyer. "Not everybody is willing to invest the time to learn it."

Unlike the centuries-old Asian martial arts, where warriors strive to perfect an established combat technique as a path to spiritual enlightenment, Krav Maga is for contemporary warfare. Stripped of spirituality and any rules of engagement, its promoters willingly incorporate effective techniques borrowed from elsewhere. It’s a credo adopted by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who embraced "the way of no way."

"It’s strictly self-defense: right to the point, finish the job," says Dr. Jerry Beasley, a professor at Virginia’s Radford University who has written six books on martial arts and is the director of a "karate college" at the campus.

That’s what appeals to Eric Papp, 35, an Anaheim lawyer who also considered learning Japan’s jujitsu. "This looked more aerobic as well as more practical," he says, figuring that knowing how to defend against a choke, kick or punch will eventually pay off in a bar fight or an encounter of "road rage."

Wearing T-shirts, sweatpants and athletic shoes, about 30 people were enrolled in a recent $120, eight-week session. Most are professionals without previous martial arts training. A few strap-on belts similar to those worn in karate, where skill is designated both by color and degree. (Black is the top level in both methods.) The biweekly 75-minute workouts are intense, sweat-inducing exercises in defeating an attacker by targeting the most vulnerable parts of the body. Bolsters of different shape and density line up on one side of the wood-floored auditorium. The students kick and punch the pads as they pair off, alternating in the role of aggressor and defender.

Scenarios are introduced quickly; various defensive maneuvers are broken down and demonstrated in steps. Students don’t necessarily perfect them before a new one is tried.

"It inspires confidence in me," says Victoria Short, 28, of Costa Mesa, who enrolled at the suggestion of her often-traveling husband.

Teaching this calculated version of street fighting is supposed to show students how to defend against brutal, modern-day thugs and also builds awareness about avoiding problematic situations. "Don’t walk down the street into five guys who are rowdy," is the sort of advice Markowitz offers. "Cross the street. Don’t be stupid. If you have the option, run."

Rather than a contest of strength, Krav Maga training teaches using deftness to deflect an aggressor and how to counterattack. "We start slow, but they are real attacks, real punches; the real thing," says Markowitz, who, like his partner, trained with Darren Levine.

Levine, who attended Israel’s first international instructors course in 1981, established the U.S. Krav Maga training center in Los Angeles in 1996. Besides training individuals, the center also trains 150 law enforcement agencies nationally and certifies martial arts instructors in teaching Krav Maga.

Among the thorny questions raised by students is how far they can push their own defense before crossing the legal line to battery. Occasionally, the instructors refuse a potential student who appears to be seeking the training for illegitimate purposes. "Martial arts draws people seeking an edge for their shenanigans," Markowitz says.

Both Markowitz and Leifer are veterans of traditional martial arts training, a historical relic of 16th century, sword-fought warfare. "Those movements don’t work great for someone who is choking you," says Markowitz.

Leifer abandoned training in other martial arts after meeting Levine in Los Angeles while attending Loyola Law School in 1985. "His students had great attitudes, it wasn’t a very commercial endeavor and it’s a system that’s better at dealing with day-to-day situations."

Israeli Folk Dancing: The Phenomenon


They are doing Rachel in Rio, Lamdi Oti in London, Dira 26 in Dimona and Biladaich in Boston. Israeli folk dancing is all the rage, and is possible almost any night of the week here in Los Angeles. And if you happen to be traveling out of town, no need to put your hobby on hold, chances are good you can dance there, too. Israeli folk dance aficionados can find a way to entertain themselves almost anywhere in the world.

Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and gentiles, attend Israeli folk dancing sessions regularly. Its popularity seems to stem from a combination of appealing qualities: from the benefits of exercise to the ability to socialize in a low-pressure environment and for many, a way of connecting to their Jewish or Israeli roots. And at only $6 a session, it is cheaper than a movie, a yoga class or a martini at the local hot spot.

Walking into an Israeli folk dance session can seem intimidating at first. Some dancers look like they have been doing it for years. Even at the beginners’ sessions, the onlookers can make anyone feel self-conscious. But one soon realizes that just like everything else in Judaism, we learn by doing. Once you grasp the basic steps, it is easy to follow. And whoever is standing next to you is usually glad to hold your hand and steer you along.

Pop Israeli music fills the large room. The sweet aroma of perspiration and perfume permeates the air. There are 50 or so people, ranging from high schoolers to seniors, following one another in a circle, some holding hands, others alone, all doing the same steps with varying degrees of competence … or confidence. Small groups of people taking a breather gather, drinking coffee, eating orange slices and kibitzing in Hebrew, English and other tongues.

For many Israelis, folk dancing is a place where they can feel at home, meet with friends and hear music in their language. For many Americans, it’s one way to connect to Judaism.

Cheryl from Agoura Hills has been folk dancing for seven years. Her friend brought her once, and she has been coming ever since. "Why do I come? The culture, the language, the kind of people and the exercise combination. I never came here to meet people," she said.

Yet, Cheryl met her husband, Oren, at Israeli folk dancing. Now that they have two small children, they take turns coming to dance. " I come for the dancing, and to keep a bit of the Jewish tradition alive in my own way. It is my contribution," she said.

"This is a place I come to get in touch with my culture," said Roni, a chiropractor originally from Israel, who finds new clients among fellow dancers. "I originally started coming when I was in school — to get away from the pressures. When I was single, I used to come to meet people. Now I come for fun."

There seems to be some discrepancy as to how many Israeli folk dances actually exist, but according to one Web site (www.rokdim.co.il), there are over 4,000 Israeli dances, with more being created all the time. There are choreographers and instructors who attend dance camps and learning sessions year-round, both to teach their dances and to learn dances from other colleagues. Those who lead sessions back in their hometowns, markidim, act as combination instructor-DJ, teaching new dances during lessons and playing the popular old and new songs during open sessions.

David Dassa and Israel Yakovee are the two principal markidim in Los Angeles. Recently, Yakovee spent three weeks teaching Israeli folk dance in Japan. "There is a tremendous curiosity worldwide," Yakovee said. " Israeli dancing’s popularity is the combination of catchy, easy steps and unusual Middle Eastern music."

On average, Dassa and Yakovee host between 150-200 attendees on their big nights here in Los Angeles. While the largest sessions are held in Israel, Los Angeles and New York are the most popular U.S. cities for folk dancing.

Jacob Giron, 21, is a gifted dancer who got started in Israeli folk dancing at age 15 as a punishment by his mother for bad behavior. She was introduced to dancing by a friend of hers, and thought it would be a good way to keep her son off the streets and out of trouble. And it worked. He fell in love with dancing and teaching others to dance. In fact, he is now leading his own Israeli folk dance session at Arthur Murray Studios, as well as teaching at a Jewish senior center and at a temple Sunday school program — even though he is not Jewish.

Israeli folk dancing has changed significantly over the years. And as trends changed and moved in Israel and elsewhere, Israeli folk dancing changed with them. Originally, folk dancing was done in a circle, holding hands, using a series of simple steps that anyone can do.

Israeli folk dancing was born out the Zionist youth groups and early pioneers just before the creation of the nation and continued as Israel won its statehood as a means to create a cultural form that was uniquely Israeli. It combined and incorporated music and steps from Yemen to Poland that reflected the pluralism and diversity that is Israel. The music usually reflected biblical stories or stories about the land of Israel. The classic Israeli dance "Mayim," or water, refers to one of the key foundations to establishing the state, specifically, developing agriculture — a focus of early Zionist pioneers.

Today, in addition to traditional and not-so-traditional circle dances, it also incorporates couples dances and line dances (think The Hustle). The music is modern pop, both Israeli and from around the globe, particularly worldwide trends like Latin music. One of the most popular line dances in Los Angeles these days is choreographed to Shakira’s pop hit, "Whenever, Wherever."

In the early 1960s, Fred Berk brought Israeli folk dancing to America and other dancers brought it to other parts of the Diaspora. As folk music and culture was popular in the 1960s, it had a setting in which to flourish and it did.

David Katz, a longtime Los Angeles instructor noted, "After the ’67 war, there was an outburst of support, which added to its popularity."

According to Dassa, Israeli folk dance popularity seems to have a political ebb and flow. "It is more popular when Americans feel more positively about Israel," he said. "Americans are starting to get back into it, because they feel they want to be connected and supportive."

Some bemoan the fact that Israeli folk dance has lost some of its roots. They have seen it change from a more pure form that connected people to Israel and Judaism to just another form of dancing to new, trendy music. But even those most skeptical about it accept it as part of the reality. It is a reflection of how Israeli society is changing.

"Israelis are into what is trendy and popular. As Latin music like salsa becomes more popular, the dances have simply caught up with the times. While there is value in preserving the old, progress is inevitable," Katz said.

And just as technology plays a greater role in all our lives, Israeli folk dance has been affected by the high-tech revolution: from the way markidim play music selections from computerized play lists to how new Israeli dances are being learned.

One of the most popular Israeli dances worldwide currently is called "Anigma." And truth be known, how this dance can be characterized as an Israeli folk dance is something of an enigma. It is being danced in Israeli folk dance sessions-circles from New Zealand to Holland to Israel and across the United States. The music is Greek. The choreographer, Roberto Hadonis, is a Spaniard who lives in London and is not Jewish. After Hadonis put a video of his new dance on an Israeli folk dance Web site it took off.

"It is the first Web Israeli dance to catch on using the Internet as its means of dissemination. And it is incredibly popular," Katz said. "Before you knew it, it was being done in all over the world." According to Katz, "It is a phenomenon certainly, but it may not be the way of the future."

But what constitutes an Israeli folk dance today is not simply if it has biblical meaning, traditional steps or Hebrew lyrics to the music. " If a dance, like ‘Anigma’ is accepted by the Israeli dance community as part of its repertoire, then it is," Dassa said.