Sarah Silverman’s ‘Indecent Proposal’ to Sheldon Adelson and what that means for modern politics


By the time you read this, you probably will have watched Sarah Silverman in her underwear, demonstrating a lesbian sex act with her dog.

Because that’s the way politics works these days.

Silverman wrote and stars in a short video, called “Scissor Sheldon,” posted at scissorsheldon.com, in which she offers to, hmm, make casino magnate Sheldon Adelson very happy if he donates $100 million to the campaign of Barack Obama, instead of to Mitt Romney.

Adelson, the owner of The Venetian hotel and casino and one of the world’s richest men, has declared he is willing to spend that much money to help get the Republican candidate elected president.

“Sheldon, I have a proposal for you, and, I’m serious, look at me,” Silverman says to the camera. What follows — her proposal — is not really quotable in this newspaper, though, trust me, this video will introduce more young people to politics than student council.

The short video went online on the afternoon of July 16. By the time I saw it, early the next morning, it already had 11,000 “likes.” Major news outlets were covering it. It was wallpapered across my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Viral? Viruses could only wish.

The enormously popular, self-described “Jewess” comedian has used satirical political video before to great effect. In 2008, she launched The Great Schlep, urging young Jews to go to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama.

Story continues after the jump. (Warning: Explicit video)

Video courtesy of SchlepLabs

This time, she has once again teamed up with activists Ari Wallach and Mik Moore, co-founders of The Great Schlep. They run a pro-Obama super PAC with the anodyne name the Jewish Council for Education & Research (JCER). Its main backer is Alexander Soros, the 27-year-old New York University grad who also happens to be the son of George Soros.

“The most important political office is that of private citizen,” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said — and his quote is the opening line on the Web page explaining JCER.

Wallach and Moore say their goal is to juice the campaigns of people they believe in by inspiring young Jewish voters to get involved.

“JCER is motivated by a deep love for the Jewish community and by a desire to ensure that Jews have access to accurate information as they engage in the electoral process,” the mission statement says.

For prior generations, that might have meant walking precincts, door to door, delivering speeches to Hadassah groups or passing out bumper stickers. Now, you submit your ideas on how to support Obama by using social media, humor and celebrity, and the super PAC picks the ones it likes best — like Silverman’s — and then produces and disseminates it. The Great Schlep generated 300 million impressions — at a cost of next to nothing. That’s a lot of precinct walking.

Merging politics with sex and celebrity used to be something only politicians did, after they were elected. Moore and Wallach have discovered it works even better before. Their successful campaigns leap far beyond the Jewish community and create national conversations. In the case of “Scissor Sheldon,” Moore said he hopes it will lead to a conversation on the role of unbridled political contributions in American elections and the outsized impact a billionaire like Adelson can have.

But here’s what makes me squirm — and it’s not at all Silverman’s offer — which, in her signature style, comes across as more adorable than raunchy.

It’s their relentless focus on one man — Adelson. The truth behind Adelson’s giving is that the entire system of unlimited, unaccountable campaign financing from so-called 527 organizations to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 is the single greatest threat to our democracy. Everybody who takes part — from Adelson to the secretive billionaire Tea Party funders, the Koch Brothers, Obama, Romney and also Alexander Soros — is part of the problem.

How is Adelson worse than Alexander Soros? At least Adelson steps out of the shadows and shoots off his mouth — as when he told jewishjournal.com that his former crush, Newt Gingrich, had “reached the end of the line.” Adelson makes his agenda clear. Politically, he and I may be far apart — but he is no hidden puppet master.

But the “Scissor Sheldon” Web site paints him to be exactly that. The spare site offers up a single, rather uncomplimentary photo of Adelson. On the page under the heading “Who Is the $100 Million Man?” you can find a 10-point list of all of Adelson’s supposed transgressions. It paints Adelson in an entirely one-dimensional way — a caricature — and lets others who dump swill in the political trough off the hook.

I get why Silverman chose to address Adelson. It’s personal, the way Silverman looks her landsman in the eye. This is like The Great Schlep, and he’s Super Zayde.  Fortunately, we American Jews live in a time and in a country where we can feel perfectly safe and secure attacking one another using Der Stürmer — like iconography. Yes, “Scissor Sheldon” will provide a Jewish National Fund-sized forest of kindling to ignite every Jew-hater out there — but those freaks will hate us anyway.

My greater concern is that unlike, say, Stephen Colbert’s masterful Colbert super PAC shtick, in which he used the same broken laws to create his own unaccountable super PAC, the “Scissor Sheldon” bit won’t go beyond Adelson.

In fact, by the time you read this, this week’s big viral campaign may already be last week’s news.

Unless, of course, Sheldon Adelson says “yes.”

Letters to the Editor: Dennis Prager, Jewish Service Corps, Conservative Congregants


Distorting the Truth

Dennis Prager was given the opportunity to respond to a letter sent by a reader (Letters, April 27). I’d like to respond to his response. He asserts, “It was racists in the Democratic Party, not conservatives or Republicans, who blocked civil rights for blacks.” I’ve been a long-time listener and reader of Mr. Prager’s, and while I disagree with him on almost every issue, I have always respected his integrity. However, I must say that in this case, he is veering dangerously close to a purposeful distortion of the truth. 

While today’s Democratic and Republican parties are far more monolithic than in the past, people in Mr. Prager’s generation (of which I am one) are well aware that there used to be a liberal wing of the Republican Party (Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, etc.) and a conservative wing to the Democratic Party (George Wallace, etc.). Therefore, while it is technically true that “racists in the Democratic Party” did indeed block civil rights for black people, Mr. Prager knows quite well that these were most certainly not liberal Democrats; they were part of conservative/racist part of the party. And yet he continues the sentence by saying it was “not conservatives” in the party who stood in the way. Oh? George Wallace wasn’t conservative?

The bottom line is this: I think it’s pretty clear that far more conservatives than liberals were involved with blocking rights for black folks. And to paint a picture that implies otherwise is deeply disappointing, especially coming from a man who has stated numerous times that “clarity” is one of his primary goals and values.

A case can be made that some of the civil rights programs that did pass were counterproductive (affirmative action, for example), and while I don’t agree with such arguments, good people can disagree. But the implication in Prager’s statement is simply a distortion of reality from someone who knows better. 

Larry Garf
Topanga


Jewish Service Corps Needed in L.A.

I wanted to respond to the excellent article by Jonathan Zasloff (“Korbanot, Or Why Jews Should Act More Like Mormons,” May 4).

I grew up with Mormons and have always been amazed at how organized they are. The whole family looks forward to their children’s mission as a right of passage — when they can give unselfishly, tout the benefits of their religious beliefs and the value systems that help them contribute to the world and lead successful lives.

As wonderful as Birthright Israel has been, and I have two children [who can] attest to the greatness of the program, a one- or two-year commitment would many times give back to the community and enhance tikkun olam in the world. It would bring young Jewish kids together for an extended period of time to explore their commonality and form a bond that will give meaning to them throughout the remainder of their lives.

I, for one, would love to see a Los Angeles chapter of AVODAH, and to have the kind of organization and excitement that has to be generated to fill the idealism and imagination that is possible. I believe that a committee should be formed to explore the possibilities.

Denis M. Weintraub
via e-mail


Conservative Congregants Don’t Practice What Rabbis Preach

In his quest to differentiate between Conservative and Reform Judaism, Rabbi Hanan Alexander (“About Conservative Ordination of Openly Gay Rabbis,” May 4) states, “all candidates for rabbinic ordination must be committed to an observant Jewish lifestyle that includes daily prayer, Sabbath observance and Jewish dietary practice.” While that’s correct, it’s important to note that the practices of Conservative congregants do not reflect those of their clergy. Most have ceased following the laws of kashrut, rarely attend Shabbat services and provide their children with just enough religious training to get them through a [bar or bat] mitzvah service.

This disconnect doesn’t exist in Orthodox or Reform communities, where the practices of congregants are more closely aligned with those of their clergy. The result is that a rapidly declining number of children follow in their parents’ Conservative footsteps, and Conservative shuls often merge for survival. Even The United Synagogue [of Conservative Judaism], the Conservative movement’s umbrella organization, recently found it necessary to undergo belt-tightening.

Either this trend must be reversed or Conservative Judaism will soon become a footnote in Jewish history textbooks. Step one is for Conservative leaders to openly admit that the problem exists and then focus their resources on a long-range solution. Living in a state of denial is a formula for disaster.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles


Robotics at YULA, Too

In your most recent issue, you ran an article about the Milken robot, “Sir Lancebot,” and the Milken Knights (“Hoop, There It Is! Milken’s Robotics Team Scores Big,” May 4). In it, Roger Kassebaum said that he knows of no other Jewish robotics teams in the United States. This year, YULA High Schools has started a robotics team.

Gabriel Naghi
via e-mail


Hagee on the Roof

In Mark Paredes April 8th column, he judges a video-blog Pastor John Hagee taped on Aish Hatorah’s rooftop, overlooking the Western Wall, to be “insensitive.” This conclusion is nonsensical. Newsflash: Hagee is a Christian preacher.

In the video, Hagee discusses an element of standard Christian theology which he has discussed numerous times in the past. His comments were directed at his Christian audience in America, and were not heard by the individuals visiting the Kotel below. He chose the location, off the site of the actual Temple Mount, in order to be sensitive to those visiting Judaism’s holiest site.

In the struggle for Israel’s survival there are real issues to be addressed and real battles to be fought. Paredes’ column addresses neither.

Ari Morgenstern
Spokesman for Christians United for Israel

Three Jews walk into a Starbucks


I was sitting in the Starbucks in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., listening to two men talk about a three-day hike through Israel’s Arava desert, when Bayaaz Khanoom appeared.

It was day two of the American Jewish Committee’s three-day Global Forum. I was there to write about the event for this publication, and the going had been great: nearly 1,300 men and women of all ages from 50 countries; speakers such as the foreign ministers of Germany, Canada and Brazil, White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew and Israeli author and journalist Ronen Bergman. And the wonderful thing about it was, people were allowed to express a range of opinions about matters relating to Israel. There was an Iranian neocon who thought the United States should effect regime change in Iran and let the rest — such as a replacement — take care of itself; and then there was the American analyst Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who thought we should all cool it because Iran doesn’t have the expertise and the capability to get the bomb. There was an Israeli who said that Obama has done more for Israel than any American president before him, and also a Frenchman who warned that Nazism is alive and well and disguised as Islamic militancy in Europe.

It should go without saying, and maybe once upon a time it did, that a diversity of opinion is a positive thing; that it should be cultivated, or at least tolerated; that you learn nothing by listening only to the echo of your voice and teach even less by preaching to the choir. I don’t know what happens in other parts of the world, but healthy disagreement is a dying breed in this country. We hear what we want to or we change the channel, yell in unison or stop talking to one another. For a minute, while Ronen Bergman was saying that Obama has been a better “friend” to Israel than George W. Bush, I held my breath and feared that he would be booed off the stage. But he spoke, and people listened, and the ceiling did not cave in over the auditorium. I even managed to have a whole 10-minute conversation with the neocon without living to regret it: He asked me if I’d been “inspired” by Bush, and I said yes, I was inspired to want to hang myself every time I heard him speak, and once that was settled, we moved on to more topical issues.

Just as refreshing as the range of perspectives was the sound of different languages and the array of foreign accents when English was spoken in the halls and elevators. In front of me in the line at Starbucks that afternoon, two Russians were engaged in a spirited conversation peppered occasionally with English words. The older man was Yury Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress — booming voice and salt-and-pepper beard and the kind of who’re we kidding? candor that allowed him to introduce himself as an oligarch, as if that were a profession.

Matvey Chlenov, the younger man, pulled out a brochure and showed me the names of two dozen other Russian Jewish oligarchs, and then we sat down and started to talk about the Jews of Russia, who they were and what they became before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and that’s when Bayaaz Khanoom materialized, all feisty and resolute and refusing to suffer fools, dead for a decade and still making the floor shake under her boots as she marched the distance between the wood and velvet salon of our house in Tehran and the marble and glass foyer of this hotel.

Chlenov was talking about the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, who came from Persia and settled in the Caucasus Mountains in the fifth century C.E., remained observant even as other Jewish communities became secular under Soviet rule, retained their Persian heritage even as they migrated to big cities in the 1990s. These days, they own most of the shopping malls in Moscow and occupy high places on the Forbes very-very rich list. Chlenov attributed their success to their strong ethnic character.

In front of me, Bayaaz Khanoom sat at a massive dining table across from my grandfather. Behind her, daylight poured in from the French doors overlooking the yard. 

“I used to know a Mountain Jew,” I said, but Chlenov did not believe me.

Still a young woman, Bayaaz wore widow’s black and handled herself like the matriarch she had had to become since she’d lost her husband years earlier. She was from Baku. She had married one of my grandmother’s brothers — a Jew from a prominent rug-trading family in Kaashaan — and followed him to Tehran. My grandmother had 17 brothers and a few dozen nieces and nephews. She spoke to them in the language of the Jews of Kaashaan, which was incomprehensible to my grandfather, who was from Tehran, or to anyone else other than Kaashaani Jews.

“That’s impossible,” Chlenov said. “Mountain Jews keep to themselves.”

So did the Jews of Esfahan, or of Hamedan, or Shiraz, I wanted to say. They each spoke a distinct language, ate different foods, held the others in varying degrees of contempt. So do the Jews in Los Angeles. So, to hear my new Russian friends tell it, do Jews from different provinces in their country.

I asked Kanner what he thought distinguishes one Jew from another. He thought for a long time, then he said: “When I read Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish, I see myself in the stories, because that’s the language of my childhood. When I read the same story in English, I don’t recognize the story or the man.”

I don’t know if Bayaaz Khanoom ever learned Kaashii, but she never did blend in with her husband’s tribe. She had a resonant voice when the others spoke in whispers, an independent mind when everyone else fell into line. Perhaps for this reason — because she was unlike the others, not better or worse, but simply different — she was one of the few family members whose company my grandfather welcomed. One of the few whose memory remains vivid so long after everything else has faded or died.

The sound of all those languages spoken by one people, the force of so many points of view converging around a common goal, two Russians, a Mountain widow and an Iranian Jew sitting in a Starbucks a mile or two away from the U.S. capital — this, to me, was AJC’s biggest achievement last week in Washington.

Gina Nahai is professor of creative writing at USC. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time


Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Q&A: Making a book out of making himself a man


Joel Stein throws himself into things. I know this personally, because he threw himself into making me eggplant parmesan the week my son was born. He and his lovely wife delivered it personally, with bread and wine, braving the dangers and dog barks of Koreatown to feed two hungry, tired new parents.

I’m not just bragging about my friend cooking for me. This has a point, I swear.

He knew what we were going through, having just had a baby boy, Laszlo, months earlier. Stein, whom you may know as the humor columnist for Time magazine or as a charming talking head from many basic cable countdown shows, can cook. He can do lots of girlie things, like empathize. The question he asked himself when he became the father of a boy was, could he teach this kid to be a man? He wrote “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity” (Grand Central Publishing, releasing on May 15: $26.99) to find out for himself. I asked him some questions and pretended I didn’t know the answers.

TERESA STRASSER: Describe your reaction when the doctor pointed out that the smudge on the ultrasound was actually a penis and that you were about to have a son.
JOEL STEIN: I freaked out. I was sure I didn’t care what the gender was, and if pressed, I would have said that I feared I might prefer at boy, but it turns out I hate boys. Which I should have known from having all female friends as a kid. Boys push and yell and want to go in the woods and throw balls and have way too much energy. There was a moment after that first ultrasound penis spotting when the more detailed 3-D ultrasound seemed to indicate our baby was a girl, and then my wife, Cassandra, freaked out about body image and eating disorders and being a bad role model. I felt vindicated. Then, a few weeks later, we saw the damn penis again.
 
TS: Tell me about your quest to confront your own personal sense of wimpiness.
JS: I figured if I could at least learn how to camp, fight, throw a baseball, watch football and shoot a gun, I could do those things with my son if he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to do those things with some coach or friend’s dad. Those guys are always creepy. I didn’t have time to really learn all those things, so — to at least get over my fear — I did some immersion therapy by trying the extreme versions. I did three days of boot camp with a troop at Fort Knox and fired a tank; I went around with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture; I got a day trader to give me $100,000 to trade for a day. That last one was kind of Jewish. And the baseball player was Major League Baseball All-Star Shawn Green, also a Jew. And this sergeant I trained with at the Marines turned out to be Jewish. As well as the race-car driving, ex-Navy SEAL, CEO of Patrón who let me work on his pit crew. There are a lot of secret Jews in the world of manliness.
 
TS: Were there any stereotypically “manly” challenges from which you were truly tempted to back out at the last second?
JS: I really dreaded boot camp. I was so freaked out, I didn’t sleep the night before, and three hours into my training, before I did any physical activity — mind you it was hot, and I hadn’t eaten, and I locked my knees — I fainted for the first time in my life. Into the arms of soldiers. I also nearly backed out of the Randy Couture fight, largely because the training the day before, when UFC President Dana White — definitely not a Jew — had me choked out, really messed me up. I couldn’t swallow my own spit that night.
 
TS: How did your cultural background play into your sense of gender identity? Wait, that sounded very graduate thesis. What I mean is: People think of Jewish guys as bookish and non-athletic, which may be totally unfair. What do you make of being more Woody Allen than Sandy Koufax? Do you blame the Jews?
JS: At first I totally blamed the Jews. Since the book is, basically, “A Jew Goes South.” Look at me try to hunt and fish and fight and camp. There is a very Southern Scotch-Irish, rage-fueled, outdoorsman manliness that is the American manliness, compared to a stiff-upper-lip repressed British manliness, for instance. But my dad is very manly. He’s the kind of manly that Larry David has reminded America of. The kind who thrives on confrontation. Al Franken has it. Mamet has it. I don’t have it. But enough Jews — even outside of Chicago and Israel — do, so I can only blame my wimpiness on myself.
 
TS: Your son is almost 3 years old. What is he like these days?
JS: Are you pretending you don’t know my son? Is that some objectivity thing they teach in journalism school?* He’s all man on the outside: He’s obsessed with trains and cars, collects sticks, likes to use tools. But he’s a total wimp. He’s so clingy, my wife calls him a helicopter kid. He cries if I leave the room. Until very recently, he freaked out at toys that light up or make noise. He gets pushed around on the playground and doesn’t push back. He’s definitely my son.
* (Writer’s note: embarrassing)

TS: How did having a son change your relationship with your own father?
JS: I already appreciated so much of what he did — not just his generosity and patience, but also how he made me feel safe enough to take challenges. But writing the book made me realize that he not only accepted but also was proud of me for being so different from him. He didn’t care that I was a wimp. Also, having a son made me realize that previous generations of men — even men in a liberal town in the most liberal period in America — didn’t do a lot of baby taking care of.
 
TS: Of all the “manly” things you tried, did you ever stop and think, “Yes, I totally have a knack for this. I’m a natural.”?
JS: Absolutely not.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

My Single Peeps: Jill C.


If I had to pick out the adventurous girl in a crowd, Jill would be one of the last I’d point to. Whether that has to do with my horrible perception or her initial caginess, I don’t know. But she surprised me at almost every turn as she crawled out of her proverbial cage. She loves watching sports. Her favorites are basketball, football … and boxing. Seriously? 

“You’ll never find a People magazine or anything like that in my house — even though I’m in entertainment. I know what’s going on, but I don’t want to read that. I read a lot. I’m a bit of an information junkie.” She recently bought a book from the bookstore, because a stranger she met in the store was so passionate about it. It wasn’t even a book she’d like. “I respond to people’s enthusiasm. I love passion — when people believe in things. Even if it’s not my passion, I love when they have it.”

Jill is always up for an adventure. A journalist friend was going to Ramallah to interview the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, so Jill, a Jew, tailed along with her to meet him. On a trip to China, she saw people from her hotel window doing tai chi at 5 a.m. and thought, ‘What are they doing?’ “I believe when in Rome, do what the Romans do.” So she took her first tai chi class in China and is still doing it in Los Angeles. She also meditates daily. “I wasn’t searching for it. A friend of mine said, ‘My sister is teaching this class and needs a certain number of students to get her degree,’ and I said ‘OK.’ I feel like it changed my life for the better.”

Although she’s clearly spiritual, she’s also not afraid of danger. “Last night I spent 30 minutes on my walk thinking about, ‘How do you become a suicide bomber?’ I’d like to talk to them. I’m not afraid of conflict. I’m curious why people think a certain way.” Her fantasy job?: “terrorist hunter.” She thinks for a second and then says, “I could never pass for a Muslim. Look how white I am.” Later, when I tell her about a friend of mine who was in prison for a few years, she jokes, “I’d probably go out with him.” I ask her why that would be appealing. “I’ve lived. I want someone who’s lived.” 

I ask her to tell me what she wants in a guy. “The No. 1 thing is an intellectual connection. He can be brilliant and intellectually stimulating, but if I’m not interested in what he’s talking about, forget it. I like to learn about new things. That’s what I love about the TED Talks. I feel like I learn something all the time. I feel like I learn about life [through] them. Sometimes we get caught up in our routine, so I love it because it makes me step outside of my world and learn something new.”

She’s not caught up with looks, but she does lean toward Israeli men. “I want someone who has a joyful spirit. He wants to live life [to the fullest], and there’s a willingness and desire to share [his] life [with me], because I’m looking for someone to share mine with.” She talks about what it’s like being single in her early 40s, and then adds, “I don’t need 40 or 50 years with someone. I’d be grateful for 25 or 30. I used to always say I’m ready. Now I’m actually ready. I’m more settled than I’ve ever been.”

If you’re interested in anyone you see on My Single Peeps, send an e-mail and a picture, including the person’s name in the subject line, to mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com, and we’ll forward it to your favorite peep.


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

Who owns a horror?


At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art right now, in the ground-level hall of the Art of the Americas building, right off the main courtyard, a life-sized, lifelike sculptural installation shows a black man being castrated by a group of five white men wearing cartoonish masks.

The scene, titled “Five Car Stud” was created by the artist Ed Kienholz over the years 1969 to 1972 and is set in a darkened room lit by the headlights of four actual automobiles and a pickup truck. A woman who looks like she’s vomiting sits in the truck, and a young boy gazes out in fascination from inside one of the cars. The floor is covered with dirt to make it feel like an off-road clearing, and there are a couple of massive tree trunks in the background, which makes the environment feel authentic, blocking out the fact that it’s an art gallery.

The gruesome realism of the violent scene is mitigated only slightly by the fact that the victim himself is the least-lifelike rendering — his face is formed from transparent plastic, though it is fixed in the midst of a scream that conveys both horror and pain. Adding to the reminder that this is artifice, Kienholz has replaced the man’s chest with a pan of water that contains floating letters which spell a word, starting with n, that describes the black man, a word that cannot be printed here.

It takes four large men to hold the writhing figure down, while a fifth shields the door to the truck holding the woman, presumably the person who was caught with the victim.

This image of violence shatteringly reenacts a kind of racism that regularly took place in this country as recently as 50 years ago. As brutal and realistic as it is, the set is designed to implicate us — the audience — in the action, because as we walk into and through the scene, we draw close, to inspect and in the process become both witnesses and players in what is happening. However inadvertent our part may be, we feel we cannot stop what is happening at this low point of human behavior. There’s no way to interrupt the crime.

I bring all this up because I learned about this artwork when I went to hear a panel discussion at the Getty Center last week, a part of the current region-wide extravaganza of California art called “Pacific Standard Time.” There, a group of artists who make “assemblage art” — works made from everyday objects — had gathered to talk about their medium. One of them was Betye Saar, who, at 85, is a highly distinguished black artist. Another was Nancy Reddin Kienholz, the longtime collaborator of her late husband, Ed Kienholz, though they began working together after Ed had completed “Five Car Stud.” A heated argument about this work at LACMA broke out between the two women, and the audience joined the fray.

“Five Car Stud” has never before been shown in the United States. Soon after its completion in 1972, LACMA was set to show it, then, bowing to objections over the subject, canceled the plan. A museum in London also canceled a commitment to show the work. Just two venues in Germany displayed “Five Car Stud,” after which a Japanese collector acquired it and stored it without exhibitions for 40 years. Only recently, “Five Car Stud” was fully restored by Reddin Kienholz for this installation at LACMA, brought here by Stephanie Barron, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the museum, who also created a thoughtful introductory entry room for the work.

At the Getty last week, Saar made clear she hadn’t seen the work and had no intention of doing so. She said she knew the substance of the work, however, and that she found the imagery offensive; she also found the use of the word that floats in the water offensive and she questioned why LACMA director Michael Govan chose to put the work on view.

Reddin Kienholz, who is white, defended her husband’s work as social commentary. The crowd literally cheered her on. One woman in the audience, who identified herself as a docent, said she had seen people leave crying after seeing the piece.

As a black woman artist who is of a generation that lived through this kind of crime, Saar’s pain at Kienholz’s depiction is visceral, and her desire to put that kind of imagery out of sight understandable. I do not visit Holocaust museums easily, though I read about them. I do not often see Holocaust films. But I understand that an artist’s ability to reinterpret our history and re-expose us to it is invaluable to a society. If we don’t look evil in the eye, will we be able to say “never again”?

I went to the museum on Sunday and spent quite a while at “Five Car Stud.” I watched people come into its gallery, most of them quietly, although some were giggling at the scene, even laughing or continuing to chat as they passed through. I found the work distasteful and off-putting. But it was also unnervingly real, yet static. Art, but not.

I was struck, too, that the scene recalls similar violence against homosexuals that continues to this day. And the victimization of women in some Muslim communities. The scene, with all its very American specificity, could happen anywhere.

At the Getty, I was not among those applauding the display against Saar’s objections. I am in favor of free speech, but understood her objections. Every group is loath to lend out the pain it has endured for others to examine. Yet I also would not be willing to close the door on a work like this one. I want younger generations to see it, to know that such things happened here, and to talk about them.

Because if we don’t, we might not remember our whole history and choose just the good parts. And it takes an artwork like this one — or a Holocaust museum — to raise the question: Can we afford to look away?

Grateful for what?


One of the great human virtues is gratitude. In Jewish tradition, we are encouraged to make at least 100 blessings of gratitude a day. The very first words we say every morning are “I give thanks before you, eternal King, for having restored to me my soul.”

In fact, the idea of gratitude is woven right into the name of our people.

As Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes on Aish.com: “The reason we are known as Jews is because most of us are descended from Judah. Of the 12 children who came from Jacob, 10 of the tribes of Israel were lost, scattered to unknown destinations and no longer identifiable by their heritage. We, who remained, other than the priests and Levites, stem either from the large tribe of Judah or the much smaller one of Benjamin. Since the odds are very great that the survivors of historic diminution by assimilation or persecution are in the majority from Judah, we are called Jews.”

But what is it about the tribe of Judah that helped it survive above the others?

“A number of Jewish commentators believe the secret of Judah’s blessings are implicit in the Hebrew meaning of his name,” Blech writes. “When Leah, his mother, gave birth to him she said, ‘This time I will give thanksgiving unto the Lord; therefore she called his name Judah’ (Genesis 29:35) — from the Hebrew hodah, giving thanks.”

The desire to show gratitude is so ingrained in Jewish tradition that if a Jew lacks this trait, the Talmud says it’s quite possible that that person might not even be Jewish. Of course, the fact that for the past few thousand years most Jews have observed a weekly Thanksgiving ritual, also known as Shabbat, has certainly helped nurture this grateful impulse.

In today’s world, however, there is an enemy of gratitude that lurks all around us, and which our ancestors did not have to brave in the shtetls of Poland and Morocco. That enemy is advertising — around-the-clock commercial assaults that tell us never to be satisfied with what we have. There’s always a better toothpaste, a better car, a better pair of jeans, a better coffee — a better anything — waiting for us, if only we will discard the one we already have.

This points to a dilemma: Gratitude is about being satisfied with the gifts before us, while personal growth is very much about not being satisfied with where we’re at and always reaching higher. Why not seek out better jeans or cars if they will bring us more pleasure? Why not seek constantly to grow our business or careers or organizations if doing so keeps us alive and motivated?

When I started my advertising career, I drove an old Renault that had a hole in the floor and a permanent rope to hold one of the doors closed. Thank God I wasn’t very satisfied with that deathtrap — I was a lot more motivated to work harder so I could afford something better, than I was grateful to drive something that killed my dating life.

Was I not grateful for what I had? Or was I pursuing another Jewish ideal of always trying to make things better? Should we expect the angry protesters at Occupy Wall Street, for example, to be grateful for their lives’ little blessings and fold their protests, or should they continue to fight for what they think they are entitled to?

Someone once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe if he was happy, to which he answered: “Always happy, never satisfied.”

Yes, but how do we reconcile these two Jewish ideals — the ideal of always being happy with what we have with the ideal of “never being satisfied”?

One way is to look at gratitude itself as a way of improving your life. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at UC Davis, believes we can all learn how to do it better: “Gratitude is a sustainable approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself. It is choosing to focus on blessings rather than burdens, gifts rather than curses, and people report that it transforms their lives.”

Another approach is to live with both ideas simultaneously: “Things can be worse” and “Things can be better.” One makes you feel better about your lot; the other motivates you to improve it. They’re like two children: Why pick between them? Say thank you a hundred times a day, and, in between, work hard to make things better.

Maybe that’s the ultimate Jewish ideal: to be able to hold competing ideals in tension and not settle for one or the other. To be grateful, yet never satisfied. To be humble, yet bold enough to do big things. To be open to new ideas, yet know one’s boundaries. To be compassionate, yet firm. To be loving, yet speak hard truths. To be a giver, yet know how to receive. To embrace pleasure, yet seek meaning.

That’s what I plan to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: being born into a tradition that understands life is full of competing ideals and difficult choices, and one that also gives us the wisdom to help us pull off that daily balancing act.

Happy Thanksgiving — and Shabbat shalom.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

JewCLA?


I have a Jewish daughter in 12th grade, which means one thing: college applications. The fact that she is applying is a given; my husband and I have followed the long-standing Jewish tradition of brainwashing our children into believing that college is nothing more than grades 13 though 16. But what is a little shocking is that hours of searching Web sites like Collegeprowler.com, reading the tome Fiske Guide to Colleges and meeting with college counselors has arrived when it seems like just yesterday I was picking stale Cheerios out of her car seat.

Something else is surprising as well. At no time during our many discussions about many different schools has the question arisen of whether any given college on her wish list is particularly, well, Jewish.

I think this would be strange regardless of where she attended high school, but it is particularly odd because she is happily attending New Community Jewish High School. Her college counselor asked her during her junior year whether attending a college with a large Jewish student body was important to her, and she replied, “Not really.”

Now that the ticking of the biological clock has been replaced by the ticking of the Daughter Leaving for College Clock, the question of whether the college she ultimately chooses has a decent-size Jewish population and/or some center for Jewish involvement on campus has become more significant, at least to me.

I believe, rightly or wrongly, that sending a Jewish kid to a school with a bunch of other Jewish kids will make the awkward new-friend-making process easier. I picture my daughter employing her highly honed Jewdar,  approaching another Jewish girl and saying sweetly, “Hi, I’m from Los Angeles, and I don’t know a soul at this school.” To which the other girl (who will ultimately be her backpack-through-Europe companion, her study partner and her maid of honor at her wedding) will respond, “I’m a Jewish girl from Westchester County, N.Y. Let me introduce you to a bunch of other menschie Jewish kids from my dorm and we can hang out, and then we can all call our mothers.”

I’m far from the first parent to think that sending her kid to a college with a decent-size Jewish population might be a good idea. Last week, I received my quarterly Reform Judaism magazine and it had a section called “Insider’s Guide to College Life.” Inside was a carefully tabulated list of 60 private and public universities ranked in order of their overall Jewish student populations in terms of absolute numbers and student body percentages.

In addition to the statistical breakdown of Jewish student bodies, the magazine contained several general articles about choosing a college. An article titled “Getting In: What the Experts Say” had a Q-and-A with admissions experts. One of the questions, which I suspect was “written” by a fictionalized student reader of Reform Judaism magazine, was: What is the secret to finding the right school for me? And how can I determine if the student body and faculty will be welcoming to me as a Jew, in general?

Wendy Kahn, of Wendy Kahn College Consulting, responded: “To find out if a school has a strong Jewish community, visit the Hillel or another Jewish student organization and talk with student leaders and professional staff. Ask about what matters to you. Here are a few suggestions: How many Jewish undergrads are there? Some Jewish community professionals say that a 10 percent Jewish campus population is about the beginning point of viability for a Jewish student to find ‘community.’ How many students are active at Hillel? What programs does Hillel have? Are there Jewish fraternities and/or sororities?”

I decided to discuss my theory that a Jewish kid would have an easier time acclimating to college if there was a significant Jewish presence on campus with someone who has experience in the matter: Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

Every year, Rabbi Vogel takes a college tour to connect with students whose families are temple members. “Some kids will naturally direct themselves toward Jewish involvement,” he said, “but the ones who won’t are the ones you need to worry about. Jewish organizations become important just in case those kids decide at some point that they want to get involved.” College, he noted, is “a natural time for exploration.”

Rabbi Vogel raised another good point. He explained that many of the kids who grew up in the heavily Jewish West Valley don’t understand the importance yet of their Jewish friendships. Yet, he has observed that once Jewish kids arrive on large college campuses, many of them gravitate toward Jewish fraternities and sororities that have a “Jewish soul” and create a Jewish friendship circle.

This confirms what my friends who have already sent their children off to college have observed. One noted, “My daughter has only been in school (University of Wisconsin, Jewish student population 13 percent) for a month, but she already has been to two Shabbat dinners through Hillel. Ironically, she would never go to a Shabbat service or attend a synagogue Shabbat dinner when she lived at home. I think it has been her way to make connections.”

Another friend noted that her daughter, a Calabasas High alum and now a junior at the University of Michigan (Jewish student population 18 percent) joined a Jewish sorority and now rents a house with a bunch of other Jewish girls.

“Coming out of a predominantly Jewish area, these kids are very at ease with being Jewish,” my friend said, “and being Jewish has been made very easy — public schools are closed on the High Holy Days, and all of their friends went to religious school.

“So when they go to college, one of the hardest things, and the thing that causes the most stress, is wondering, ‘Where am I going to fit in?’ When there is a Jewish community at the college, you know there will be a place that you are going to fit it. It is an immediate niche for you.”

After gathering this much evidence to support my argument that my daughter should take note of whether a particular school has a few other Jewish students before applying, I revisited the issue with her. We were driving home from dinner and I asked her and her Calabasas High friend if they would be interested in going to a college where there were hardly any other Jewish students.

Her friend responded that she would definitely want to go to a college where there were lots of Jewish kids because she thought that would make her feel more comfortable.

My daughter?

“I think that if I had a group of 15 friends and two or three were Jewish, that would be great,” she said.

Hmmm … three out of 15? That’s 20 percent. More than viable.

Popcorn, a prayer and a trip to Israel


I had suffered from extreme dog deprivation for years and had resisted getting a canine friend as a single person with crazy hours. Shortly after I got engaged in the spring of ‘97 I received a call from one of my dearest friends. One of our mutual clients, a little boy, had parents going through a divorce and they were looking for a home for their toy poodle, Popcorn (who was named thus because his owner thought that he looked like hot, buttered popcorn). Though they loved him they weren’t allowed to have pets in the apartment where they were moving. My friend had watched Popcorn before and urged me to take him. “You’ll never find a sweeter dog- he rarely barks and is good with my kids.” And so we adopted him – sight unseen. On a hot summer day in July his mother delivered Popcorn at age three to our home with a photo of him as a puppy. Though I had had poodles growing up this was my first dog. I had no idea at the time that the universe had delivered the most miraculous wedding present right to my door.

Popcorn quickly integrated himself into our lives. He was so well-behaved that I decided to take him to my office every day. With a PR firm full of women that loved dogs he fit in perfectly. Within no time he became our COO (Canine Operating Officer) by running into the lobby to greet all guests (except for the unfortunate postal workers and delivery people with carts that he mildly terrorized but never injured!), jumping on the couch and sitting next to them – usually with his head on their lap. It was entirely disarming for everyone that walked in the door. Popcorn quickly became our supreme ambassador and was considered a great asset in every new business meeting. He was particularly fond of photo shoots and had the honor of appearing in a number of magazines. His sweet behavior and mellow demeanor undoubtedly calmed down many a client. And he was a ham as well. When one of my clients was posing for the cover of Hollywood Dog magazine Popcorn ran into the frame and nudged out her Golden Retriever!

After the terror of 9/11 hit my universe came crashing down. It started with identity theft after my purse was stolen in New York City and then was followed by a rare cancer diagnosis that required immediate and painful surgery. Shortly thereafter, my deeply unsatisfying marriage came to a close. Words cannot describe the comfort that I received from my canine companion. It was Popcorn always there by my side that helped bolster my spirits on a daily basis. His unconditional love and eternally patient demeanor inspired me to surmount all of the challenges that life was throwing my way.

When I started to date again Popcorn displayed a rare albeit humorous behavioral issue. Though he always welcomed guests into our home over the years he showed clear agitation when a man would venture inside. Within moments he would start to hump his leg! I was shocked that my fixed little guy would do this and yet amused by the reaction of my dates. It definitely broke the awkwardness of dating again right off the bat! Fortunately, I was able to find an animal behaviorist that helped me curb that behavior. She told me that Popcorn now thought that he was the male of the house (and he truly was) and that he was showing his position by humping my male friends. In retrospect I wonder if he realized that it was too soon for me to be dating… Fortunately, after three years when I met the man that would become my husband, Popcorn had mellowed and attached himself quickly to his father-to-be. It seemed as if Popcorn innately sensed that his mom was ready for a relationship again and knew that Steve was the one for me.

Popcorn wasn’t only an asset for my professional life. He widened my social interactions and caused me to become a friendlier neighbor. It was through my many walks with him in our Brentwood neighborhood that we got to know a plethora of canine-loving people. It was one of these friends that brought up a subject that I had been too afraid to contemplate: what would we do when Popcorn died? A kind women with a large rescue dog, Missy, had decided to bury her beloved in a pet cemetery in Calabasas. She said to me, “I’m Jewish- how can I have my dog cremated? We don’t believe in that.” Indeed I am Jewish as well, but the thought of leaving Popcorn in a grave in Calabasas somehow didn’t feel right. It seems to me that scattering Popcorn’s ashes would be the most natural thing to do- and in a sacred place that had meaning.

But what place would that be?

Over the years I learned how feeding my dog a natural food diet would help his energy and longevity- and so I shared my flax seed oil with him, my COQ10 supplement to strengthen his heart, etc. I invested in doing everything that I could to ensure that my little guy would live a long life. I secretly hoped that I would be able to call the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest dog to ever live. My mother (a/k/a the poodle whisperer) warned me that at age 17 I would see a sharp decline in his health and sadly, she was right on target. Shortly after his 17th birthday in May he started to have serious issues: losing balance and falling, lethargy, etc. I was shocked by how quickly this occurred so I took him to the vet thinking that he had contracted a virus. When I suggested that he was ill my vet looked at me sadly and told me that it was very rare that a dog walked through his door at the age of 17. After a panel of blood tests it was determined that there was nothing wrong with Popcorn other than old age. I went home with B 12 shots to administer to him weekly and a bag of IV fluids to give subcutaneously to help to keep him hydrated. After that vet visit there was temporary improvement but he was never the same. Popcorn died six weeks after his 17th birthday almost to the day that I had adopted him 14 years earlier. My little guy waited until I returned from a business trip and died in the comfort of our home where he had spent most of his life. I had decided that a private cremation was the right thing to do. The kind man at the pet mortuary assured me that we would have his remains with his paw print within 10 days.

Towards the end of the business day Popcorn would usually start to scratch the carpeting to let me know that it was time it was time to go home. One week to the day of his death as I sat typing on the computer alone in my office at 6:45 p.m. I heard scratching on the floor. I got up to see what it could be and then I realized exactly what it was – my French poodle had paid me a visit on July 14 (Bastille Day). I knew at that moment that he had been cremated that day and that his little spirit came by to bid me adieu as he left for his next adventure. There was tangible proof that animals also possess souls. When I returned home to tell my husband about my amazing experience I received a quizzical but sympathetic look; however, my alleged chimera was confirmed when we received Popcorn’s ashes a few days later. On the certificate of cremation in black ink it was affirmed that Popcorn was indeed cremated on July 14. And yet what to do with his ashes? How do we honor the pets that have provided us with so much unconditional love for so many years?

I had had a local artist make a painting of Popcorn from a beautiful photo of him taken by my cousins at an Israel rally which hangs in our stairwell. In the background an Israeli flag is billowing. As I looked at the painting I had an epiphany- why not bring his ashes to Israel in September when we travel there on business? I could think of no more sacred place to spread his remains. That flag in the background seemed to be prescient. When I called the rabbi that was traveling with us about some kind of a prayer for Popcorn when we scatter his ashes he was stumped. Could I say the mourner’s kaddish (a Jewish prayer for the bereaved) perhaps? Uncomfortable silence followed. There are no prayers for pets in the Torah, I was told. Indeed the references to animals in there involve sacrifice and consumption. He suggested that I make up my own prayer.

We departed for Israel on September 11 and I decided to bring a portion of his ashes. I thought that the Mt. of Olives would be the perfect location since this is the most holy place to be buried in Israel. Once we arrived in Jerusalem and the day came for our ceremony we were walking through the Old City. I was inspired by the newly built Rambam synagogue where beautiful pink flowers graced the front of the limestone building. After all, Popcorn had the innate wisdom of an old sage so why not spread his ashes nearby? As I took out the bag with his ashes and started to spread them next to the bushes in front of the synagogue I said in Hebrew (through my tears): We bless Popcorn. He will live in our hearts always. I was so emotional that there was nothing more that I could say at that moment except stand there holding my husband. Despite my unbearable sadness I felt an incredible relief. I had found the spiritual solace that I was yearning for to honor the dog that had been my constant companion for so many years. When we returned from our trip we went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and as the congregation joined in the mourner’s kaddish prayer, I said a prayer for Popcorn.

Breaking through


I often wonder what would happen if political leaders were replaced by creative directors of advertising agencies. You see, in the ad business there’s a law against boredom.

If we don’t come up with new and fresh ideas all the time, we get fired. Politics is the opposite — keep mouthing clichés and you’ll be OK.

I thought about this the other day when I read this sleep-inducing headline in Haaretz: “Netanyahu: Negotiations only way to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.” No kidding. How many times have we heard this tedious truth? Politicians have no respect for our need to be stimulated.

This gave me a thought: Since I used to play creative director myself, what kind of novel ideas would I recommend to Bibi to help him grab the world’s attention? I came up with three.

The first came to me while I was having breakfast last week with my cousin Danny Danon, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and member of Likud. We were talking about the Palestinians’ extraordinary success at making Israel — the party that is ready to negotiate — appear to be the obstacle to peace. How could we turn the tables?

My answer: Book a conference room and wait.

During Bibi’s speech to the United Nations on Friday, Sept. 23, he should say the following: “Mr. Abbas, if you are serious about peace, you must negotiate with Israel. I have rearranged my schedule and reserved the conference room of my hotel for all day Sunday. I will be there, ready to negotiate with you.”

I know, the Palestinians will call it a PR stunt, the cynics and Bibi-haters will ridicule him, and Abbas won’t show up. But I have news for you: The media will come. And they will be happy to film and interview Bibi alone in the conference room in front of the empty chair of his “peace partner.”

Can you think of a stronger image for Israel? The leader of Israel having coffee alone and waiting for the leader of the Palestinians to walk a few blocks and start negotiating for peace and a two-state solution.

For those of you who support the Palestinian position that they can’t negotiate until Israel agrees to things like border parameters and settlement freezes, I can make an equally strong case that Israel can’t negotiate until Palestinians recognize a Jewish state and forgo the deal-killing “right of return.”

In other words, no preconditions in return for no preconditions. An invitation for the parties to sit down and talk — and one party, Israel, would be there bright and early Sunday morning.

My second idea bubbled up after a strong Turkish coffee last week at the Israeli Consulate. I was meeting with David Siegel, the new and dynamic Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, and we were lamenting the unfortunate situation that a great country like Israel should be seen in such a negative light in the Middle East.

What to do? Blast an ad campaign to the hundreds of millions of Arabs who watch Al Jazeera, and convey this simple message: Israel is not your enemy.

I can see you rolling your eyes and thinking: Are you out of your mind? Arabs have been poisoned on Israel — no clever charm offensive can change that. Well, that’s why the ad business is so much fun: We don’t let cynicism ruin a good party. We know the value of creating ideas that shock people.

So, send me your ideas for 30-second commercials that Israel could run on Al Jazeera. (One idea: Have Israeli Arabs as our spokespeople.) Of course, in the likely event that Al Jazeera refuses to run the ads, guess who also wins?

My third idea came to me last month in Jerusalem, when I went to see a free outdoor concert by Ehud Banai in one of the tent cities. In between the songs, Menachem Froman, a well-known rabbi from one of the settlements, shared words of inspiration with a local sheik. The way they connected on a religious level made me dream.

I thought: If the Middle East conflict is about more than politics, then why not aim for a spiritual peace agreement? If Jews and Muslims are children of the same God, we are hurting our own God whenever we fight. Why not have 100 rabbis and 100 sheiks gather in Casablanca during next year’s Ramadan for a Spiritual Peace Conference? The theme: “How Can We Please the God We Share?”

Sure, with all the venom and extremism in the air, it’s a long shot — but isn’t that precisely why we need new ideas?

The point is this: We need new ideas that will break through the hardened clichés that dominate the discourse. Ideas that will electrify the world by shaming the haters and honoring the lovers. Peace groups like J Street and Peace Now should stop spewing platitudes about the importance of peace and think of more creative ways to convey their message.

It’s not enough to be right; you must also be captivating.

Voters everywhere should put their political leaders on notice: Tell us something we don’t know. No more tedious truths — we want new and fresh ideas.

Stop boring us or we’ll fire you and hire an ad guy.

The big picture


Patrick Goldstein writes “The Big Picture,” a column for the Los Angeles Times.

A few years ago, after a mutual friend introduced us, Goldstein proceeded to tell me that he reads The Jewish Journal every week. He discovered it at Fromin’s Delicatessen in Santa Monica, one of our distribution points, and started picking it up each week on his way to his son’s Little League game. 

In fact, Goldstein told me, reading The Journal is the extent of his “organized” Jewish life.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either heartening or alarming.

For generations, members of Goldstein’s family were pillars of the Jewish community. 

“My grandfather was president of every temple he belonged to,” Goldstein said. “In Memphis, Atlanta, Miami. During the High Holidays they’d ask him to recite something from the bimah. I remember he read Hebrew in a Southern accent.”

Goldstein moved west to live his own life, and, by his own admission, has a more distant relationship with his faith and his community. A pessimist would point out that Goldstein’s story is typical of the ills threatening Jewish life, a literal and figurative moving away. 

At the same time, Goldstein, the father of a 13-year-old boy, is drawn to learning about Judaism and the Jewish community. 

“I read The Journal because it’s a forum for stimulating ideas and debate,” he told me in a more recent conversation — because I asked. “There’s a real engagement with ideas.”

Synagogues don’t speak to him, and the over-the-top materialism of the Westside bar mitzvah circuit turns him off more, Goldstein said. But something of his people — the values, issues, history, community, mystery — something strikes a chord. An optimist would point to that inchoate desire as opening enough. 

So which am I, pessimist or optimist?

I’m the pragmatist.

The paper you hold in your hands — or the Web site you’re now reading —is the most practical, pragmatic solution to the Goldstein Dilemma. People who are disconnected want a way to connect, and The Journal offers the easiest, most affordable, most reliable and most transparent way in.

Easy and affordable because all a person has to do is pick up a free copy from the local library or grocer or deli and flip through it. Reliable and transparent because the fundamental mission of The Journal is journalism. Its only agenda is to inform and enlighten, to engage us with the ongoing story of the Jewish world in all its aspects, from as many points of view as possible. We don’t push a single agenda. You bring to your reading whatever kind of Jew you are or aren’t, we’ll provide a way to learn about and connect with all the other kinds.

My belief in this medium to connect, build and shape community is one reason why I’ve been at The Journal for 17 years. And it’s why I’ve never been more excited about its future.

For at least some of those years, Jewish journalism was a running joke. Many years ago, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise called the Jewish press “The W-e-a-k-l-i-e-s.” The great Jewish papers of the turn of the century had devolved into house organs pushing like-minded blather.

But three things have happened to move Jewish media from being the nebbish of the Jewish community to one of the central forces. 

First, the news happened. Bush/Gore. 9/11. Osama. The Arab spring. The Tea Party. It turns out that the issues that form the bread and butter of Jewish journalism — religion and politics, religion and civic identity, fundamentalism, the Middle East — all have become central conversations in American life. Religion is no longer a tangential subject; it is one of the defining issues of our time. 

Second, the hierarchy of Jewish communal life shattered. A generation of Goldsteins has made the core postwar institutions and leadership less central to Jewish life. Media can now step in to connect, inform and even shape the communal agenda.

Finally, the world digitized. As media fractured, the hold of general newspapers collapsed and a billion Web sites bloomed, the Jewish press has proved its ability to speak to a core, committed audience. I tell people that we were “niche” before “niche” was cool.

So Goldstein reads us in print during the slow innings of his son’s game, and, with a professional eye, follows the Hollywood Jew blog at jewishjournal.com. By launching what LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick calls “something like 10,000 or 20,000 blogs” on subjects like Howard Stern, religious single life or Nice Jewish Doctor — our medical advice blog — we have a Web site that not only delivers news, but also mirrors the irrepressible, opinionated diversity of the larger Jewish world. And it can, thanks to search engines like Google, reach people far more disengaged than Goldstein. 

And it was to help realize our potential that, just a couple of weeks ago, I accepted the position of publisher. And it’s why my friend David Suissa — whom I all but begged to come on board for several years before he accepted — joined our superb team as president. We both see an unprecedented opportunity to reach, connect, inspire and engage Jews with their tradition, with their community and with the world.

We are urging you to support us — with your ideas, your readership, your financial contributions, your advertising. This old medium has become new again.

Goldstein represents the rule, not the exception. Every Jew can walk away from community, or walk in. The paper you hold in your hands right now, the Web page before your eyes, is the best, most effective and most cost-efficient Jewish outreach there is, bar none. All people have to do is open or click on our pages, and a great big picture unfolds.

Jews by choice


There are a lot of fun things about being Jewish: Adam Sandler, Purim, having an opinionated Jewish grandmother, Israel (most of the time), Chanukah. Although much can be said of the Jewish High Holy Days, I’m quite sure no one has ever described them as fun. Yet, for most of us, there is never a question as to whether we will attend services.

The real question is, will our children, who have been raised on a steady diet of fun and feel-good, plunk down their own shekels on High Holy Day seats when they are adults with children of their own? This is no small question because where Judaism seems to have been able to survive dwindling numbers of Jews keeping kosher, cell phones on Shabbat, and Passover seders that wrap up after the meal and before the third cup of wine, I don’t think Judaism can survive a generation that disregards the High Holy Days.

“Jew by Choice” is the term used to describe non-Jews who convert to Judaism. But it is also going to be the term used to describe our children who, in an increasingly secular world, will have to actively “choose” Judaism. I’m far from the first person to have expressed this reality. In fact, the idea that Jewishness will not be automatic for our grown children the way it was for most of us has even made it to Wikipedia.

According to the online encyclopedia, “For purely rhetorical purposes, some polemicists elicit that every Jew is a Jew by choice, because the worldwide Jewish community is so small and the pull of assimilation is so great. So it is very easy for someone who was born Jewish to abandon Jewish traditions and customs in adulthood, absent a conscious choice to stay Jewish.”

Since you, dear reader, are most likely Jewish, I suspect that your Jewish DNA is already compelling you to question my hypothesis that Judaism’s very survival depends on whether our children attend High Holy Day services when they are adults. (And if you are not Jewish, please feel free to “act Jewish” for a moment and presume that I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

“Wendy,” (you are thinking), “I am Jewish because I was born Jewish, and my children are Jewish because they were born Jewish. Whether my children choose to go to synagogue on the High Holy Days won’t change that. If they choose to pass on the High Holy Days and synagogue membership and simply celebrate Chanukah and Passover in their homes, I’m fine with that.”

Well, that is a compelling argument, reader, but you are only partly correct. If just your children decide not to attend services, Judaism will likely survive. And certainly if a couple of their friends stay home, Judaism may still be around when people commute to work with jetpacks. But just like vaccines keep even unvaccinated kids healthy, thanks to the fact that nearly everyone else gets vaccinated, Judaism can remain healthy for the Jews who choose not to purchase High Holy Day tickets because nearly everyone else does.

But what happens when a majority of the next generation stays home, and attending High Holy Day services becomes the exception, not the rule?

What happens is that since many Jews maintain expensive synagogue memberships so that they can attend High Holy Day services, the many programs that synagogues offer that have nothing to do with the High Holy Days but everything to do with keeping Judaism alive — religious and Hebrew school, clergy support when there is a birth or death in the family, social action programs, youth groups — will no longer be funded. Even the “fun” holiday gatherings like Chanukah and Purim that are typically hosted by synagogues would not take place because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pay the synagogue light bill for the entire year.

“Wendy,” (you ask), “are you suggesting that the future of Judaism dangles solely on a financial string? There have been many dire times in Jewish history when Judaism survived without people shelling out thousands of dollars a year on expensive synagogue memberships.”

Good point, educated reader. Of course not. But the difference between then and now is that Jewish children historically had no choice but to be Jewish adults because society characterized them as Jewish. The barbed wire lining on the fluffy white cloud of American Jewish acceptance is that our children can now freely choose, and they may not choose to be Jewish.

But even if America’s synagogues joined together, bought one of those group Powerball lottery tickets, won a billion dollars and no longer had to depend on being financially supported by members, our Jewish future would still hinge on our children attending High Holy Day services en masse.

Why? Because it is the sheer number of Jews coming together during the High Holy Days that gives Judaism the energy to propel it through the rest of the year. They are dubbed the Days of Awe for good reason: The mass Jewish exodus from comfortable air conditioned homes and insanely busy lives to come together in synagogues all across the world is the ultimate symbol that there are thousands of us that are “Jews by Choice.”

Yes, the High Holy Days are a time to reflect, a time to improve, a time to let go of the negativity of the past and start the year with a fresh slate. But, they are also our giant annual family reunion: Whether or not the venue is your particular cup of tea is not important; being together is.

Will our children agree? I hope so. Our future is riding on it.

L’shanah tovah.

Prep for costly fight as Berman, Sherman keep gloves on


The Howard Berman-Brad Sherman story is loaded with angles — Jewish, Latino and, what may be most important, financial. 

The Jewish angle is potentially divisive to the Jewish community. Reapportionment has placed these two top Jewish congressmen in the same San Fernando Valley district. Now they are preparing to fight each other for political survival. Berman, once chairman and now ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is one of Israel’s most influential American supporters. Sherman, too, is a staunch Israel supporter but without Berman’s years in Congress or clout.

The Latino angle reflects Los Angeles’ ethnic change. The citizens commission that drew California’s new congressional and legislative districts created a district in the Valley where Latinos make up a majority of the voters. In the old districts, drawn under the strong influence of incumbents wanting to protect their seats, Latinos were split between the Berman and Sherman districts. This made it impossible for Latinos to win a Valley congressional seat, despite their growing numbers.

The predominantly Latino district created by the commission ripped out East Valley portions from Berman’s district and threw him and Sherman into the same redrawn district. That one generally covers the West Valley, including areas that are strongly Jewish.

Finally, there’s the money. The Berman-Sherman race will be close; in fact, neither may win the primary, which would set up a November runoff. Both are successful political fundraisers, and it could be the most expensive congressional race in the country. “The Berman-Sherman fight is too bad,” said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political science professor and director of the university’s Washington Center. “It could go two rounds at huge expense when the Democrats could be using the money on other races.”

I talked to Berman and Sherman after the commission gave final approval to the new district lines earlier in the month. Berman, elected to Congress in 1982, rose to prominence on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as being active on other issues. Sherman was elected in 1996 after serving on the State Board of Equalization and is known as an intrepid grass-roots campaigner.

As we talked, I got the clear impression they intend to run against each other, no matter how many Jewish community leaders beg them to avoid a fight. Such a fight could only be avoided if one or the other made the suicidal choice of moving to another nearby district, which neither would have much of a chance of winning.

Sherman noted there are tentative plans to have a statewide referendum on the citizen commission’s congressional, Senate and Assembly reapportionment plans, or to ask the courts to overturn them, as was done in 2001. But the courts intervened that year only when the legislature and governor couldn’t agree on a plan. In this case, the commission was created by a vote of the people and mandated the new district in response to the voters’ wishes. It would be tough for a court to go against that.

Sherman thinks he can beat Berman. “I will run and am confident of winning,” he said. “I don’t want to be overconfident. Howard Berman has been in Congress a long time, is intelligent and has a lot of friends.”

He said, “This is not the district I would have drawn. Don’t portray me as smiling when I look at these maps.” But, “The silver lining is that they created a seat with 60 percent of what I now represent, and 30 percent of what I used to represent (in a previous redrawing of district lines). Ninety percent of the district is familiar with me.”

In the Jewish community, perhaps Sherman’s biggest obstacle is the network of donors that support Berman because of his advocacy for Israel in Congress and his long years as a leader on Jewish issues.

“My record is 100 percent support of Israel,” Sherman said. “A lot of very strong supporters (of Israel) will go with me, some will go with him. None of us serve in Congress forever, none of us is indispensible, least of all me. If I make it through this difficulty, I will be a strong advocate for Israel.”

Iasked Berman why it is important to friends of Israel that he be retained.

“If the past is prologue to the future … on matters that affect Israel, I have had a substantial public and private impact,” he said. “I had a lot of this before I became chairman (of foreign affairs). Then as chairman and now as the ranking Democrat, I have even more of an impact, not only in the house but dealing with foreign governments, dealing with the Senate, with the administration. On a daily basis, I have a role to play that would be hard to replicate … I am not just another vote. I am not just another voice. I have a unique leadership role.”

Neither Berman nor Sherman approves of the commission that placed them in the same district, something that has also happened to lawmakers in other areas of California. Neither does UC Berkeley’s Cain. “I do not share the bloodlust of some in the media and the public about the number of incumbents who have been merged into one seat,” he told me.

As someone who suffers from bloodlust, I don’t agree with Cain. I have watched many times while incumbents were protected in safe districts during closed-door negotiations. That is why Latinos were frozen out of a Valley congressional seat — an action, by the way, that did nothing to improve Jewish-Latino relations.

So, bring on the fight. It’s another painful lesson that democracy isn’t always pleasant or easy.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Still the only solution to the world’s problems


There is only one solution to the world’s problems, only one prescription for producing a near-heaven on earth.

It is 3,000 years old.

And it is known as the Ten Commandments.

Properly understood and applied, the Ten Commandments is really all humanity needs to make a beautiful world. While modern men and women, in their hubris, believe that they can and must come up with new ideas in order to make a good world, the truth is there is almost nothing new to say.

If people and countries lived by the Ten Commandments, all the great moral problems would disappear.

Or, to put it another way, all the great evils involve the violation of one or more of the Ten Commandments.

Here is the case in brief for the Ten Commandments (using the Jewish enumeration, which differs slightly from the Protestant and Catholic):

1. I am the Lord your God.

There are moral atheists and there are immoral believers, but there is no chance for a good world based on atheism. Ultimately, a godless and religion-less society depends on personal opinion to determine right from wrong, and that is a very weak foundation. Plenty of people have died in history in the name of God. But far more have been killed, tortured and deprived of liberty in the name of humanity and progress or some other post-Judeo-Christian value. Religion gave us an Inquisition and gives us suicide terrorists, but the death of God gave us Nazism and communism, which, in one century alone, caused the slaughter of more than 100 million people. All the founders of the United States — yes, all — knew that a free society can only survive if its citizens believe themselves to be morally accountable to God.

2. Do not have other gods.

The worship of false gods leads to evil. When anything but the God of creation and morality is worshiped, moral chaos ensues. No one is godless. Either people worship God or they worship other gods — nature, intelligence, art, education, beauty, the environment, Mother Earth, power, fame, pleasure, the state, the führer, the party, progress, humanity. The list is almost endless. And no matter how noble (false gods are often noble), when they become ends in themselves, they lead to evil.

3. Do not take God’s name in vain.

People have misinterpreted this commandment. They think it prohibits saying something like, “Oh, my God, what a home run!” The Hebrew literally means “do not carry” the name of the Lord in vain. In other words, we are forbidden from doing evil in God’s name. Only when thus understood does the rest of the commandment make sense — that God will not “cleanse” — i.e. forgive — the person who does this. Thus, the Islamist who slits an innocent’s throat while shouting “Allahu Akbar” is the perfect example of the individual who carries God’s name in vain and who cannot be forgiven. These people not only murder their victims, they murder God’s name. For that reason, they do more evil than the atheist who murders.

4. Keep the Sabbath day and make it holy.

Leaving the world one day a week and elevating this day above the others is the greatest vehicle to family harmony and to harmony with friends. One day a week without video games, without parents leaving to go to work or to do their own thing on the computer forces parents and children to spend time together and to actually talk. It even encourages couples to make love. It also weakens the institution of slavery. If even your servants get a day off because God commands it, that means you do not have absolute control over them.

5. Honor your father and mother.

The first thing every totalitarian and authoritarian movement does is try to undermine parental authority. That is why it is dangerous even in a democracy. Take our universities, for example. Woodrow Wilson, the first progressive president, said, “The use of the university is to make young men as unlike their fathers as possible.” And that is exactly what colleges have been doing for more than a half century. Instead of searching for truth and beauty, the universities have been alienating American youth from their fathers’ — and the Founding Fathers’ — values.

6. Do not murder.

If people lived by this commandment alone, the world would enter a heavenly state. At the same time, the commandment has been widely misunderstood. The Hebrew original prohibits murder, not killing. By mistranslating the Hebrew as “Do not kill,” too many modern Westerners have been taught that pacifism is moral and noble. It is neither. It is an accessory to murder because it prevents pacifists from doing the only thing that stops mass murder — killing the murderers. The Nazi death camps were liberated by soldiers whose job was to kill murderers, not by pacifists or “peace activists.”

7. Do not commit adultery.

Observance or even near-observance of this commandment alone would end the formation of the underclass. No amount of state aid can do what marriage and commitment to a spouse do to end poverty and almost all social pathologies.

8. Do not steal.

This commandment prohibits the stealing of people, the stealing of property and the stealing of anything that belongs to another. The first prohibition alone, if obeyed, would have rendered the slave trade impossible.

Protecting the sanctity of private property makes moral civilization possible. That is why the recent riots in London should frighten every citizen of the UK and the West generally. Just as the burning of books leads to the burning of people, so, too, the smashing of windows and the looting of property leads eventually to the smashing of heads.

The rampant violation of this commandment by the governments of Africa is the primary reason for African poverty. Corruption, not Western imperialism, is the root of Africa’s backwardness.

9. Do not bear false witness.

Lying is the root of nearly all major evils. All totalitarian states are based on lies. Had the Nazis not lied about Jews, there would not have been a Holocaust. Only people who believed that all Jews, including babies, were vermin, could, for example, lock hundreds of Jews into a synagogue and burn them alive. That similar lies are told about Jews today by Arab governments and by the Iranian state should awaken people to the Nazi-like threat that Islamic anti-Semitism poses.

10. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse, property, etc.

The cultivation of class warfare — i.e., the cultivation of coveting what richer citizens legitimately own — inevitably leads to violating the other commandments, most particularly the ones that prohibit stealing and murdering.

There is only one way to achieve a Great Society, and it is not by creating a massive state that doles out other citizens’ money. It is by cultivating citizens who try to live by these Ten Commandments. They are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago.

The Monzur revolution


It’s a little too soon for Time magazine to name its Person of the Year, but I want to put in an early vote for Rumana Monzur, who on June 5 was brutalized by her husband in their Bangladesh home and has decided to speak out on behalf of all abused women.

I’m warning you — you might not have the stomach for this paragraph, reported by Asra Nomani in The Daily Beast on July 16: “In an account that is bone-chilling, she says her husband pressed his fingers into her eyes, gouging them out. According to Monzur, he gnawed at her cheek, lips, and nose, biting off bits of flesh, blood spilling throughout the room as Monzur flailed. Her daughter, Anusheh, stood in a corner of the room, screaming, as two household servants struggled to open the locked door. A neighbor took her to the hospital, where her parents soon arrived. The diagnosis: blindness. ‘I lost my eyes,’ says Monzur. ‘I don’t want anyone to suffer like I am suffering. It is horrible.’ ”

Apparently, Monzur had shown her husband photos on her Facebook page, and he flew into a rage, accusing her of having an affair. As Nomani writes: “In that part of the world, where shame so often defines the moral conscience of society and a family’s honor lies so often in the image of a woman’s chastity and fidelity, this could have been yet another tragic but untold story at the altar of sharam, or shame, as it’s said in Urdu.”

But shame can cut both ways: “It seemed, at first, that Monzur’s story would be a typical case of shame used as a strategy to silence a victim. But through social media, it has provided a window into a new phenomenon among Muslims and others around the world: addressing shame with shame.”

This is the quiet revolution. While the eyes of the world are still riveted on a Middle East revolution started by a Tunisian fruit peddler who burned himself to death, a “Monzur revolution” has begun: Facebook pages, YouTube videos and online petitions have sprung up in support of Rumana Monzur, an abused wife who lost her eyes and now says, “I want that no one else suffers like me.”

“Why will we be ashamed? … They should be ashamed,” Monzur said from her hospital bed, speaking for herself and other abused Muslim women.

In fact, shame has been the main theme of the Monzur revolution.

“We have to change the very concept of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in our societies,” said a Bangladesh colleague of Monzur. “We have to shame the perpetrators.”

But if we’re going to talk about shame, let’s be honest: There’s plenty to go around. We can start by looking in the mirror.

It’s not as if we in the Western world have been kept in the dark about the abuse of women in Muslim societies. No one has gouged our eyes out; we have closed them ourselves. We have no problem opening our eyes and yelling in indignation when Western women are abused — but what about when Muslim women are abused?

I understand the discomfort. We’re sensitive to other religions. We don’t want to be accused of being “anti-Muslim.” So we walk on eggshells. We talk about general themes like democracy, freedom and human rights, hoping, perhaps, that “women’s rights” will be swept up by the winds of change. Meanwhile, the abuse continues.

Are we not being cowards and hypocrites?

“Where’s the outrage?” Mona Eltahawy asked two years ago in the International Herald Tribune, after reporting on the subject: “July, hot and usually slow for many of us, was a month of humiliation and pain for 164 Muslim women sentenced to a public flogging for ‘crimes’ as varied and absurd as wearing trousers in public to having sex outside of marriage in countries as far afield as the Maldives, Sudan and Malaysia.”

So many of us love to rail against torture, but as Eltahawy reminds us: “Flogging is a cruel and inhuman punishment that is banned by international law and conventions like the one against torture, to which the majority of countries in the world are signatories.

“It is time for the international community to take away the pass to the international club from countries that duck out of their international obligations under the pretext of ‘cultural or religious’ reservations.”

No kidding. As a start, where are all those human rights groups who scream and yell about Gaza but keep their mouths perfectly shut when it comes to the flogging of Muslim women? And why has the liberal press not done more to expose the systemic abuse of Muslim women?

That’s why I’d love to see Rumana Monzur become Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Abusers of women the world over would be put on notice that we’re onto them and that the party’s over. That the world will no longer “stand idly by.” We will make it clear that our beef is not against Islam, but against the abuse of women, which is a mark of shame under any culture or religion.

“I don’t want anyone to keep secrets, things like this,” Monzur says about other abused women.

She might just as well have been speaking about us.

Adults who do not speak to a parent


For two decades I have been on a crusade: to convince adults who have cut off all communication with a parent to re-establish contact.

Through my radio show, which deals as much with personal issues as with politics, I became aware of something that, as a parent, I view as a nightmare:  children who voluntarily disappear from a parent’s life.

The pain I heard in the voices of parents whose son or daughter had ceased speaking to them broke my heart. In some ways, I would imagine, the pain can be more difficult to handle than the death of a child. It is, after all, a form of death, but it has the added pain of having been deliberately inflicted upon the parent. And in the case of grandparents whose adult children have severed all communication, they not only lose all contact with their child, but with their grandchildren as well — something that is not the case when an adult child dies.

While I can imagine situations in which there is a moral justification for cutting off all contact with a parent, those situations are rare. Beyond the parent who presents a physical threat to the child or who has a history — a real history, not a “recovered memory” induced by a psychotherapist — of sexual molestation or serious physical abuse, it is very difficult to imagine a situation in which never communicating with a parent is justifiable.

On one of my radio shows on this topic, I asked adults who have ceased speaking to a parent to call in. One woman in her late 20s, a resident of Santa Monica, told me that she had not contacted her mother in nearly 10 years. I asked the woman if her mother had molested or beaten her. On the contrary, she told me — not only had her mother never done such things, she had always shown her love.

I was, needless to say, mystified.

“So why don’t you talk to her?” I asked

“Because she has a very dominating personality,” the caller responded. “And if I let her in my life, she will dominate it.”

I suspected the influence of another person in her life, so I asked if she was seeing a psychotherapist. When she answered yes, I asked her what her therapist thought of her not speaking to her mother; she responded that her therapist was completely supportive of this decision.

Having dealt with this issue for so long, here are some conclusions I have reached.

In the majority of cases, children who have cut off all contact with a parent are engaged in an act that is so hurtful, it borders on evil.

And if this decision is abetted by one’s psychotherapist, that therapist is an accessory to a moral crime. He or she is also probably an incompetent therapist. The easiest things for a therapist to do are to affirm a patient’s sense of victimhood and to approve of selfish decisions of the patient, even when those decisions hurt others.

Just as good religion makes people better people and bad religion makes people worse people, good therapy makes people better and bad therapy makes people worse. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad religion and there is a lot of bad therapy.

There is an additional danger to cutting off all contact with a parent: How will people who do this feel after their parent dies? The importance of having made some peace with a parent before he or she dies is difficult to overstate. I know women who were sexually abused by their father but who, as adults, have not completely cut themselves off from him — solely to ensure their own inner peace after he dies.

Also, parents who do not speak with their own parent(s) might consider what sort of model they present to their children about how to treat a parent.

This painful subject is one of the many reasons I so strongly affirm a God-based and Torah-based values system. The great majority of human beings go through a difficult period with one or both of their parents, a period when anger or even hatred is greater than love for a parent. I am convinced that it is for that reason — the complex nature of many people’s feelings toward their parents — that the Torah avoids commanding that we love our father and mother. We are commanded to love the stranger, to love God and to love our neighbor, but we are not commanded to love our parents.

But we are commanded to honor our parents. In other words, even if we hate our parents, with rare exceptions, we must still honor them. Honoring them means, at the very least, staying in contact with them.

I wish a study would be conducted of a thousand adult children who have chosen to break off all contact with a parent to reveal how many of them believe in the Ten Commandments as a God-given document. My suspicion is that very few of them do. If I am wrong, however, if religious Jews and religious Christians are just as likely to cut off all contact with a parent as are irreligious people, then I would have to conclude that Judaism and Christianity, whatever benefits they may offer the individual, are morally largely worthless.

The greatest message of Judaism is to act nobly even when one doesn’t feel like doing so. If one cannot do this with regard to one of the Ten Commandments, that message has truly been lost.

And, speaking Jewishly, it is better to eat pork on Yom Kippur than to destroy a mother or father.

The Rough Guide


In Barcelona’s Old City, there’s a narrow street off the well-trod tourist path that leads to what was once the Jewish quarter. In 1391, 100 years before the official start of the Inquisition, Barcelona massacred many and expelled the rest of its Jews, who historians say made up as much as 20 percent of the population. The City Hall in Plaça Sant Jaume was built on land taken from some of these families.  

I was there with my family this past week, thumbing through the Rough Guide, when I stumbled upon this backstory, written as an aside to the long architectural history of the beautiful square.  

I didn’t mean to make this vacation a working trip, following the trials and tribulations of Europe’s Jews, long gone or still around. But it’s hard not to.  When I was in Poland last year with a group of journalists, one of them called the country “a Jewish graveyard.” 

On this trip, I began to think my colleague may as well have been talking about all of Europe.

We followed some terse tourist signs beyond the Plaça to El Call, the ancient Jewish quarter. It was never a ghetto. Barcelona’s Jews were free to live where they pleased and do business with whom they wished. Until they weren’t, of course.

We got lost, until we came across a kosher wine and Judaica shop called El Call. The owner pointed us toward Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona. It is now a tiny room, originally excavated from beneath the city building in the early 1990s. It is Europe’s oldest synagogue, dating back to Roman times.

Of the long, rich history of Barcelona’s Jews, that was what remained — a room the size of a Bel Air walk-in closet. 

Late that afternoon, we took a taxi to an address on the outskirts of town. It was Shabbat. I knew we had arrived at the Comunitat Jueva Atid de Catalunya, one of the city’s three synagogues, when I spotted the guard outside an otherwise unadorned wall.   

We walked in to hear a syncopated Spanish guitar melody. Given what I’d seen during the day, I was fully prepared to spend the evening with a handful of elderly, nostalgic Jews, remnants.  But the voices and clapping came from a room bursting with young Spaniards, teenagers mostly, and their charismatic woman rabbi. Their summer-camp energy was familiar, the melodies and music wonderfully Spanish. Some 5,000 Jews live in and around Barcelona, among them many Israelis, North African immigrants and expats, and they have created, or re-created, a deeply attached, welcoming Jewish community.

Isn’t that the European Jewish story?  Birth, efflorescence, death and now a small, steady rebirth.

It was the same in Amsterdam, which we had visited just before. Our bed and breakfast happened to be in Nieuwmarkt Square, a relatively quiet area one canal away from the pot and hookers. I sat there, in the welcome sun, sipping my Heineken, reading up on the neighborhood. Nieuwmarkt Square, according to the Rough Guide, is at the border of the old Jewish quarter. More than 100,000 Jews had lived there from the 1300s — many of them Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition. They created a nearly unparalleled urban Jewish life, until the Nazis invaded Holland and rounded up the Jews from among their good Dutch neighbors. The holding pen for these Jews? Nieuwmarkt Square, right where I was sitting. It was circled in barbed wire and turned into a temporary prison for Jews awaiting transport to Auschwitz.

Though we set out to make a minyan in Amsterdam — there are a couple — we couldn’t because of a timing foul-up.  But we did spend hours at the Jewish museum and the Esnoga Synagogue — as grand and impressive a shul as I’ve ever seen.

And then there was the Anne Frank House. A two-hour line snakes out from the ticket booth. The masses are drawn to that house, wanting to climb up the steep stairs, to go behind the secret passage hidden by the swinging bookshelf and into her room.

Why? Why, I wondered, in a city that offers so much competition and distraction, is this the No. 1 tourist site? Partly, of course, because of the words of her diary, which has been translated into 78 languages and has touched millions. 

But maybe it’s also because, through her diary, she brings to life the missing voice. City by city, there is a Jewish religious and cultural revival in Europe. But when you travel through these countries as a tourist, you also have to realize, if only by reading between the lines of the guidebooks, that it is also a continent of silenced voices, of untold stories, of a displaced and murdered people. There are a jillion cathedrals and paintings to see of one Jew — Jesus — but the stories of the other millions have disappeared. 

On the wall of the Anne Frank House is a quote from her diary, written just before her capture and murder:

I’ll make my voice heard.

I’ll go out into the world

And work for mankind!

And so she did, indeed. And so, in their name, must we all.

Rob Eshman: I’m a believer


I was a Jewish school skeptic.

When it was time to send our first child, our son, to school, my wife, a rabbi, insisted it be a Jewish school. I wondered, like a lot of parents, whether the quality of the education would be so superior to the local public school, or a similarly priced private school. I worried that he wouldn’t get the diverse social exposure pubic school provided. I doubted a school that divides its day between Jewish and general studies could excel at either. 

And the cost? I tallied 15 years of Jewish school tuition, from preschool through high school, times two children and figured we could buy an apartment in Tel Aviv for what we were going to spend. I thought a lot about what Rabbi Ed Feinstein told me at the time. When his kids wondered why he never drove a new car, he said, “I do buy a new car every year. It’s called a Day School Tuition.”

This past Sunday, as I sat in the sanctuary at Stephen S. Wise Temple and watched our son receive his high school diploma from Milken Community High School, it seemed like those 13 years had passed in seconds. Yesterday, he was the Shabbat daddy at Braverman Elementary Preschool at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Two days ago, he was standing inside the bubble machine at the Pressman Academy Purim Carnival. And — blink — Sunday he sat in his cerulean cap and gown among the 136 Milken graduates as we parents watched, wondering where the time had gone. 

In many ways, my son’s journey through the Jewish education system also became my own. I am a product of San Fernando Valley public schools. My religious and cultural identities were shaped at home, Sunday school and the occasional synagogue visit. When my wife and I debated where to send our son, I argued that you couldn’t find a more Jewish school than Birmingham High was in the 1970s, when the campus turned into a ghost town on the High Holy Days. My wife argued that there is a big difference between gathering whatever nuggets of Jewish knowledge and tradition happen to fall into one’s hands, and actually mining, systematically, deeply, the many deep veins of text, liturgy and history that make up Judaism. 

She, of course, did not say this with such a clunky metaphor. And, as I saw our son progress, I came to understand what she meant. Pressman Academy laid a foundation for the study of Hebrew, Jewish history, Israel. Milken High exposed him to advanced levels of Jewish philosophy, the power of makloket, or learning through debate, and integrated his understanding with a general studies curriculum that included everything from Latin to robotics to architectural design. Far from seeing Judaism as separate from general knowledge, he learned how each strengthens, challenges and reinforces the other. In other words, he learned how to be a Jew in the world, and of the world.

But beyond the academics and field trips, I also saw him grow up in institutions that strive to embrace values that will serve him well his whole life: tradition and community, service and a love of learning for its own sake. 

Sometimes they fall short, because they, too, are part of the society they are trying to mold. But in a world where even your friendly congressman can be a sexual predator, and the lines between business and thievery are forever being blurred, a school that attempts to inject the study of morality and values into a curriculum is a very good thing.

That resonated as I read a wonderful essay by David Brooks in the May 31 issue of The New York Times. Brooks argued that the primary baby boomer value of finding yourself and following your bliss “misleads on nearly every front.” Instead, he wrote, graduates need to hear the value of “sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling,” to counterbalance the baby boomers’  “litany of expressive individualism.”

You could argue — correctly — that all good schools, public and private, teach these values, or attempt to do so. But what occurred to me as I watched the Milken graduation ceremony proceed from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “Hatikvah” to a benediction and through the speeches was why a good Jewish school is different. You don’t just graduate from a Jewish school, you also graduate with a deeper level of Jewish life. You haven’t gone out, you’ve gone further in. That core identity is something you can continue to develop and draw from throughout your life, as a foundation for a way to live and also a way to improve yourself, and to connect more deeply with your family and the world around you.

The students who spoke at the ceremony — Bradley Friedman, Jacob Schatz, Celia Megdal and valedictorian Robert Ravanshenas — all emphasized the fact that a Jewish education has offered them not just a shot at knowledge, but at wisdom. In a life that will be filled with decisions, Schatz said, Milken didn’t provide the answers, but rather a foundation of values on which to base one’s answers: intellectual debate, honesty, a concern for making the world a better place.

Megdal delivered her speech in Hebrew. “We are not only individual students,” she said. “We … are a community, part of the living, thriving People of Israel. The world expects more from us. We cannot only learn, grow and celebrate, but we must teach, nurture and support. Today I ask each of you to do more. … We have been given an excellent education, and are therefore especially compelled to live meaningful lives — not only for ourselves, but for all the generations that came before us, and for all those who follow us.”

It was a beautiful speech. Fifteen years after enrolling, I’m a believer.


Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

An answer to cancer


My mother, who for years dreamt of holding her own baby in her arms, beamed as she held me, her firstborn. My beloved late grandmother, whose diplomatic skills were on par with Muammar Gadhafi’s, took one look at me and proclaimed, “Now you have a daughter, so now you can worry.”

When we sign up to be mothers, we know that we are waiving our right to perky boobs and uninterrupted sleep. We implicitly consent to a wardrobe stained with spit-up, tantrums in the middle of Nordstrom, ear infections, backtalk, maybe a broken bone here and there, certainly broken hearts, mean girls, new-driver angst, and after all that, the heartbreak of an empty nest.

But my grandmother, who somehow overcame losing her son when his Allied jet caught fire and then plunged to the ground at the end of World War II, wasn’t referring to these generic parental concerns when she made her pronouncement. She was referring to the ultimate parental worry: that one day a mutated cell, or a disease that has a telethon, or a drunk driver, or a war, or a drug will take our child from us. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sick kids because suddenly it seems like they are everywhere. There was news of a teenager at Chaminade High School who died suddenly from a rare cancer, and a girl at Calabasas High who died, possibly from meningitis.

My best friend from elementary school recently posted on Facebook: “Please pray for Sophie. She is having her surgery today.” Her daughter, previously a ridiculously healthy 6-year-old, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

And then there is Kevin, who lives in Calabasas and has a type of cancer that is so rare that I can’t remember its name. I met his family briefly at a community blood drive and am kept apprised of Kevin’s medical drama (there is no other word for it) via a monthly e-mail blast his father sends to a long list of the concerned. I haven’t gotten through one without crying.

A few weeks ago, there was yet another. A Northridge boy with leukemia, who inherited his mother’s artistic talent, was selling drawings he made while in the hospital. I clicked on his Web site and there he was: bald, beautiful second-grader Nathan Lev. Nathan’s drawings were way beyond his years. The Web site included a plea to help Nathan’s electrician father find work. The combination of the recession and the time spent at his son’s bedside has made it difficult for him to earn a living. I called Ziva, Nathan’s mother, and asked if I could meet her family and share their story.

Nathan’s story began with a fever. Just a fever. After several weeks of hospitalization, numerous tests and a couple of brushes with death, it was finally confirmed that Nathan had cancer of the blood: leukemia. So this 7-year-old future helicopter pilot, who is “already married in [his] head to Salina Gomez,” is facing three-plus years of chemotherapy. A large drawer in the kitchen that once presumably held pots and pans is now a cancer bunker packed with syringes and medications.

But here’s the thing that struck me most about the Lev home. Considering that I was in a home afflicted with cancer, it felt like anything but. In fact, it felt like a home afflicted with life. Yes, an adorable tutor sent by a cancer support group was helping Nathan with his homework, and yes, Nathan has “cancer hair,” and yes, his sister carefully flushed out the PICC line that was installed in his forearm for treatments, and yes, his two older sisters dote on him beyond what would be normal. But Nathan himself is a powerhouse, a tornado of action and conversation. There was no “why me?” no “why us?” from anyone in the family.

So how does a mother cope with nearly losing a son? How does a mother cope with a future, once taken for granted, that now feels fragile?

“In the beginning, I was angry with God,” Ziva said. “But then I realized that it doesn’t help to be bitter. God doesn’t give cancer. It is man that pollutes the air and the water. It is man that needs cell phones and all sorts of electronics that emit radiation.”

“The reason that I got Nathan involved in making and selling his art,” Ziva said, “is because I wanted him to feel like he is part of the solution. It doesn’t raise a lot of money, but it makes him feel empowered. I want him to understand that he is not cancer and that cancer is not him.”

I asked Ziva how cancer has changed Nathan. “There is a major change in his personality. He is a lot brighter, smilier and appreciates things that you wouldn’t expect a 7-year-old to appreciate. He really appreciates life.”

The experience has had a similar effect on her: “I feel blessed every day. My kid is alive. I can’t ask for anything more than that. He is alive. He smiles. He is alive. He is at school. He is alive. He had a friend come over. My kid is alive.”

My grandmother turned out to be right, of course. My mother got the daughter that she always wanted, but she also got a lifetime of worry. And then I had a daughter, and then I had a son, and of course I worry now, too. But when my grandmother issued her prophecy, she should have finished the sentence: “Now you have a daughter, so you can worry. But when you are not worrying, don’t forget to rejoice, because you have a daughter and she is alive.” 

To read more about Nathan Lev, go to nathanlev.com. To purchase Nathan’s artwork, go to nathanlev.etsy.com. Wendy Jaffe welcomes comments at {encode=”wjaffewrite@aol.com” title=”wjaffewrite@aol.com”}.

The Arab Seder


This has been a good year for freedom.

The Arab spring that began in Tunisia spread through Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain. The pharoahs who haven’t fallen are plenty nervous.

For decades they enjoyed a stable social contract with their people: You put up with our corruption, economic stagnation and lack of civil liberties, and we won’t kill you, maybe.

Now, suddenly, the contract is irrevocably broken. The outcomes will be various and remain uncertain. Egypt may turn more Islamist. Libya might be a long, bloody disaster. But the sphinx is out of the bag. Arabs, like all people, prefer to be free.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels to the ancient Passover story in the events unfolding today. The pharoahs, the plagues, the oppressed — it’s all being played out across the Middle East and North Africa, often in authentic dress.

For that reason, this year, I would love to hold a seder in Egypt. In Libya. In Bahrain. In Syria. In Iran.

Why not? Passover is a holiday that enshrines the value of freedom as a God-given human right. The seder meal is an ingenious invention (more accurately, an ingenious merging of Greek custom with Jewish narrative). It is a way to physically reaffirm the immorality of oppression and the imperative of liberation: You eat freedom. It is difficult for any people to take the holiday seriously and not fight for their own freedom and that of others. Freedom is a great Jewish value, but not only a Jewish value. Arab families could use a good seder now.

The fact that this is such a far-fetched notion points to another symptom of Arab oppression. It may not be a coincidence that the Dark Ages of modern Islamic political, cultural and intellectual development coincide with the demonization of Jewish self-determination and the rejection of all things Jewish. When the Arabs and Persians in the region can truly study and learn and engage in cultural interchange with their Jewish peers, in Israel and abroad, their own cultures and lives will be richer for it. If the liberation movements in the Middle East truly lead to more open societies — and I recognize that is still a big if — one healthy side effect will be the reintroduction of Jewish culture, history and values into the region where Judaism was born, developed and among whose people it flourished. 

I grew up in a generation that rewrote and redesigned the traditional haggadah to mirror the cause du jour: I’ve seen black/Jewish seders; seders designed for farm workers, feminists, gays, addicts, Darfurians. I once was invited to an animal-rights seder where the haggadah read more like “Animal Farm.” Needless to say, there was no brisket course.

Give me a few hours and some good page layout software, and I could compose a modern-day haggadah for the new Arab world:

The Children of Israel are of course the Muslims and Christians living under a succession of Middle Eastern pharoahs, from Tunisia to Iran.

The Ten Plagues are the disasters this collection of strongmen, criminals, crooks and bureaucrats brought upon their nations: Poverty, Illiteracy, Torture, Oppression of Women, Unemployment, Corruption, Hunger, War, Ignorance and the Killing of the First Born — yes, just think of the generations of young Arabs and Persians denied their true potential, or sent to their deaths in foolish wars, sacrificed for nothing.

The Four Questions are these: How can Islam serve as a true moral compass and not as an instrument of oppression? How can we develop our human capital, and not just our oil? How can all men be free when so many women aren’t? How can we join with free peoples throughout the Middle East, including Israel, against political extremism and religious fanaticism?

As for the Passover foods, the symbols on the seder plate, that’s easy:

Matzah: The unleavened bread that didn’t have a chance to rise can symbolize the speed of these revolutions. They caught every single “expert” off guard and forced our president to make fast choices between an increasingly elusive “stability” and the perhaps equally elusive promise of democracy.

Maror: The bitter herbs can represent the enduring sorrows these populations both have suffered and inflicted on others as a result of their oppressive leadership. 

Charoset: This mix of chopped fruit and spices stands for the mortar of the pyramids we were forced to build; here it can symbolize the cohesiveness of societies that came together to overthrow their leaders: think of Tahrir Square, where religious and secular Muslims and Christians, Kurds and Coptics at least temporarily overcame their differences to fight together as one.

Beitzah: The egg can represent Facebook, Twitter and social media. Don’t ask me why, but something has to. Technology didn’t start the fire, but it sure helped spread the flames. 

Zeroa: The roasted shank bone can represent the sacrifice people made for their own freedom. Hundreds dead and wounded in Egypt. Thousands dead in Libya. Innumerable murdered, tortured and imprisoned in Iran. “I’m not afraid to die,” a 28-year-old Libyan blogger and civilian journalist named Mohammed Nabbous told an NPR reporter, “I’m afraid to lose the battle.” A day later, Libyan soldiers shot and killed Nabbous. 

Elijah the Prophet: Jews open the doors of our homes to welcome Elijah, with his promise of peace, to our seder table, where we pour an extra cup of wine (or grape juice) for him.  How fitting — to Muslims, he is the Prophet Ilyas, defender of monotheism. To Christians, he is often compared to Jesus and John the Baptist. He would be a welcome guest in the homes of all three faiths.

If only they can keep their doors open.

Happy Passover.

Larry David: Thanks for the tax cut!


From NYTimes.com:

THERE is a God! It passed! The Bush tax cuts have been extended two years for the upper bracketeers, of which I am a proud member, thank you very much. I’m the last person in the world I’d want to be beside, but I am beside myself! This is a life changer, I tell you. A life changer!

To begin with, I was planning a trip to Cabo with my kids for Christmas vacation. We were going to fly coach, but now with the money I’m saving in taxes, I’m going to splurge and bump myself up to first class. First class! Somebody told me they serve warm nuts up there, and call you “mister.” I might not get off the plane!

Read more at NYTimes.com.

Dis-assimilated


It was a very Jewish week, even more than usual.

On Tuesday, I had a conversation on stage with Rabbi Uri Herscher at an annual Chanukah brunch at the

Skirball Cultural Center, which he founded and runs. 

At one point, Herscher asked me to name the five issues I find myself writing about most often, and I rattled them off: Israeli security, oil independence, our obligations as Jews to one another and to society at large, political and religious extremism, and this constant worry over Jewish continuity.

On Wednesday, at the Journal’s editorial meeting, Uri Regev dropped by to explain how his new organization, Hiddush, is fighting to separate religion and state in Israel — not a terrible idea, considering the headlines that morning about 50 municipal rabbis in Israel urging Jews not to rent land to Arabs.

At lunch, I met up with Josh Neuman. Neuman was the publisher of the now online-only Heeb magazine, which in its print format, as it continues to do on the Web, both celebrated and skewered Jewish culture. Josh left Heeb after the print edition folded, and he is now spreading his talents in Hollywood, which he has found highly receptive to funny Jews.

That evening, I went to a Chanukah party at the home of Jonathan and Ann Kirsch. Every year, they celebrate the last night of the holiday with the same core group of friends and neighbors. Children who once couldn’t reach the table are now towering over the menorahs. 

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years,” one of their friends told me. “We’ll probably do it for 30 more.”

Thursday. At noon, I gave a speech at a fundraising lunch at the Marriott in Woodland Hills for the Conejo chapter of ORT. Each year, ORT, founded in Russia in 1880, offers job training to some 300,000 young Jews and non-Jews around the world, enabling them to move up the economic ladder.

Nikita Lazarus Putnam, the young, South African-born advancement director for the organization’s West Coast region in Los Angeles, urged the mostly senior women in attendance to make up for a poor economy by giving just a little bit more than usual. Glass goldfish bowls stood by the entrance, each designated for a different-sized check: $100, $500, $1,000, $2,500, $5,000.

“I see the $5,000 bowl is still empty,” Putnam chided.

That evening, I kept on my same suit and headed over to the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland for the Shoah Foundation’s annual dinner, this one honoring DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg. Out in the foyer, where bartenders were pouring Grey Goose caipirinhas and passing cones of tuna tartare, a few men gathered for a shmooze — Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg, Jerry Bruckheimer and George Lucas. That’s entertainment.

Inside, the program followed pretty much the same plan as the ORT luncheon — get like-minded supporters in a room, entertain them with a speaker, and, in the process, raise some money for a good cause.  Except that in Woodland Hills, I was the show. In the H&H Grand Ballroom, late-night host Craig Ferguson warmed up the crowd, followed by a breathtaking Jennifer Hudson.

Spielberg himself, in introducing his friend Katzenberg, explained how he was moved to use the proceeds from “Schindler’s List” to record for all time the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. To date, the foundation has collected 51,000 testimonies, and catalogued and preserved them with cutting-edge technology that will last hundreds of years. Hundreds of years.

As he talked, I was thinking back on my first meeting of the week, on Monday morning, with a woman named Barbara Spectre, who runs an organization in Sweden named Paideia. Founded in 2001, Paideia is dedicated to the revival of European culture through the intensive education of adult Jews by means of the texts, history and rituals of their faith.

World War II, the Cold War and the European proclivity to submerge one’s identity to the nation state worked to suppress Jewish life, Spectre told me. But now, throughout Europe, thousands of adult Jews are rediscovering their Judaism, asking questions about it, eager to engage.

“So often we see assimilation as a one-way street,” she said. “It’s not. There’s also dis-assimilation.”

That word stuck in my mind all week, through every speech and banquet and discussion.  Dis-assimilation. What Spectre said is happening in Europe, we have perfected here in America: maintaining a bubbling, irrepressible and, frankly, exhausting expression of our community in the midst of our deep American-ness.

Even as so many are fretting over our future, prepared to write the epitaph of modern Jewry, here, we are uncovering and rediscovering it.

That Shabbat evening, I roasted a rather skinny chicken that had been raised naturally on an Amish farm and shipped out by a new natural-kosher meat distributor. I sat down to a quiet dinner with my kids — my wife was away, speaking to Jews in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey — and my daughter and son, 14 and 17, chanted the blessings.

“In our history,” the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “between being sick and dying is a long way.” And we’re not even close.

A Yeshiva boy and Christmas


When I was 20, I spent my junior year in college in England. When classes let out for the last two weeks of December, I traveled to Morocco, where something life-changing occurred.

What happened was that I felt a longing, even an emptiness, I had never before experienced. Something was missing from my life, but I could not at first identify it. I knew it was not about being without friends or family — after all, I hadn’t been with family or friends in England for the previous three months. And it wasn’t about being alone — I had gotten used to traveling by myself.

This sense of missing something kept gnawing at me, until one day I realized what it was: I missed the Christmas season. I missed that time of year in America.

At first I denied it. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home and in yeshivas, I had obviously never celebrated Christmas. How could I miss something that I never had? And being so Jewish, how could I miss the quintessential Christian holiday? It seemed religiously wrong, maybe even sinful.

But I could not conjure up any other explanation: I was in a non-Christian country, and therefore I heard no Christmas songs, saw no Christmas decorations, and Dec. 25 was just another day.

I subsequently spent a lot of time reflecting on this. It made little sense to me: Why would a yeshiva boy miss the Christmas season?

I came to two life-changing realizations. First, though my yeshiva world did everything possible to deny the existence of Christmas — for example, we had school on Christmas Day, and “midwinter vacation,” as it was called, was at the end of January, not at the end of December — this yeshiva boy really liked the Christmas season.

And, second, this Jew, whose yeshiva upbringing taught him to think of himself only as a Jew, was in fact an American as well.

Though it took more than a few years to fully realize just how deeply American I was and how much I appreciated American Christianity, it was Christmas in Morocco in 1968 that first opened my eyes. And I was never the same.

My youth in New York had consisted of an Orthodox home, Orthodox shul, Orthodox yeshiva, Orthodox friends and Orthodox Zionist summer camp in which only Hebrew was spoken and which was entirely Israel-oriented. Of course, I was an American, but how was I supposed to feel American? Little in my life reinforced that feeling (except for my father’s stories and picture books from his years as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II).

In that Orthodox world, American identity was not denigrated, just ignored. Anything Christian, however, was sometimes denigrated and always avoided — with one exception: Every year, in my home, we four Orthodox Jews would watch the Christmas Mass from Rome. We were fascinated by the pageantry and ritual.

So, until I was an adult, my contact with Christians and Christianity was almost nonexistent — except for Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I remember as a youngster aching to speak to this ultimate Other — a Christian. What were they like, I wondered? Did they really only have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven? Did they not have to do anything? I remember having “Christian-envy” as a child: They could drive every day of the week and eat whatever they wanted and still go to heaven — what a deal!

The Morocco revelations — that I missed something Christian and that I felt quite American, not just Jewish — were, therefore, a jolt.

As the years passed, I not only made peace with my American identity and with my enjoyment of the Christmas season, I came to treasure that season and to fall in love with America and its distinct values (what I call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum). While director of a Jewish institution — the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley — I volunteered to be a Santa Claus for the Simi Valley Rotary Club, of which I was a member. So, during the same week that I led Shabbat activities for a thousand Jews, I also went to my Rotary Club meeting (what is more American than the Rotary Club?), and I played Santa Claus at a local department store.

It is that season now, and I never fail to get goose bumps when I hear Burl Ives sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” let alone when I attend a live performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” surely the most glorious religious music ever composed. I love hearing people wish each other “Merry Christmas.” When my yarmulke-wearing children were younger, I used to take them to see beautiful Christmas lights on homes.

Those who wish to remove Christmas trees from banks and colleges and other places where Americans gather are not only attempting to rob the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas of their holiday, they are robbing this committed Jew, too.

And, to think, I first realized all this in a Muslim country.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.

I take Israel personally


I take Israel personally.

I also take Obama personally, and Jon Stewart, Paul Krugman and NPR. I take Trojan football personally. If I were more into baseball, I imagine I’d take the Dodgers personally, too.

What I mean by taking them personally is more than being a fan. I identify with them.  I have the feeling — the delusion, you might say — that I actually am them. When they do something great, I’m proud of me. If they screw up, I’m not let down by them, or ashamed of them; I’m down on me, as though I were the one who blew it.

My trip to Israel this month was my first since I graduated from college, during the Hoover administration. When the El Al security people interviewed me before letting me proceed to the check-in counter, I loved how crafty our — not their — profiling is. We don’t need to touch people’s junk or ogle their body scans; we X-ray their minds.

On the other hand, when Israel’s burgeoning Ultra-Orthodox population lives off the state’s largess, but doesn’t have to work, or serve in the armed forces, or pay taxes or even believe in the idea of Israel; when the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls women’s behavior at the Western Wall and has a monopoly on marriage and conversion; when Jews like me are called “Reform goyim” and their congregations are denied decent land; when extreme religious parties have a veto over government policy, and extreme religious “outposts” flout the rule of law and sabotage negotiations — when this, and worse, happens, I feel the failures and outrages personally: Where did we (not they) go so wrong?

If I have any hope of getting out of this rumination alive, this is the point where I have to, leap to, declare my love and support for the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. I think the international campaign to delegitimize Israel is based on a malicious misreading of history, abetted by a level of naïveté, ignorance and racism that would surprise me if I hadn’t just lived through the past two years of media and politics. I reject the contention that Zionism is racism, colonialism or any other -ism designed to steal land, disenfranchise citizens or exterminate enemies. The 3,000-year-old artifacts of Jewish civilization that I saw in the Israel Museum and the Nazi Who-is-a-Jew? genealogical charts that I saw at Yad Vashem and the secular Israeli majority I saw in the streets and know from the Diaspora, reminded me that Israel’s nationhood derives from its existence as a people, not as a religion.

I actually came back from Israel more of a hawk than when I left. I am more respectful of the security fence — my security fence — than I was before. Yes, I know the case against it, but I’ve returned convinced that its designers are motivated by fighting terrorism, not by appropriating land or humiliating Palestinians. I haven’t concluded that a pre-emptive strike on Iran is a good idea, but I’m less inclined to think that the threat Iran poses is only a politically pumped-up neocon job. I no longer think that “settlements” is a useful, or necessarily pejorative, term; it encompasses too wide a variety and history of dwellings to be deployed as a shorthand for obstructionism. Like everything else in Israel, it’s complicated.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m closer to J Street than to AIPAC. When Netanyahu acts as though the status quo can go on indefinitely, I not only despair at his delusion; I wear it as my own albatross, whether I want to or not. When he catastrophically bungled the response to the Gaza flotilla stunt, I was unable to prevent myself from feeling personally soiled. When Israeli parents tell me that they don’t know their kids when they return from military service — when they describe what sounds like an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder — I feel as implicated as I do by my failure to spare our own Afghanistan veterans from the ravages of a war without end.

I went to Israel with a small group from my congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood.  One afternoon, we went to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to meet with the head of the leading Palestinian news service. What we heard from him embodied a theme that pervaded our trip: the idea that Israel is a battleground between two competing narratives. The Palestinian account of history, its assignment of right and wrong, is a mirror image of the Israeli version; just about everything is flipped.

No negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians can settle the matter of which narrative is right. No historian, journalist, political figure or international tribune can sort through the dueling accounts and create a composite that either side will accept. The closest I can imagine anyone coming to a resolution is an artist, whose talent is to embody irreconcilable truths. David Grossman’s harrowing novel, “To the End of the Land, “ which I read during the trip, makes emotional and aesthetic sense out of those contradictions, but unfortunately it’s a meaning that doesn’t help the people who have to draw land-swap maps and negotiate security forces. Tragedy isn’t much of a diplomatic tool.

It was 4 o’clock when we left Bethlehem. We got off our Palestinian bus at the border crossing to make our way on foot through Israeli security. At the same time, hundreds of Palestinian men were walking in the opposite direction, going home from their jobs in Israel. I was the first of our group to clear the final Israeli checkpoint, and I realized that to get to the Israeli bus waiting for us, I had no choice except to plunge into the crowd of waiting Palestinians. I saw wariness, and weariness, on their faces. There might have been hatred, too, but the sense of danger that ambushed me — despite my best efforts at empathy — made me avoid eye contact and move as fast as I could through the throng. I was the Other to them, and they were the Other to me. I cursed my involuntary anger. I took my fear, and my anguish, personally. You know what? I should.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He can be reached at {encode=”martyk@jewishjournal.com” title=”martyk@jewishjournal.com”}.

Patriotic Extortion


Like religious zealots whose tiny parties hold Israeli governing coalitions hostage, three Republican senators have the Democratic Congress by the short hairs.  Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, along with Maine’s two Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have improbably been empowered to kosher the stimulus bill – to decide which billions get called pork, and which get the “centrist” seal of approval.  And in the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome, grass roots ” title=”desperate states”>desperate states are moving toward massive layoffs of public employees, painful cuts in services and higher taxes and fees.  Every one of the 40 billion “fiscal stabilization” dollars that these three senators cut from the stimulus bill would have helped the states avoid the fate they’re facing:  laying off cops and firefighters and school nurses, cutting health care; closing parks, scaling back environmental programs, shutting down public transportation systems, stiffing the states’ vendors, and dragging down their economies by enacting higher taxes.  And for this these senators deserve our thanks?

Yet Barack Obama gets no bipartisan street cred with the Washington establishment for peeling them from the minority.  “I guarantee this is not bipartisan,” pronounced the Republican presidential candidate he defeated, for whom he has since done everything short of installing him in a White House granny flat. 

No, the only reason the president is praising these three senators’ “patriotism,” the only reason blue dog Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) cooked up this deal with them, the only reason that majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel blessed this “compromise,” is that Democrats fall three votes short of the 60 they’d need shut off a Republican filibuster.

Here’s how the Senate works these days:  Fifty-one votes may be enough of a majority to chair the committees and get the good offices, but it’s not enough to get a bill passed.  In the last Congress, and apparently in this one, if the Democratic majority lacks 60 votes for anything, they pre-emptively cave.  They won’t bring a measure to the floor unless they already know that they can stop the Republicans from talking it to death. 

Imagine if the Democrats had not pre-capitulated to the Republicans on the stimulus bill.  Imagine if they had forced the Republicans to actually mount a filibuster – to talk all night, to give the television cameras a good long look at obstructionism in action.  If the American people had seen what Republicans truly mean by “loyal opposition,” who knows?  Maybe the ensuing firestorm would have convinced a few Republicans facing re-election in 2010 to fold even without bribing them with bad policy decisions. 

A President Obama who stuck to his guns, who rallied the country, who forced the Republicans to reveal themselves as curators of a failed ideology; a President who compromised no more than he had to might not get props from the media elite, and he’d have to put away a childish thing like unilateral bipartisanship.  But as John McCain’s whingeing proves, chasing solons who put party ahead of country is a mug’s game.

The $40 billion removed from the fiscal stabilization funds at the behest of Sens. Specter, Snowe and Collins may yet be put back in the bill by the House-Senate conference committee.  If that happens, here’s hoping that the political cost of restoring them isn’t any greater than the price in principle that the Administration has already paid. 


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.  His column appears here weekly.  Reach him at {encode=”martyk@jewishjournal.com” title=”martyk@jewishjournal.com”}.

My Work Is Not to Blame for Jew-Haters


Usually I only respond to fair and thoughtful criticism, but I’ll make an exception in this case, because people I respect tell me that Rob Eshman, the editor-in-chief of this publication, is both a smart and decent guy.

Recently, he wrote a column on July 29 about my new book — “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is ’37),” and this is how the column began: “Jewish Americans are only 2 percent of the nation’s population, but they are 25 percent of its problem.”

Of course, he doesn’t believe that. The point was that I supposedly believe that. Why? It seems that Eshman actually counted up all the Jewish people on the list, came up with 25, and, well, you do the math.

Good thing my name is Goldberg and not something WASPy or the column might have begun, “This is a book written by a Jew-hating bigot.”

The truth is, I don’t have a clue as to how many Jews are mentioned in my book. I never thought about who was Jewish (or any other religion). It never occurred to me to count people by their religion. It’s my friends on the left who love to put people in groups and count them up like so many beans. Liberals love diversity — just not the intellectual kind.

Let’s acknowledge that Eshman was trying to make a serious point: That I’m giving ammunition to lunatics who hate Jews. If my book contributes to their dark fantasies about Jewish control of America and the world, I’m sorry. But what should I do? Stop commenting on successful, prominent people in our culture — who happen to be Jewish?

That’s a very illiberal road to travel. Are liberals who protested the war in Vietnam responsible for Pol Pot’s killing fields, which happened only after American troops pulled out of Southeast Asia — thanks in large part to the anti-war protesters? Are liberals who supported civil rights in the 1960s responsible for anti-Semitism among some blacks today?

Of course not. To even suggest as much is obscene. Yet, Eshman tells us about Web sites that preach anti-Jewish hate and says that one of them, “either rips Goldberg off or just happened to arrive at a similar revelation: It lists the same Jewish media execs he does….”

Get it? I mention some prominent Jewish media executives in my book; the lunatics do the same. And what? I’m egging them on?

Well, not exactly. Even Eshman says I’m not “responsible for the delusion of others.” (Thanks.) But then he goes on to say, “But [Goldberg’s] list … is not without risks.” Meaning? In times of social upheaval, he writes, people look for scapegoats and lists “especially ones weighted so heavily to one minority group — are ready-made red flags.”

Sorry. People who hate Jews are responsible for hating Jews. Not people who write books about the culture that happen to include Jewish people in it.

And let’s face it: The Jew-hating nuts on the fringe right in this country are just — nuts! They have no standing in the culture. The nuts on the left are another story altogether.

Remember the joke that was going around Hollywood right after George Bush won election in 2000?: “What’s the difference between George Bush and Hitler?”

Hitler was elected.

Unlike the right-wing screwballs, liberals were telling the Bush/Hitler joke in polite company in places like Beverly Hills. Did that offend Eshman’s sensibilities, as a Jew or as a liberal?

How about the Hollywood actor who told a national radio audience, “I’m not comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler — because George Bush, for one thing, is not as smart as Adolf Hitler.”

Did that one trouble Mr. Eshman, just a little?

John Leo, the columnist, Googled, “Bush is a Nazi” and came up with more than 400,000 hits. I’m guessing it wasn’t conservatives comparing Bush to Hitler.

Jewish people have done very well in our culture — disproportionately well. There are more prominent Jewish people in the arts, at universities, in law and in the media than a mere 2 percent of the population would suggest. That’s why certain people are on the list. Because — no matter what their religion, race, or anything else — they matter! And, in my humble view, they are doing things that are coarsening the culture.

Reasonable people, as they say, may disagree. But to suggest that I’m putting Jews in danger because my book may inflame some crackpot is a nasty stretch. Crackpots don’t need excuses, or books, to hate Jews — or blacks or Hispanics or gays or anybody else. To put that on me — indirectly or otherwise — is indecent.

For more responses to Rob Eshman’s editorial, see letters

Bernard Goldberg is the author of “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken Is ’37)” (HarperCollins, 2005)

 

Curb Your Verbosity


 

Do rabbis have to be wordy? Actually, no — or at least, not according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. For the past eight years, Wolpe has been doing the unthinkable and actually condensing his lofty thoughts into succinct, easy-to-read-and-digest 200-word essays in the New York-based Jewish Week. Recently, Wolpe published “Floating Takes Faith, Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World,” (Behrman House), an anthology of his best columns. The selections in the book attempt to blend secular culture with Judaism, to prove that we have as much to learn from 17th century French aphorists like Francois de La Rochefoucauld as we do from Jewish scholars like Ibn Gabirol.

“No one tradition has a monopoly on wisdom,” Wolpe said. “I also want to help people learn to look for Jewish messages in the culture around them.”

Wolpe said that his desire to write a shorter column came as he was writing longer ones, but they were “infrequently published and infrequently read.” Once he started cutting words, the columns got a bigger response.

“When people see a rabbi’s name and a lot of words, they automatically assume that they are about to read a lot of superfluous stuff, and it’s hard for people to commit in a paper to read an entire column,” he said. “It’s much easier for them to read a brief, punchy point. And I also felt as though the central lessons that I had to teach, even though they could all be expanded upon, could be expressed succinctly.”

Wolpe’s goal with this book and with his columns is to achieve the most coveted accolade of all newspaper columnists — to have his column posted on someone’s refrigerator.

“I want to be put up there right next to that 30-year-old Art Buchwald column that has turned yellow,” he said.

In the meantime, he is continuing to write his columns and keeping them short.

“There is something to be said for brevity,” Wolpe mused. “But not too much, because you have to be brief.”

 

Singles


Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

A Few Words About My Mail

I must admit, I have a soft spot for the man I’ll call “Pizza Guy.”

He writes me almost weekly to report his trials and tribulations in the helter-skelter world of food distribution and to comment on my columns. Sure, his first letter was a little frightening, what with psychotic penmanship and “screen play ideas” doodled in the margins. Still, he takes the time to write, and I can’t help but be flattered by his missives.

This may be the most interesting relationship I’ve never had.

It started out a little rocky. In response to my column on Monica Lewinsky, he wrote: “Wake up and stop writing compromised filth. Have a nice day.”

Well, that’s no way to begin a friendship. Still, the closing seemed cordial, and I was only slightly worried about receiving a pizza topped with cheese-covered explosives.

Eventually, he warmed up to me, sending actual snapshots of pizzas he has delivered, and noting, “I respect your writing choices and believe you are able to express yourself with candor.” Later, he suggested I use my column to “fuel up the disembodied malignancy that is the unreachable part of your soul…get mean.”

Inspiring, yes, but soft-spot inducing? No. That came with Pizza Guy’s seminal work, a letter in which he described his idea of a perfect date with me.

“I pick you up, I take you where you want to go. I give you all the money that’s in my pocket. You go off with other people, and I drive myself to Jack in the Box. After stealing two of my father’s beers, I crawl off to bed, hoping you’re having a good time.”

I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s too good. Pizza Guy, I like you. If you ever come near me, there will have to be a restraining order, but I like you.

Pizza Guy may be a tad creepy, but most of the men who write are sweet and polite, almost uniformly suggesting an innocuous coffee date with aphorisms like “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “seize the day.”

Of course, there was the guy who wanted to meet at Ralphs, a location he must have thought would be non-threatening. And then there was the man who wrote a perfectly nice note, only to sign off with the demand that we meet “at 5:30 this Friday.”

How did he think I’d respond?

Hey, good idea. Why don’t I just dispense with “personal safety” and just get crazy with a total stranger. Do you have any deserted alleys you prefer? Or should I just come on over to your apartment for a roofie cocktail.

I don’t want to be paranoid, but I also don’t feature the idea of ending up on “America’s Most Wanted,” where the part of re-created me will be played by someone far more attractive while the real me is stuffed in some trunk somewhere in central New Jersey. Not that I’m paranoid.

For the most part, I really do love to get mail. I was especially touched by the response to my recent column on the process of finding a therapist. Dozens of therapists wrote, most with hyphenated names and empathetic suggestions.

One said that I need “creative reparenting.” I don’t know what that is, but it sounds good. Another offered me a spot in her “Wild Woman Workshop,” which I believe involves howling at the moon with a lot of meno-pausal women wearing amber beads. Can’t hurt, but it isn’t for me.

Still, I’d rather howl than convert, which is what one letter writer suggested.

“If you want to know the truth about who you really are, read ‘Scientology: A New Slant on Life” for the answers.”

He even offered me a free copy. Give up Judaism for a religion that embraces Jenna Elfman? None for me, thanks.

Another therapist wrote: “If you would care to discuss your desultory, multifarious, ethereal and spellbounding (sic) views, please feel free to write or call…. I do have a girlfriend [even though marriage and engagement have not been topics on the menu].”

I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but perhaps it’s not all that professional to hit on me while offering up your psychological services. Thanks for taking an interest, but you make Pizza Guy sound well-adjusted.

Lastly, I must respond to the man who wrote, “I can only infer from your writing that you are a very lonely and insecure person.”

What an insightful summary of my personality, Perry Mason. Would it be less than literate of me to respond with a simple, “Duh.”

Pizza Guy, you may be a freak, but at least you never state the obvious. Don’t get excited. I wasn’t kidding about that restraining order.

Checking My Mailbox


ou read me! You really read me!

When I perused the stack of letters in response to my recent column on the difficulty of finding friends in a new city, I not only felt less like a huge loser, but I was reminded what it means to have a community. When I question why being Jewish is important, I will look at those letters and know.

You sent me cards (one woman even made me a “friendship collage”), invited me to your homes for dinner, and generally proved the point that when you leap, the net will appear.

Once, as a reporter in San Francisco, I covered the story of a young Jewish woman who was bitten in the face by a hyena while on a safari in Africa. There’s no punch line here; this is a true story. When she woke up in the hospital, she was surrounded by every Jewish mother living in a 50-mile radius of Nairobi. That’s what I love about being Jewish.

Speaking of Jewish mothers, I also received much mail regarding my call for eligible Jewish men (I had asked mothers to describe their single sons). I’ll share some of their letters.

One cautionary note: I can’t vouch for these men, but their mothers can. First, Maya Spector Catanzarite describes her son, David, as “charming, handsome, athletic and intelligent. Stanford and USC grad. Teaches theater at an elite college. Speaks fluent German and Italian and is well-read and well-traveled. Is polite, tactful, personable, very good company and loves children. His interests are marriage, ecology and world peace.”

Polly Stone lists the virtues of her son, Josh: “A) A face everyone loves. B) Romantic to a fault. C) Extremely bright. This is no lie; he is attending USC-HUC to earn a double master’s degree. D) He is truly sweet, loving and thoughtful. E-Z) Too numerous to mention.”

I can’t be sure that this next letter was actually from Dan Satlow’s grandmother. Perhaps he shouldn’t have used his own return address label, or requested the photos be returned to “my grandson.” But what can I say; I was charmed. Encino Dan’s “grand-mother” writes: “He was never shy, that one, with the acting and singing and getting up in front of people. And he loves the outdoors — hiking, rafting and camping…. And that sense of humor, from his father, no doubt. Still, he’s a nice boy, very helpful and sensitive. P.S., if you speak with him, tell him he should call me more often.”Thanks to everyone who wrote — and to all of you who mentioned how difficult it is to meet Jewish women who aren’t “JAPs,” (an offensive term) that is a big, juicy apple of an issue, of which I’ll be taking a bite in an upcoming column.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

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