Cambodia’s killing fields revisited

I can vividly remember the first time I visited the Museum of Tolerance, in seventh grade. Not personally knowing anyone who had survived the Holocaust, I had been shielded from the grisly details of World War II. Simon Wiesenthal’s museum showed how horrible the Holocaust actually was and left me appalled for days.

I had a very similar experience this summer when I visited Cambodia with Rustic Pathways, a company that takes students to the underdeveloped regions of the world to participate in various community-service outreach programs. After hearing the chairman of Rustic Pathways, David Venning, speak about the genocide sites of Cambodia, I knew that some way or another I would get myself on his trip. I had originally planned to go to the northern region of Thailand, but the day before I left I changed my plans and set out for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

In 1975, during the Vietnam War, an extremist communist party, the Khmer Rouge, took over Cambodia. Pol Pot, its leader, planned to turn Cambodia into an example of Maoist Communism. His vision was to get rid of all intellectuals and to have everyone work as farmers and live equally. During this takeover, the Khmer government trafficked many people out of the cities and into the farmlands. Those who were deemed dangerous to the government (the educated, the ruling class and just about anyone with a different point of view), were systematically tortured in the notorious S-21 building and killed in mass graves, which became known as the killing fields.

While in Cambodia, we visited the killing fields and S-21 (Toul Sleng), a high school that was turned into a security prison. S-21 is located in an average neighborhood, and from a distance looks like a normal school building.

But as soon as I approached, I noticed the barbed wire along the walls. Once inside it was evident what a horrible place it really was. Each room still had the torturing tools lying on the floor, while in the hallway I could still see dried blood on the floor. Every time I entered a new room, feelings of uneasiness, sadness and detestation overcame me.

And the final rooms of the prison were filled with the pictures of the prisoners. Every single person had a look of misery and emptiness. Pictures of the prisoners that hung on the walls not only honored the victims, but put a face to the genocide; those in S-21 were tortured and interrogated and sent to the killing fields after a few days. In the end, no one escaped or survived Toul Sleng.

The killing fields are located a short distance away from S-21. It was hard for me to imagine how tens of thousands of innocent people could be systematically killed and buried in mass graves in a field that is only a couple of acres. The field is so small that I had to maneuver my way through the small paths that surrounded the mass graves.

These mass graves are very similar to those of World War II. The people were ordered to dig their own graves and as soon as they finished, they were summarily killed and buried. But instead of shooting the prisoners, in Cambodia they would execute them with everything from hammers to sharpened tree branches. There are still bones half-buried in the ground and piles of clothes next to the graves.

In the center of the field there is a stupa, a memorial for all who were killed during Pol Pot’s rule, towering over the undeveloped region. This tower, however, is filled with thousands and thousands of human skulls. I understood that I was standing in the exact place where so many were killed senselessly.

These fields have been compared to Auschwitz, and even though I have never visited that sight, I could imagine that one would get a very similar feeling. An estimated 1.7 million people died under Pol Pot’s rule alone. This number might not seem comparable to the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust, but in reality 21 percent of the population was wiped out in just four years. The systematic killings have left their mark on the Cambodian people — it is almost impossible to find more than a few people over the age of 60 in a single day in Phnom Pen.

It may appear that Southeast Asia is finally recovering, but if you take a closer look, you notice that many things have not changed. For the past 20 years, the Burmese government has been burning hill tribe villages and carrying out an “ethnic cleansing.” Burma’s Karen, Shan and Karenni people have been targeted because they refuse to concede power to the government. This genocide is not well known because the Burmese government conducts all of its attacks in secret and does not let any information leave the country.

So, in response, the best thing that you can do is spread the word.

Elie Wiesel put it best: “None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness…. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Phillip Nazarian in the 11th grade at Brentwood School.

Speak Up!

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

The Power of Love

“Why not just give up hope? I mean, really, do you think that we human beings can ever get it together enough to make the world as we dream? What makes you think that we have any chance of making a difference, let alone succeeding in the task of tikkun olam, of creating a fair and decent world where all people, and I mean all people, have access to food, water, medicine, shelter, are free from war, oppression, occupation, violence, hatred, where children can go to school and learn, come home and play, and people can really feel like we have made it?”


“Well, rabbi, are you going to say anything?”

More silence.

We sat together for a bit longer and then I told this person, who had come to see me and opened with this messianic vision question, that I am comforted by the words of this week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech. This is essentially what I said.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, the hope that we can actually make the changes he was speaking of, because of a combination of verses that we read in Nitzavim. There is just a cacophony of incredible verses teaching us how to create a better world.

This parsha is replete with hope: love, repentance, awareness, life and Torah. The theme of returning, teshuvah, comes in Deuteronomy 30:1-10, where the root shuv appears seven times. I am moved by verses 2-3: “And you return to Adonai your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all of your heart and soul, just as I call you this day; then God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love….” No matter how far we have drifted, how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God will help us come back, return to a path of goodness and righteousness, justice, peace and love.

How? That is what the man in my office was seeking to know.

I see God as the power of love in our world, the power that opens our eyes to the fact that every human life is sacred, every human life is holy and deserving of love, compassion and mercy. When we realize that fact, when our hearts are cracked open with the pain that we are causing, then we will be able to create the world of our dreams, what some call the messianic age. My friend and teacher, the Rev. Ed Bacon, preached recently that a world that lives with the acceptable idea of collateral damage is dead to humanity. When we treat others with love, then God takes us back in love. When we realize that God is love, we will treat others with that love as well.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose centennial we observe this year, continually taught us that we are in partnership with God, sharing the burden of creating a world that merits the Divine presence. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have the power to do it all alone, but as Psalm 27, the psalm of this season, reminds us, “Adonai is my light and my help, whom shall I fear?” When we seek support, God is there; when God seeks action in the world, we are there. Together, we become echad, the true oneness of a holy world.

And then there is the notion of how hard it is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah famously taught. The other section of this week’s parsha that helps me to understand what needs to be done says, “Surely this mitzvah which I teach you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven…. No, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

I once heard Shimon Peres speak, saying how easy it was to make war, but how hard it was to make peace. I had always soundly believed that, until recently when I read something from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, commenting on these verses from Devarim. On the words, “but the word is very near to you,” the great Chasidic master teaches, “Only the way to Gehinnom is arduous and difficult. I see people spending their days and nights plotting how to go about sinning, and afterward, they regret their actions bitterly. But the way to the Garden of Eden is an easy one, and pleasant for those who walk it” (Iturei Torah).

And maybe he is right.

How much easier would it be to build a world of love, compassion, justice and peace than the continued path of war and violence? How much cheaper would it be to end poverty, provide health insurance for all people, educate and feed the world and foster peace? We see what we get for the trillions of dollars that are spent on war and domination. Maybe we ought to try a different path. No matter how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God is always ready and waiting to take us back in love, showing us how the world can be different.

Teshuvah is possible, always. Maybe it is time to heed the call of the end of this parsha, “See, I set before you this day life and goodness, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). This moment, this Shabbat, this Rosh Hashanah, let us choose life, choose love, choose peace. This is how I keep my hope alive. Shabbat shalom and Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves as the Corresponding Secretary and Social Action co-chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, on the national board and as Los Angeles chapter chair of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, and recently helped to found Jews Against the War. He can be reached at

Seeking Holiness

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday!

Those lyrics, known for inspiring so many movements for justice and righteousness, are at the core of what I am thinking about these days. Is it truly possible to overcome?

From what great wellspring did this vision surge forth? In many ways, it came from the second half of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Kedoshim is a lofty and powerful parsha, known as the holiness code, which the Talmud and Midrash understood to be rav gufei Torah, or encompassing the majority of the Torah, namely that this chapter is a summation of the entire Torah itself.

“And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Great Holy One am holy'” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

For one of the greatest statements that God lays upon us, it is really not clear from these words alone exactly what we are supposed to do. How should we be holy? What can we do to imitate You, God, in order to emulate Your holiness?

However, what is clear at the outset is that we cannot be fully holy alone as individuals, but rather we must seek this goal as a community. That is why the Hebrew is in the plural, kedoshim t’heyu, you (plural) shall be holy. Holiness is not something that can be fully realized alone.

Nor is holiness an easily defined concept. However, the verses that follow instruct us as to what God thinks holiness is all about. Some of the highlights are that we should care for the poor, leave the corners of our fields for the needy and the stranger, not withhold the wages of a laborer until morning and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Next come some of the most challenging words of the Torah, which tell us that we should not hate our brother or sister in our hearts, even as we must rebuke each other for wrongs committed; not take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Wow, is that a daunting task!

The great commentator Rashi understood holiness to be “separating oneself” from sexual immorality, and the precepts that follow the call to be holy often involve separating oneself in some way.

In a broader context, kedusha, holiness, can be about separating ourselves from the many forms of immorality that we face — injustice, inequity, violence, ethnocentrism. The irony of kedusha is that while it sets one thing apart from another, the experience actually can serve to unify us.

As Martin Buber elucidated on this parsha, “God is the absolute authority over the world, because God is separate from it and transcends it, but God is not withdrawn from it. Israel must, in imitating God by being a holy nation, similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations, but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living.”

That is why Jews have always been strong proponents of social justice, and that is why, thankfully, we continue to be leaders in the cause of righteousness and justice for all people, not just our own.

I love this parsha because it reminds me of what we should all be striving for and what it will take to truly overcome. When I am criticized for being “too political” in my sermons or divrei Torah, it is this parsha that strengthens me in the face of that criticism.

Overcoming disparities in health care is not political, it is holy; overcoming war, genocide, hatred and vengeance is not political, it is holy; fighting for economic justice or immigration reform is not political, it is holy; greening our world is not political, it is holy.

Love and compassion for the other, be they gay or straight; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any religion; be they white, black or any race; male or female; young or old; rich or poor; Israeli or Palestinian — love and compassion for the other is not political. This love is holy; it is how we emulate God’s holiness, and it is taught to us directly in the Torah.

It is only as a community — local, national and global — that we can achieve these amazing goals; it is only as a plurality that we can overcome. When we wonder what needs to be done to make a world of our dreams, a world that some call the messianic time, we can look to this chapter of Torah for the first steps.

May the words of Kedoshim inspire each of us to live holy lives and find ways to imitate God by shining light and hope onto the dark corners of pain and suffering in our world. For the sake of our children, deep within my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive committee and is the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; is chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s Los Angeles chapter is and co-founder of an emerging group called Jews Against the War. He can be reached at

Religious Fire

Religious zeal is on the rise around the world. It can be a wonderful blessing, and it can be a horrible curse. It all depends on how humans with free will manage it.

When God allows a Divine Flame to be ignited within the soul of an individual or within the collective soul of a community, the Almighty is empowering people to let the flame inspire them to live the godly life, to take the principles and ideals they associate with God into their hearts and souls and, in so doing, to draw closer to God in sacred intimacy. The ideals of love, compassion and justice then shape how they live their lives and how they define their relationships with other human beings, and they become partners with God in the daily process of renewing and completing the act of creation.

But God also runs a risk when a Divine Flame is shared with humankind. People can abuse the flame by believing that they and no one else are its sole bearers. They can be impelled by their egos — individually or collectively — to determine that the flame should be used to burn and destroy other humans whom they have defined as being devoid of the flame and, hence, in need of being purged.

They can allow themselves to play God and choose who shall live and who shall die. Sometimes they are willing to destroy themselves in the process, which they falsely interpret as opening a direct route to union with the Divine. This abuse of the flame results in the unleashing of primal chaos into the world and the undoing of God’s creative activity, threatening the world’s very existence.

The Divine Flame plays a central role in Parshat Shemini. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons, the priests and the elders of Israel to prepare to offer certain sacrifices as mandated by God. He concludes with exciting news: “For today the Lord will appear to you!” (Leviticus 9:4).

Once the offering is prepared and placed on the altar by the priests in conformity with God’s command, and once Moses and Aaron had blessed the people, “the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.

And all the people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:23-28).

What an awesome, powerful moment of engagement between God and the Children of Israel. It was intended to demonstrate to the people that when God’s will was carried out, the Divine Presence, represented by the flame that came down from heaven, would be with them.

By way of contrast, we learn in a Midrash found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:5) that during the seven days of the consecration of the priests, when Moses functioned as high priest, the Shekhinah did not descend. Only after Aaron, wearing the vestments of the high priest, officiated at the altar, did the Shekhinah descend.

This means that the Divine Flame could appear in the midst of the people only when those whom God had designated to tend that fire — Aaron and his sons — were in charge of the worship in the Tabernacle. As great as he was, Moses could not bring the Divine Flame into the midst of the people.

Realizing the power of the flame, it was God’s intention that it be managed and channeled only by people whom God had chosen and to whom God had given specific instructions. They would be responsible tenders of the flame.

But, alas, God did not take into account the power of the human ego. Immediately after the wondrous appearance of the flame, the zeal of the moment engulfed Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, but with disastrous results. On their own initiative — and contrary to the will of God — they brought strange fire into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1). And, in an instant, “a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).

Note the language. It is nearly identical to language that describes the first appearance of the Divine Flame in 9:24. I suggest that the Torah’s message is clear. The Divine Flame and the religious fervor that accompanies it can be a blessing, when the flame is handled with care and the fervor expresses itself in a way that conforms to the wishes of the Author of the flame. When the zeal engendered by the flame is abused by the power of human ego, the same flame becomes a destructive force.

Devoted adherents of the three religions that affirm a belief in the one God, who shared the Divine Flame through the faith and zeal of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the like, espouse a profound commitment to making God’s love, compassion and justice realities in the world.

Let the zeal of these true people of spirit fill all of God’s creation, allowing no room for the egotistical zeal of the false prophets of destruction.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

To comfort me, first comfort yourself

People have been generous.

During the past two decades I have assisted in creating caring communities that extend themselves to people in their midst at
profound turning points.

These times of need include both times of tragedy and times of great joy. Baby namings, weddings, illnesses, communal catastrophes, and shiva minyanim, call forth different emotions. All of them have their share of anxieties. All of them take a village.

During these months of cancer treatment, I have been blessed with a village, giving me rides, food and comfort when I am in need, and respecting my privacy when I crave solitude.

“How can I help?” people ask. Aside from the practical help that is often needed, there is the less tangible assistance that often creates anxiety on the part of the ones who seek to help. People often stay away for fear that they will say the wrong thing.

That unease is unnecessary, to paraphrase the Torah, for the right thing is as near to you as breathing. If you help appropriately, you, and those you help, will benefit greatly.

The wisdom to help others is not privileged information. It is taught to all of us through our life experiences.

Hearts that are both caring and helpful, marry self-knowledge and the ability to attend to others. Therefore, when we seek to provide comfort, we look into our own lives for guidance.

I’d like to explore some of these deeper aspects of bringing comfort.

Bikur cholim is the sacred obligation of visiting the sick. Its principles apply to any outreach to people at vulnerable times.

Performing this mitzvah is not about helping the less fortunate.

It is not about doing a good deed.

It is a way of cultivating a relationship with the deep and rich nature of what it means to be human.

If you do this effectively and with compassion, it will help others. It will also make your life more meaningful. It will open your heart. You will live more fully. Ironically, the more you receive from your visits, the more skilled you become in the art of helping others.

A good visitor is more than a well-meaning person who comes with urgent good intentions, whose need to find just the right words can communicate anxiety more than care.

We all want to make things better. We want to do the right thing or find the phrase to transform the difficulties.

But guess what? We can’t fix it. We can’t take away the pain of loss. We can’t heal a chronic illness, bring back the dead or force family members to behave appropriately.

We can, however, make a difference.

A first step in learning to comfort suffering is to come to terms with our own powerlessness. Ironically, this relieves suffering. Struggling with this understanding gives us access to the paradoxically profound and simple skill of visiting. Understanding that we can’t do the impossible takes away some of the urgency. We can focus not on changing what can’t be changed, but on being present.

Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help. Knowing that caregiving has limits makes it less threatening for those who want to help but stay away in fear of not knowing what to say. We’re off the hook with regard to performing magic tricks of healing. All we can really do is to create a place where those to whom we offer comfort feel heard and protected.

The most important thing we offer as comfort is our own comfort. When we are fluent with some of life’s profound issues and communicate this either in words or in silence, we are helpful. We communicate that we are present and unafraid. The irony is that we become capable of serving in this way, by taking care of ourselves. We do this by cultivating our own soul and exploring our own relationship to life’s challenging questions.

Think back on your own difficult challenges. What helped you get through them? What did not help? Was there anything said that made it easier for you to get on with your life?

Over and over, I hear from people that what helped was not a cogent bon mot or profound piece of advice. It was the gift of compassionate attention with which someone validated the experience and provided presence and lack of judgment. This was offered without intruding into the person’s private world or forcing them to move beyond their comfort zone. It can happen in silence.

It can come with a light touch or the subtle expression of care. Above all, the feeling is communicated that the person being visited had permission to be exactly as he or she needs to be, be it tearful, angry, cheerful, silent, or confused. Rarely are these reassurances expressed verbally.

This kind of presence says more about whom the visitor is than about what he or she says, does or knows.

It reflects the visitor’s own work on the deep issues of his or her own life, which makes it possible to comfortably reach out to others.

That comfort gives comfort.

Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Drive Sends Love, ‘Gratitude’ to Troops

As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman’s dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.

Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother — she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and “as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military.” She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.

“I’m going back to a war zone,” she recalls him saying. “I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really wouldn’t matter because no one would even care.”

Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.

“What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?” she wondered. “The belief that someone cares about you.”

She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.

“The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation,” she said with a little laugh. “It’s that sense of nurturing… the Jewish mother element.”

Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.

“Now I’ve sent over 111,000 packages in three years,” she said.

After Operation Gratitude’s third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.

Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley — the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah — to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. “The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time,” she said. “It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn’t stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying ‘thank you’ to each other. It was very powerful.”

Operation Gratitude’s Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams

The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.


Perfectly Imperfect

Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.


Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help


At 6:30 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday night in December, more than 30 young Jewish professionals gathered on the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Romaine Street in West Hollywood to feed homeless people waiting in line for a hot meal.

There on behalf of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, the volunteers looked with surprise at the growing line of nearly 200 people waiting for food — a sight already familiar to Jennifer Chadorchi, the young Persian Jewish woman who had single-handedly recruited the evening’s volunteers.

“The turnout of volunteers was amazing that night,” said Chadorchi, who regularly organizes volunteer groups for the Coalition. “It makes me feel so great to share the experience of helping others by bringing them in to volunteer.”

For the last eight years, Chadorchi, a Beverly Hills resident in her 20s, has become a rare jewel in the Persian Jewish community, quietly mobilizing a small army of friends, family members and local students to respond to the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles.

“Her compassion and her actions are contagious,” said Lida Tabibian, a volunteer recruited by Chadorchi. “She not only changes thousands of lives, but she’s also inspiring a whole generation to be leaders for this cause.”

Chadorchi’s journey in aiding the homeless began when she was 16, when, on a rainy night while driving in her brand-new car, she spotted Coalition volunteers serving food to the homeless.

“What caught my eye was the long line of these people just standing in the pouring rain with only newspapers over their heads,” Chadorchi said. “It didn’t seem fair to me that I had so much and they had nothing, so I decided I had to help.” Since 1987, coalition volunteers have been handing out excess food donated by Los Angeles area hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and caterers. In 2000, the coalition joined forces with UCLA medical students, who offer medical aid to sick, homeless individuals gathering at the street corner.

Chadorchi’s efforts also have included raising funds for the coalition, and she has organized clothing drives in her Beverly Hills neighborhood. She was also instrumental in organizing Project Feed, a campaign allowing Beverly Hills school district students to donate food and time to the coalition in exchange for school credit.

“She has had a tremendous impact on our organization. What she did was build a bridge between our group and Beverly Hills, especially the Iranian Jewish community,” said Ted Landreth, one of the coalition’s founders. “Without her I doubt we could have made these important connections.”

Those familiar with Chadorchi’s volunteer efforts said they wished she would enter the public sector and work with local government officials to help alleviate Los Angeles County’s difficulties with the homeless.

“I’ve known Jennifer since she was a junior at Beverly Hills High School. I think she is one of the most dedicated, incredible and passionate young people out there,” said former U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. “The people working out there [L.A. city officials] are doing alright, but if she was in charge of the homeless problem in Los Angeles County, I promise you’d see some real changes.”

Chadorchi said she is frequently approached by Jews in the community who question her for helping a non-Jewish cause like the coalition.

“It is our duty as Jews to heal the world one person at a time — tikkun olam,” Chadorchi said. “I’m here to let people out there know that one person can really make a difference.”

Individuals interested in joining Chadorchi’s efforts can contact her at (310) 288-0090.

Jennifer Chadorchi


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Connecting the Dots

Despite the High Holidays arriving late this year, many Jews are still scrambling to prepare. The practical and spiritual work is demanding: cooking, traveling, repenting, forgiving — it all takes time and energy.

In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, Jews judge themselves this month, conducting a cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). Some people resist this not just because it is daunting, but because the process seems negative. They don’t want to be mired in self-criticism.

But accounting means looking at both sides of the ledger — deposits and withdrawals, mitzvot and sins. One way to balance the ledger is to reduce withdrawals; the other is to increase deposits. The latter method may be even more effective, because our assets (good deeds) can be leveraged to eliminate bad debt (sins that seem so enticing at the time, for which we pay later).

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, offers many laws that can increase rachamim (compassion, mercy). Rachamim is a particularly valuable asset, because it offsets anger and augments patience. We can deliberately grow midat harachamim in ourselves. The goal is to make compassion greater and more important than being right. Thus, we imitate God, who is said to pray: “May My mercy overcome My anger” (Berachot 7a).

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav imagines hunting for our good points as if they were literally small points or dots. When we “connect the dots,” we both notice and create patterns of right action. We don’t so much fight sin as crowd it out.

Like the image of adding to an asset column, gathering good points focuses and capitalizes on the positive. Below are questions based on laws in Ki Teitzei to help us find, connect and expand the points of compassion within:

“Do not show favoritism among your children” (21:15). The Torah talks about favoring the children of one wife over another — an idea that is not so foreign in an age of blended families. Recall times during the past year when you related to each of your family members as special and beloved. How can you be even more compassionate to them?

Return lost objects (22:1). The Hebrew warns, lo tuchal lehitalem, meaning “you must not remain indifferent,” “you must not disappear,” or “you cannot hide yourself.” When you are really connected with others, you cannot separate yourself from their woes. To increase rachamim ask: What can I do this year to strengthen my connections with others?

“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest … do not take the mother together with her young” (22:6). Thus, a mother bird is not subjected to witnessing the removal of her children. This “small kindness” has the explicit reward of a good and long life. How have you been compassionate to the helpless this year in chance encounters and “small matters”? How have you been merciful, even when your mercy wouldn’t change the end result?

“[Make] a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (22:8). Rachamim doesn’t expect perfection. It anticipates the fallibility, and occasionally even the foolishness, of others. Around what issues and what vulnerabilities (in yourself or others) do you need to build a protective parapet?

“When you enter another’s vineyard, eat … until you are satisfied, but you must not put any in your [bag]” (23:25). Compassion asks us to honor the needs of both self and others. How have you managed that balance this year, and how might you do even better?

“When you make a loan of any sort to your neighbor, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge” (24:10). Compassion seeks to protect dignity, as well as provide help. How have you protected the dignity of others, regardless of what you might rightfully demand? Can the help you offer be more compassionate?

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether an Israelite brother or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets” (24:15). It is relatively easy to be compassionate for those with whom we feel kinship. How can you expand the mercy you practice to include people and behaviors that are alien to you? How can you be more just and compassionate to people who work on your behalf?

“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (24:21-22). It’s not enough to feel empathy for those without means or power. The Torah asks us to show it concretely, respectfully and ongoingly. One way to increase compassion in ourselves is to do the same thing we have been doing, but more regularly. Make it a rule; make it a habit.

Reb Nachman taught that a person must be patient — even with himself. Ki Teitzei can inspire us to have compassion on ourselves as we attempt to extend compassion to others. This year, may rachamim grow in you and through you.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana, which provides daily meditations on repentance and shofar during Elul at She is also editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.”


Listen Well


A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.

My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”

They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”

With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”

What a brilliant lady, I thought.

But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”

She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”

I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”

She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”

Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.

From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.

This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.

It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”

The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.

Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”

I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”

He was shocked, and asked what I meant.

I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.

When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Shouldering the Burden of Incest


When you go to the synagogue, you just might be sitting next to someone who sexually abused his daughter. You might be

shaking his hand, admiring his charming demeanor, thinking how lucky his family is to have him. I should know. People sit next to my father all the time. Not only that, but they make sure to tell me about it.

Take a recent scenario at my local congregation: Two seconds after I walked through the door, a friendly acquaintance informed me that my father had visited there just a few weeks back. Good thing I didn’t go that day, I thought to myself. She continued to describe to me how vibrant he had looked, “as always,” and how lovely it had been to see him. The woman’s intention, of course, was to compliment me by showering praise on my father. Instead, she left me clutching tightly inside myself and forgetting to breathe.

“That’s nice,” I replied. “I haven’t seen him in 14 years.”

The woman stammered around a bit, apologized, and concluded with, “But I’m sure you’ll be glad to know he’s doing well.”

Well, actually, that depends on the day.


About 15 minutes later, another woman informed me (just in case I hadn’t heard yet) that my father had visited the congregation a few weeks earlier. She knows these things, she continued, because she is a close friend of his second ex-wife.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I interrupted her.

“Oh, well I’m not talking about it, I was just saying that he visited here, and I’m good friends with…”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I repeated, putting my hand up in a stop motion.

“Well, I was just saying that I’m friends with them…”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said a third time, adding a “no” head shake for emphasis.

She stopped, then could not think of anything else to say.

“How’s your son doing? Is he here?” I offered, hoping to move the conversation in a more pleasant direction.

“Yes he is,” she replied, “and in fact, I’m taking these cookies over to him.”

She bid me Shabbat Shalom and left. The woman could not get away from me fast enough.

Considering how common incest is, not to mention the preponderance of other forms of domestic violence — I do not cease to be amazed by people’s insensitivity regarding my father. Short of answering, “My father sexually abused me, and discussing him is retraumatizing me,” I have tried every possible approach in getting people to shut up. Not only have they not respected my clear boundaries, but they have gone so far as to make assumptions about what must have happened with my father. A favored scenario has been that he and I had a squabble, and I am too stubborn to forgive him.

One man, who had this notion in his head, repeatedly brought me fliers announcing my father’s latest presentations. He and another man made statements like, “We have to figure out a way to get you and your father back together.”

Even after I hinted, “You really have no clue what goes on behind closed doors,” one of them persisted in his self-appointed mission to save my family.

These interactions have left me profoundly shaken up — physically, as well as emotionally — and have eaten up days and days of my time, dedicated to recovering from each incident. They have caused me to avoid Mizrahi and Sephardi communities; to leave a community organization I cofounded; and to stop attending synagogue services. Given my resulting isolation from Jewish community life, I even stopped observing Shabbat and the holidays; they became too lonely and depressing.

For philosophical, moral and emotional reasons, I refuse to plaster a big fake smile on my face and let people ramble on glowingly about a man who made my childhood miserable. Every time someone starts in on it with me, I feel an overwhelming urge to scream out the truth.

I have no interest in publicly shaming my father. I have silenced my own voice for two-thirds of my life, in fact, in an effort to protect him. In addition, it feels risky to “come out” about my experience. I do not want people pathologizing or pitying me.

And yet, I am tired of holding this burden, and I know there are many like me out there. So I offer my story in an effort to wake up the Jewish community, to let people know that the abuse is happening all around us, that we are not immune to violence. Our friends, colleagues, teachers and rabbis are among both the perpetrators and survivors. Abuse does not happen to “them.”

When we recognize this reality — when we speak and listen in ways that allow for the possibility that people are survivors or current victims, and when we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, yet approach them with compassion, we will all shoulder the burden of violence together. As such, our community will take one giant step toward healing.

The writer is an author and journalist who lives in Israel and the Bay Area. The Journal requested we withhold her byline for legal purposes.

You Are What You Eat


I am a vegetarian. I know there was a big controversy brewing over kosher meat, but I’m not sure what the Jewish position

on vegetarianism is. I suppose as long as the vegetables are pulled from the ground in a quick and humane manner, no one can object too strenuously to it. I know God created animals, but I can’t imagine He’d be offended if I didn’t eat them. I’d hate to think of God pouting in His room saying, between sobs, “I worked so hard on that lamb and Nemetz doesn’t even touch it!”

People usually become vegetarians for either health concerns or humane reasons. It is, in theory, healthier to eat lower down on the food chain. Foods are more easily digestible (with the notable exception of my mother’s potato kugel, some of which has been lodged in my small intestine since the Thursday before my bar mitzvah). The problem with doing anything for health reasons is that you’re just staving off the inevitable — like carrying an umbrella in a meteor shower. It may slow the meteor down a tad, but not enough to change your ultimate destiny.

As for the inhumanity of eating animals, while I applaud the sentiment, I think it is a somewhat misplaced compassion — like the anti-abortionists who value the fetus but have no problem killing the abortion doctor. All one needs do is turn on the National Geographic channel to see that, out in the wild, fast eats slow and big eats little — although for some unknown reason, nothing eats the guy holding the camera. If I ever go on safari, I’m renting a Betacam.

I have chosen to eschew meat for a third, more self-obsessed reason — it’s annoying to those around me. You know how some people say that they don’t want to be a bother? Not me. I love being a bother. It really puts people out when they want — or feel obligated to — have me over for dinner (I’ll accept either; a meal’s a meal).

Upon learning of my restrictive diet, the host or hostess will invariably ask me the same question, “Do you eat fish?” Now I’m not a biologist (although I was a genetics major my first year in college — until my grades came out, at which point the university and I agreed that I should pursue a degree in English), but it seems to me that fish hardly qualify as a vegetable. They’re living things. Granted they don’t have much of a life, but then neither did my Uncle Alec. In fact, he would have loved nothing more than to swim around in circles all day, hiding in fake rocks. He wasn’t what you’d call an overachiever — or even an achiever.

Now, as vegetarians go, I’m not that difficult to please. Aside from a major food group, I will eat pretty much anything. There is another, stricter level of vegetarianism. They are called vegans and they consume no animal products whatsoever. There is even a small sect of vegans — I don’t like to use the word fanatical because fanatics tend to get, well, fanatical when you use that word (go figure) — who are so concerned with not taking any life whatsoever that they walk down the street with brooms, sweeping ants out of their paths lest they crush the poor vermin and take a life. The fact that they sweep the critters onto the road into oncoming traffic seems lost on these well-meaning souls. It is this line of flawed thinking that gave us the leaf blower — it doesn’t eliminate the leaf but it does blow it onto your neighbor’s property where it’s no longer your problem.

I find, however, that while familiarity usually breeds contempt, in my case it breeds indifference. The more often I go to someone’s house for dinner, the less effect I have on his or her diet. At first, everyone eats a vegetarian meal because of me. After a while, the host makes a vegetarian meal with a dish for others to eat. Finally, I’m invited to a meat meal with a dish that I can eat. I can see the writing on the wall. Next I’ll be asked to eat something before I come over. Well, I’m not going to wait for that to happen. I’m going to get new friends. That’s why I’m asking you out there to invite me to dinner. I’m willing to go as far as Calabasas. Just remember, I don’t eat fish.

Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.


The Kindest Cut


Last week for Chanukah I wrote about latkes, this week, the brisket.

Butchered cows have provoked quite a controversy over the past two weeks. That’s because the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), released an undercover video taken at the AgriProcessors Inc. plant, a kosher beef abattoir in Postville, Iowa. The plant supplies kosher beef for the Aaron’s Best/Rubashkin brand.

The tape shows factory workers ripping out the trachea of a cow after the rabbi has sliced open its throat. Cows stagger to their feet and bellow in agony for several minutes after the shochet (butcher) slices their necks.

Last June, PETA, responding to complaints about operations at AgriProcessors, wrote a letter calling the plant’s practices into question. The Orthodox Union (OU), which oversees the plant’s kosher certification, fired back a somewhat nasty missive. PETA responded by releasing the video, which raised the eyebrows, if not the ire, of people on all sides of the issue.

Some Orthodox rabbis were sharply critical of the practices they saw on the video. Many others attacked PETA, accusing it of launching an assault on the institution of shechita (kosher slaughter). No doubt PETA’s concerns would have carried more weight if the organization hadn’t launched a cruel and insensitive ad campaign last year comparing factory farming to the Holocaust. Why taunt the very people you claim to want to work with on behalf of animals?

PETA meanwhile filed lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against both the plant and the OU. The Internet filled up with attacks on PETA, “a terrorist organization” in the words of many flamers.

The OU’s defenders were not without cause. Hitler outlawed kosher slaughter in 1933, declaring it cruel, and the practice has been a favorite target of anti-Semites through the ages.

The laws of shechita were developed about 3,000 years ago. Then, prior to refrigeration, the primitive temptation was to cut the flesh from a living animal as it was needed, letting the beast languish in pain for as long as possible to keep the meat “fresh.”

Judaism’s innovation was humane slaughter. In Genesis, God commanded Noah: “But flesh with its living soul, its blood, you shall not eat,” comprising one of the seven Noahide Laws — a shortlist of universal morality incumbent on all humanity, not just the Jews.

Shechita is informed by this revolutionary sense of responsibility and compassion. Kosher slaughter, done correctly, should render the cows unconscious within seconds. “If you do shechita right, it’s going to be significantly more humane than all the forms of killing an animal were when shechita was invented,” said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the Kashrut Subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement. Plotkin, rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., told me that he spent several days this year inspecting kosher slaughter at different Midwestern plants — and in all cases saw the cows die quickly and without any apparent fear or pain.

The economics of factory farming have taken all of us, kosher or not, a long way from the whetstone and the chopping block. But the genius of Jewish tradition is its ability to adapt to changing modernity without sacrificing eternal principals.

As the controversy stands now, the OU seems to have chosen a path of compromise. Sometimes, even a tainted messenger like PETA can be correct. After a tour of the AgriProcessor plant by OU rabbis, including Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the OU’s kashrut division, the organization agreed to make two changes to slaughtering procedures.

The plant will no longer allow slaughterers to pull out a slaughtered animal’s trachea in order to hasten death. The OU also said it would look for a way to either kill or stun cows that are still walking even after the initial stage of slaughtering.

The hero in this dispute is Dr. Temple Grandin, an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on humane factory slaughter. Grandin, who is not Jewish, has praised shechita as a humane technique, but has been highly critical of the AgriProcessors plant. She can serve as a bridge between PETA and the OU, and hers should be the cooler head that prevails.

The last word I have on this comes from the blunt, salty man who sells me kosher meat. I asked him if his largely Orthodox customers were talking about the controversy.

Not at all, he said, no conversation, no drop in sales.


“Nobody gives a sh — about PETA,” he said. But the kosher meat man also said change was inevitable. “Obviously they’re gonna have to slow the kill down and keep [the cows] in confinement a bit longer,” he said, referring to two of Grandin’s recommendations. No one needs the bad publicity. Retail, after all, is a cutthroat business.


Barbaric Acts Kill Palestinian Sympathy

I know there are many Palestinians out there who are sickened and ashamed by what happened in Gaza to the remains of the six dead Israeli soldiers.

I don’t hold them responsible; I don’t associate them with those acts just because they are Palestinians or Arabs, not in any way.

In fact, I think it’s important now to remember Arabs like the Palestinian man who drowned in the Sea of Galilee a couple of years ago trying to save a drowning Israeli boy. I remember a Jaffa Arab who was killed in 1992, I think, trying to stop a wild man from Gaza who was slashing at Jewish children with a saber.

An old Iraqi Jewish woman in Ramat Gan once told me how her neighbor back in Baghdad, a rich Sunni Muslim, had sheltered her family and scores of other local Jews from a pogrom, and had told the rioters that if they wanted to kill the Jews in his house, they would have to kill him first. A lot of Jews who survived the 1929 pogrom in Hebron could have described the same kind of scenes.

There are some Arabs who have a humanity and courage that is rare to find in any society — including, by the way, among Jews. Then there are many Arabs, although I can’t guess what proportion, who are just ordinary decent people.

But there are some Arabs living in the Middle East who are, to say the least, indecent. They do things that Jews here or anywhere else don’t do, no matter the provocation — and Jews over the years have had their provocations, including some even worse than anything faced by the Palestinians.

There is no shortage of Israeli soldiers who have done despicable things to Palestinians — although less despicable, on the whole, than what soldiers in most, if not all, other armies have been known to do to their enemies.

The point is, we are living next to a society that is, for all its decent people and even its righteous gentiles, different from ours in a crucial way: some of its members are out and out monsters.

Their behavior is utterly demented, yet they’re perfectly sane. Worse, they’re not only tolerated, they’re cheered by many of their peers. And the decent members of Palestinian society seem powerless to stop them or prevent them from coming out again and again.

I’m an Israeli leftist who hates the occupation, and there are a lot of things the Palestinians do that I’m willing to put down to circumstances, to this long tragedy we’ve been living in. Zionists, after all, deliberately killed plenty of innocent Arab civilians in the ’30s and ’40s.

But there are no circumstances that mitigate this reveling in the body parts of the enemy, the grabbing and parading of Israeli bones and gore as trophies. That’s something that can’t be traced to politics, and there is no political solution for it.

Wherever this behavior comes from, it didn’t begin with the bone-snatching in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood. In this intifada, it began with the crowd dancing on the blood of the two soldiers lynched in Ramallah. It resurfaced when two boys in Tekoa were bludgeoned literally to a pulp. It gets reprised every time a crowd of Palestinians gathers to celebrate another bus full of Israelis getting blown apart.

This prominent feature of the intifada has hollowed out any idealism I once had about “making up” with the Palestinians and becoming good neighbors. While there are so many I’ve met whom I would love to have as neighbors in my apartment building, and a great many more I haven’t met who are in no way monsters, as far as the Palestinian nation goes, I want a hard border between them and us, and separate national lives — because of what we were reminded of at Zeitoun, because Palestinian society allows that element to flourish.

I’m afraid that this deformed face of the intifada has withered the idealism of a lot of people on the Zionist left. I don’t think it’s made anybody a fan of the occupation, or changed their ideas about where the final borders should be, but it’s blighted the spirit of the peace movement. Speaking for myself, it’s deadened my heart toward the Palestinians.

As much as ever, I’m still filled with rage at Israelis who enjoy abusing and humiliating innocent people. I still have no tolerance for sadism. But my attitude has become sort of abstract, a matter of conscience alone, because while I still feel fury at the bullies, I no longer feel compassion for the victims.

If I knew that the civilians being treated viciously were not enthusiasts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that they did not root for the violent deaths of Israeli children, then my heart would go out to them as before.

But since the intifada began, I know there’s a very strong chance that a given Palestinian goes around hoping that the suicide bombers will get through. So unless I know otherwise, I’ll believe in his human rights, but I can’t feel any sympathy for him. Too much candy has passed between Palestinian hands for that.

Sympathy for the Palestinians and shame over their repression were the animating emotions of the Israeli peace movement, but the eager barbarity of the intifada has removed much of that shame and about all of the sympathy. What remains for peaceniks is a hatred of injustice and brutality, and a yearning for security, but a numbed heart.

To all the brave and humane or even just decent Palestinians out there, I’m sorry. In no way am I blaming you. I just hope you won’t blame me, either.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.

No Compassion?

The day my mother was transferred from a nursing home to a hospice, I raced from Baltimore to northeastern Pennsylvania. This 80-mph excursion into death — my mother’s death — might rescue me from whatever boredom and tedium had enveloped me, but it would also plunge me into a realm where I didn’t necessarily relish going. But go I went. For you see, there was no choice.

Arriving at the hospice, I finally found my mother’s room, then paused briefly in the doorway, not quite ready to enter. After a few minutes, I caught my mother’s eye. With a finger curved from years of arthritis, she motioned me toward her. Approaching her bed, I bent down. I didn’t want to miss what might be her final words, words of wisdom or longing or regret or love, words that could rival the most poignant deathbed scene of the most melodramatic (or the most cornball) film. Indeed, this could be a true moment of reconciliation, of empathy, of demolishing the walls of distance and reserve that had risen between us over the years — walls that belied all the enviable myths and fables about mothers and sons, stories that I knew were true (at some level) because I saw, occasionally, mothers and sons getting along as mothers and sons were intended to.

As I stooped at her bedside, I saw her summon her strength. I waited, and then came her last verdict of me.

“You have no compassion,” she rasped out, syllable by syllable, wagging her bent finger more or less in my direction. “All you care about is the money.”

That was the last I heard from her. Shutting her eyes, she slid into a coma. It was late afternoon. Hours later, I finally shooed my nephews out of the room, sat down next to my mother and delivered a two-hour monologue about our relationship and the pain of her parting words:

“You have no compassion” — This from a woman who saw me as an interloper and a destroyer: my birth had caused such damage to her interior that she couldn’t resume sex with my father until she had an operation 12 years later.

“You have no compassion” — This from a woman who saw me as so distant, so aloof, so inscrutable that we couldn’t talk to each other until I was about 8 because of my severe speech impediment. After I’d gone through years of speech therapy, she finally didn’t have to ask a cousin who lived near us to run over and “translate” my babble to her.

“You have no compassion” — This from a woman who had a hard time relating to my love of books and literature and ideas and always proclaimed, a bit too defensively, “I didn’t go to college, but you don’t need a college education to be smart.”

“You have no compassion” — This from a woman who elevated self-sacrifice to an art, self-effacement to a talent and scolding to a craft. That finger with which she motioned me to her bedside was no aberration. Throughout my life, when that finger pointed at me, I knew I was in trouble.

My mother was not in the same league as writer Mary Gordon. In fact, she probably never read anything by Gordon. But the same apprehension that gripped Gordon when her doctor told her she was having a boy probably gripped my mother for many years after giving birth to me: “Oh my God! What am I supposed to do with one of them?”

The problem is that I wasn’t just “one of them.” I was damaged, I had damaged her, and the breach between us was so wide and so antipodean that countenancing even the possibility of abridging it was almost the same as risking what might happen if we didn’t try. Either way, there was the probability of two strangers staring across an abyss. The gap between us was as corrosive and daunting as it was frightening, which may be why it had become permanent.

From Oedipus onward, all of us have seen moms through prisms that are as inaccurate as they are sometimes hopeful and dreamy: A king marries his mother and stabs his eyes out in shame; Harriet bakes brownies every damn day for Ricky and David (and, of course, for her husband, Ozzie), and everything’s right with the world or, at least, at 522 Sycamore Road in idyllic Hilldale.

But enough of Oedipus’ mother/wife. And enough of Harriet, famed chef of Sycamore Road. There are real-life moms and real-life problems and swirling around us are real “headwinds of darkness” — Sophocles’ words about Oedipus which, I pray, is all we have in common with that cursed son/husband.

“You have no compassion!” — It might be true. I hope not. I’ve lived my life with respect for others, volunteering for good causes and working for a few years at slave labor wages for a major public interest group. I also tried to have compassion for my mother. Maybe what’s most important now is not whether she was right or wrong, but the impulse that chose her particular parting words.

By mustering whatever compassion I truly have — compassion that I prefer to believe my mother didn’t know about — I can suggest that she was really trying to help me by deflating whatever myths I might harbor about mothers and sons: Begone, Harriet of Sycamore! Away with thee, June Cleaver! But I honestly don’t think that was her intention: Even she wasn’t that compassionate. No, I think she was a very angry woman — angry, literally, to the end. I also believe that I just happened to get in her way. And that was most unfortunate, for both of us.

Arthur Magida’s latest book, “The Rabbi and the Hit Man,” has just been released in paperback by HarperCollins. He is the University of Baltimore’s writer in residence.

Give and Take

Max and Irving went fishing on an overcast afternoon. About two hours into their expedition, a fierce storm developed.

Their small rowboat tossed, turned and finally flipped over in the lake. Max, a strong swimmer, called to save Irving. Inexplicably, Irving did not respond to any plea and drowned. Max swam to shore to break the terrible news to Irving’s poor wife.

"What happened?" she screamed. Max recounted the entire episode in full detail.

"But what did you do to try to save my Irving?" she shrieked. Max explained once again. "I kept screaming to your husband, ‘Irving, give me your hand, give me your hand, give me your hand.’ But Irving just gave me a blank stare and drifted away."

"You fool!" shouted Irving’s widow. "You said the wrong thing. You should have said, ‘Take my hand.’ Irving never gave anything to anybody!".

Do you know Irving? Don’t we all know an Irving or two? Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Irving persona is endemic to the human condition. Yet, as Jews, we are the proud bearers of a near 4,000-year tradition of giving. Our creativity, compassion and concern for the needs of others have ignited new vistas of chesed (loving kindness). Certainly, there must be a method behind the madness. How have we succeeded in inculcating such a fundamental value? In short, what creates that giving personality?

Our Torah portion employs an enigmatic turn of phrase that appears quite instructive in this regard. As God commands Moses to solicit the necessary stuff to build the Sanctuary, He demands that the Jews "take for Me a portion."

Are the Jews taking??!! Surely it would have been more complimentary and precise to formulate the act in terms of giving, i.e. that the Jews "should give to Me a portion".

As Jews, we believe that every component of our existence is a gift. We are not entitled — rather we are endowed. To paraphrase the Department of Motor Vehicles: "Life is a privilege — not a right" More precisely, we are trustees in God’s world. Eventually, all that we are entrusted with must return to its original source.

Return is a dominant theme in Judaism. Every seven days, on the Shabbat — the Jew returns to God. On the seventh year (shemitta) we return the land to its fallow state. After seven cycles of seven, the Jubilee year marks the return of property and indentured servants to their origins.

After enduring years of barrenness, the great Jewish heroine Chana names her son Shmuel, a Hebrew composite reflecting the notion of her son being "on loan from God." Finally, in death as well as in life, through burial, we "return to the dust." In short, the notion of ultimate possession cannot apply to a human in the realm of the fiscal and the physical.

Seen in this light, the act of giving is akin to a prepayment of sorts. Thus, when the Jews donate to the Sanctuary, they do not give — they return to God — who is taking back what always was, is and will be His. At this point, the pensive Jew might fear: What’s left? Is there anything we may dare to call our own? Is human imperative merely relegated to the role of grand guardian?

Here we return to the Sanctuary and arrive at one of the great paradoxical truths of Judaism. Ultimate taking can only be achieved through giving! God labels the Sanctuary donors as takers, to signify that the only things we own are our deeds. How aptly do the rabbis describe the true beneficiary of the act of charity as the giver, for only he walks away with a true possession, a deed of eternity and an incredible sense of exhilaration! By contrast, the taker experiences that same ole draining (read: "empty wallet") feeling.

Growing up, I remember that my parents (among many others) would accord a quasi-mystical status to ordinary tables. We were not allowed to walk or rest our feet on them (for a child, this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment).

"The table," says the Talmud, "is like an altar."

Much to my amazement, I recently stumbled upon the comment of the Spanish commentator, Rabbeinu Bechaye (1265-1340) who recorded the stunning custom of the pious Jews of France who used the wood of their dining room table as building materials for their own coffins. It all clicked in. Long after the food has been cleared away, it is the symbolism of the dining room table and its accompanying kindnesses that sustain our people. May we have the clarity of vision to focus our deeds — they’re ours for the taking.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High schools.

Who’s to Blame for Terror?

Like many hothead progressives around the world, I preach antiracism, teach multiculturalism and recognize the United States to be a politically and culturally imperialistic society.

Proper revolutionary that I am, I have no problem with guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes, and I fully recognize that "terrorism" can be a political term used to invalidate the violent behavior of one group and justify that of another.

One might say I’m an all-around, groovy radical. And yet, I’ve got a major problem with compassion for Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli citizens.

Sure, progressive folk cluck in sympathy when the leg of an Israeli girl flies clear across a pizzeria or when the spine of an Israeli boy gets sliced by shrapnel. This sound of distress, however, often is accompanied by an undertone of accusation: It is Israel’s fault, the narrative goes, that these tragedies happen; by creating Palestinian desperation, Israel has created Palestinian terrorism.

Clearly, Palestinians are suffering, and their situation must be remedied — the sooner the better. The question is, who was responsible for creating their situation and who is accountable for remedying it?

The Arab world is called just that for a reason: Beginning in the Arabian Peninsula about 1,300 years ago, Arab Muslims launched a brutal campaign of invasion and conquest, taking over lands across the Middle East and North Africa. Throughout the region, Kurds, Persians, Berbers, Copts and Jews were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death and in the name of Allah.

Jews were one of the few indigenous Middle Eastern peoples to resist conversion to Islam, the result being they were given the status of dhimmi — legally second-class, inferior people. In the best of circumstances, Jews were spared death but forced to endure an onslaught of humiliating legal restrictions — forced into ghettos, prohibited from owning land, prevented from entering numerous professions and forbidden from doing anything to physically or symbolically demonstrate equality with Arab Muslims.

When dhimmi laws were lax and Jews were allowed to participate to a greater degree in their society, the Jewish community would flourish, both socially and economically. On numerous occasions, however, the response to that success was a wave of harassment or massacre of Jews instigated by the government or the masses.

This dynamic meant that the Jews lived in a basic state of subservience: They could participate in the society around them, they could enjoy a certain degree of wealth and status and they could befriend their Arab Muslim neighbors, but they always had to know their place.

The Arab-Israel relationship and the current crisis occur in the greater context of a history in which Arab Muslims have oppressed Jews for 1,300 years. Most recently, anti-Jewish riots erupted throughout the Arab world in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jews were assaulted, tortured, murdered and forced to flee from their homes of thousands of years. Throughout the region, Jewish property was confiscated and nationalized, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the time.

Yet the world has never witnessed Middle Eastern and North African Jews blowing themselves up and taking scores of Arab innocents with them out of anger or desperation for what Arab states did to the Jewish people.

Despite the fact that there were 900,000 Jewish refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we do not even hear about a Middle Eastern/North African Jewish refugee problem today, because Israel absorbed most of the refugees. For decades, they and their children have been the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, with numbers as high as 70 percent.

To the contrary, Arab states did not absorb refugees from the war against Israel in 1948. Instead, they built squalid camps in the West Bank and Gaza — at the time controlled by Jordan and Egypt — and dumped the refugees in them, Arabs doomed to become pawns in a political war against Israel.

Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Lebanon funded assaults against Israeli citizens instead of funding basic medical, educational and housing needs of Palestinian refugee families.

In 1967, Israel inherited the Palestinian refugee problem through a defensive war. When Israel tried to build housing for the refugees in Gaza, Arab states led votes against it in U.N. resolutions, because absorption would change the status of the refugees. But wasn’t that the moral objective?

Israel went on to give more money to the Palestinian refugees than all but three of the Arab states combined, prior to transferring responsibility of the territories to the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Israel built hospitals and educational institutions for Palestinians in the territories. Israel trained the Palestinian police force.

And yet, the 22 Arab states dominate both the land and the wealth of the region. So who is responsible for creating Palestinian desperation?

Tragically, the Arab propaganda war against Israel has been a brilliant success, laying on Israel all the blame for the Palestinian refugee problem. By refusing to hold Arab states accountable for their own actions, by feeling sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers instead of outrage at the Arab propaganda creating this phenomenon, the "progressive" movement continues to feed the never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East.

Loolwa Khazzoom is the editor of “The
Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern
Jewish Heritage” (Seal Press), and she is an Israel correspondent for the Jewish
Telegraph Agency. You can find Khazzoom on the web at

Your Letters

Arnold Schwarzenegger

I have concerns about Arnold Schwarzenegger other than the fact his father was a Nazi (“Arnold’s Challenge” Aug. 29). I believe he is more conservative than he proclaims. After all, he was praised by Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich and is making the rounds on all the right-wing radio talk shows. Since as governor he would be campaigning to elect as many Republicans as possible, most of whom are anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-National Rifle Association, the cynical ploy of his campaign team to portray him as a moderate to Democrats and independents is the height of hypocrisy. No thanks, Arnold. We’ve had enough of your “True Lies.”

Marty Levine, Los Angeles

Dr. Laura’s Departure

So Dr. Laura doesn’t feel the love and acceptance that her Christian friends talk about (“Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion,” Aug. 22). Obviously Dr. Laura doesn’t understand what Judaism is about. It is not about God loving you, it is about you loving God. It is not about feeling good, although practicing Judaism will lead to you feeling good about yourself, it is about doing good.

The few times I listened to Dr. Laura’s show, I felt that she dispensed her judgments with very little compassion or mercy. I find this strange in a woman who has broken the Fifth Commandment (honor thy father and mother), the Seventh Commandment (thou shall not commit adultery) and the commandment that states, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind,” by implying that she has a degree in psychology when in fact she doesn’t.

I am not a psychologist either, but after reading her statement, “I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community…” I would say this is a woman who hungers for approval, love and adoration — and ratings. All of which will be better facilitated by embracing the Christian ideology.

Tobi Ruth Love, Thousand Oaks

Right Place, Right Time

If according to Rabbi Ben-Tzion Kravitz, “God had directed us to this spot to save a young life” (“Right Place, Right Time,” Aug. 29), who or what had directed the taxi to that spot to run into Hadas?

Jeffrey S. Lee, Newport Beach

Israeli Savage

We discussed Dan Katzir’s Aug. 29 “Israeli Savage” piece at a recent study group meeting. All present felt it was inappropriate, sexist and low class. What a pathetic and unrealistic portrayal of the Israeli man. What an ornamental and mindless portrayal of the Jewish American Princess. More importantly, what a poor image of Israel and its strong young men who know that they’re fighting for survival, to defend their democratic country against an enemy violently out to destroy them. At this time of great difficulty, who needs an opportunist like Katzir to undermine Israel for his own self-interest and arrogance?

Fran Barach, Encino

J.D. Smith

We have received The Jewish Journal for some time now, and I confess that it is rarely read. However, recently, upon opening it to use for an art project, I was caught by J.D. Smith’s article (“Down to the Wire,” Aug. 15).

Since then, I have opened every issue and looked forward to reading every witty word about his soon-to-be-ended single life. It makes me laugh out loud and gets me on the phone with my other girlfriends to share his male perspective. There are a number of us who now look forward to enjoying his articles together. Alas, last week there was no J.D. Smith article to be found. You cannot imagine my disappointment — and the disappointment that ran down the chain of my friends. Surely he still has time amidst all of the marriage preparations to share with us his goings-on. We want to get to know Alison better.

Realizing that he can no longer be under the “singles” heading, perhaps you can start a new one titled “newly married” just for J.D. and Alison. Breezing through just to find his article is what has got me reading your paper. I sure hope that I will find him again soon among its pages.

C.C. Pulitzer-Lemann, Beverly Hills

NPR News Standards

The terror bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Aug. 19 provided an early test for NPR’s self-proclaimed new standards for fair coverage of the Middle East (“New Standards for Fair Coverage at NPR,” Aug. 15). NPR failed with flying colors. The promo for its “Talk of the Nation” program that afternoon was, “What will happen to the ‘road map’ if Israel strikes back?”

So far as NPR is concerned, the bombing itself could not be expected to affect the road map. Same old NPR.

Henry D. Fetter, Los Angeles

Kids Page


On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Even though Ruth’s husband died, she decides not to desert her mother-in-law, Naomi, who has lost her husband and two sons. Ruth leaves her home in Moab to accompany Naomi back to Israel. She cares for Naomi and goes to work in the fields of her relative, Boaz. Ruth later marries him, and lives, I suppose, happily ever after.

This book is about friendship, loyalty and compassion. In fact, the rabbis say that Ruth’s name comes from the Hebrew word for friendship — Re’ut. That is why it is so important to read this book on the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. All the laws and commandments of the Torah would be worth nothing if we did not, before anything, know how to be a good friend.

Why Keep Kosher?

The end of this week’s Torah portion supplies the major
biblical reasons for kashrut: “For I am God….

You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy….
For I am God who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God…. To
distinguish between the ritually impure and ritually pure, between living
things that may be eaten and living things that may not be eaten” (Leviticus

This coda doesn’t exactly clarify the reasons behind
kashrut. What do cloven-hoofed cud-chewers have to do with ritual purity, much
less holiness? In what way do fins and scales on a fish acknowledge God as the
One who redeemed us from slavery? The “explanation” for kashrut demands further

Keeping kosher is a chok (that variety of Jewish law that is
not based on reason). Most commandments can be understood rationally. “Don’t
murder” — that makes for a workable social contract. “Don’t commit adultery” —
there are lies and anguish down the road, if you do. But “don’t eat a pig; cows
are OK?” There is no humanly discernible reason behind kashrut.

Religion is meant to inform our lives — and to add a holy
mystery to them. Chukim, super-rational laws, acknowledge and make us aware of
life’s mystery. Kashrut in particular acknowledges that there is a taxonomy to
the world beyond what we discern — and, accordingly, cows yes, pigs no. Kashrut
has nothing to do with health considerations or scientifically meaningful
categories. It does, in some mysterious way, have to do with making ourselves
holy by making distinctions, and remembering who God is for us.

Commentators derive lessons from individual elements of kashurt.
Rabbinical laws that spare animals pain during slaughter are meant to inculcate
compassion generally. Birds of prey are forbidden, lest we absorb their
predatory quality. Pigs are the ultimate symbol of treif (non-kosher) because
one must look closely to see that they don’t meet kosher standards. Beware of
hypocrites and charlatans and (self-)deception through packaging.

The ancient rabbis were both drawn to and cautious about
uncovering ta’amei hamitzvot (reasons behind the commandments). Certainly, we
all want a literate Jewish populace for whom practice is based on
understanding, and not just obedience. But there is also an inherent danger and
hubris in thinking that one “understands” the mitzvot. If you believe you have
the reason for a mitzvah, you might stop studying or resist new
interpretations. There is even a chance that you might stop practicing: I have
the message, why bother with the mechanics? Knowing about Judaism
intellectually is no substitute for practicing it. Practice often leads to new
insight, which leads to deeper practice, which leads to new insight….

Keeping kosher has been most helpful and meaningful to me as
a kind of rehearsal. When I pay attention to what I ingest physically, it
reminds me to pay attention to what I take in spiritually. Kashrut presents an
order to the world that I don’t understand, but nevertheless accept. In that
way, it parallels — and prepares me for accepting — other things about how the
world is ordered that I can’t comprehend. Death and random suffering are
embedded into the structure of the universe for reasons I will never fully
understand. Yet, I must somehow learn to accept and deal with those realities. 

Keeping kosher keeps me mindful of relationships. Every
worthwhile association requires sacrifices. My relationship with God, like any
relationship, is strengthened by giving out of love when reason doesn’t demand
it. The reasonable requests are easy to meet. What do I do when a normally
rational loved one asks something of me that doesn’t make logical sense? With
God and with people, how much do I keep score? How much do I accommodate? How
much do I savor the opportunity to respond purely out of love?

My personal attachment to kashrut was cemented age 14, when
I first traveled alone by train. A man seemed to be staring at me, so I moved
my seat. He moved his. I changed compartments; he followed me. I left my
luggage, taking only my wallet to the dining car, hoping he would move on by
the time I returned. When I sat down again, he approached me. Of course, I was

Then he asked, “Are you Debra Orenstein?”

He wasn’t quite the masher I had feared.

He explained: “I wasn’t sure it was you. I was a student of
your father’s, and the last time I saw you, you were six years old. I noticed
that you were going to the dining car, and I thought, ‘If she comes back with
something kosher, then I’ll know it’s Debra.'”

For me, kashrut is ultimately the rehearsal of identity.
Every time I eat, I remember who we are to God and among the Jewish people —
and who we are asked to be.   

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana and editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).

A Jewish World Without Denominations

A new president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was inaugurated in a moving ceremony held Oct. 13 in the ornate Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. Rabbi David Ellenson, a native of Newport News, Va., and a long-time resident of Los Angeles, spoke from the pulpit of this classic Moorish-style temple about the unique challenges of leading an American rabbinical seminary into the 21st century.

On one level, Ellenson seems to be an odd choice to lead the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is more a scholar than an administrator or fundraiser, more a teacher than a pulpit rabbi. But even more significantly, Ellenson defies denominational classification: born and raised in an Orthodox home, he has written extensively on Modern Orthodoxy, with particular interest in the role of halachic response in shaping its contours. Along with his wife, Jackie, who is also a rabbi, he spent many years in Los Angeles as a pillar of the Library Minyan of Conservative Temple Beth Am. And for nearly three decades, he has been a professor at the Reform HUC-JIR.

The audience assembled at the Plum Street Temple was unperturbed by Ellenson’s denominational eclecticism. Rather, they took ample note of the new president’s erudition, as well as his legendary kindness and compassion. A smaller number of cognoscenti also marveled at the historical journey of the Reform movement in the United States.

To illustrate the point, a brief digression to culinary history is in order. In 1883, the first class of rabbinical ordinees graduated from the HUC-JIR. The festive ceremony that marked the occasion, the first ordination of any rabbinical seminary in the United States, was held in the same Plum Street, or Bene Yeshurun, Temple.

Following the ceremony, a gala dinner was held that drew representatives from more than 100 synagogues across the country. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the 8-year-old Union of American Hebrew Congregations and president of its HUC-JIR, had hoped to forge a broad congregational association that would unite all of American Judaism under one roof, and indeed, more than half of the nation’s 200-odd synagogues were on board.

That dream ended with dinner. The meal commenced with half-shell clams, proceeded to soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad, as well as a number of kosher meats, before concluding with an ice cream dessert. Unprepared for such an "innovative menu," the more traditional rabbis abruptly fled from what has come to be known in the annals of American Jewish history as the "Treifa Banquet." The unintended legacy was the hardening of ideological divisions into denominational wings as we know them.

Nearly 120 years later, the invited guests of Ellenson’s inauguration party were treated to a thoroughly kosher dinner under strict rabbinical supervision. These two meals — the Treifa and the Kosher Banquets — stand as intriguing markers of the significant shifts that Reform — and American — Judaism have undergone.

Before the Treifa Banquet, the denominational boundaries of an emerging American Jewry were hardly visible. During the next century, these boundaries became reinforced as the four main denominations each built seminaries, synagogues, congregational organizations, youth movements and schools to embody their respective messages.

But today, these borders seem to be eroding. Ellenson symbolizes that erosion in his own varied Jewish biography. So, too, does the fact that his institution recently awarded honorary doctorates to Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of the Orthodox-sponsored Bar-Ilan University. For many decades, it would have been unimaginable that an Orthodox rabbi like Rackman would have accepted a doctorate from HUC-JIR. But having reached more than four score and 10 years, Rackman is so distinguished, wise and courageous as to deliberately and openly rise above denominational differences.

His example suggests that there may well be more that unites than separates the various constituents of American Judaism. This is particularly true when we observe that American Jewry may be shrinking at a marked clip, at least according to the recent National Jewish Population Survey. This is also true when we notice the growing trend toward increased observance in all of the denominations, including the Reform movement. The Kosher Banquet of 2002 is but one link in a chain of growing traditionalism that defines American Jewish religious identity in the new century.

For some, this development is cause for joy. And yet, we must also recall that drift and alienation from organized Jewish life continue, in part because denominational packaging no longer appeals to a growing number of hungry, spiritual consumers.

The intriguing transformations of the Reform movement, as symbolized by the presidency of Ellenson, should prompt a probing debate about the role and relevance of denominations in American Judaism of the 21st century. So, too, should the current struggles to chart a coherent course for American Orthodoxy — as reflected in the difficulty in finding a successor to Yeshiva University’s long-time president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who has skillfully mediated the demands of being a college president and rosh yeshiva. In fact, all the American Jewish denominations must now ask themselves whether their considerable, but ultimately limited, resources are better utilized in preserving their own institutions or joining forces to confront the challenging days ahead.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism. David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.

Prager’s Tactics Are Lacking

Dennis Prager uses half of what I said to the L.A. Times and gives the impression that I am one of those awful leftists who are “either morally confused, immoral or lack courage.” Here is the complete quote, which shows that I was describing a dilemma, not my political position: “Liberals are on the side of the underdog. The people who’ve had their cities turned into rubble look like the underdog. There’s embarrassment about being a Jew and a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community, a fear that it’s been taken over by the right wing.” It’s the last phrase that Prager couldn’t repeat without revealing his hidden reason for the attack, so he lies about the real subject of the Times article — that a group of Hollywood Jews are trying to find a way to reach the community, which can only happen in a language the community speaks. The problem for Prager is that artists speak a language he refuses to learn.

Using Wagner’s politics to forever “disassociate artists from their art” allows him to neatly hide from the moral sympathies of the mass of artists, who are not the progenitors of the death camps. Prager declares himself intellectually dead by his own hand, since he reduces art to nothing more than diversion or decoration, and artists to nothing more than mindless children.

But he has to do this, otherwise he would have to live with contradictions, a balance impossible for most conservatives who split the world into good and evil, and especially deny their own contribution to the evil one is fighting. Artists teach nothing if not connection, and connection breeds sympathy, and sympathy sometimes exceeds itself, chesed (lovingkindness) without gavurah (restriction).

But the impulse to unlimited compassion is better than the impulse toward unlimited judgment, else we would not pray every day for God’s mercy. The liberal fantasy is the dream of what might be, like the bounty of a Botticelli spring, and the conservative fantasy is kitsch, cowboy art, nostalgia for a world that never was, with punishment for those who tell the truth about that self-deception.

Prager’s politics may even be Jewish heresy. The Torah is brave enough to recognize our own role in the creation of Amalek while still calling for Amalek’s destruction, but the Torah is braver than Dennis Prager, who has yet to move to Israel with his family, so his children can ride the buses until they’re old enough to join the army, rather like the son of that terrible leftist Michael Lerner.

The right-wingers here who call for the harshest treatment of the Arabs, while keeping their children out of the Israel Defense Forces, are cousins of those rich leaders of Hamas who strap the bombs on the children of the poor, never on their own. Prager gets his courage by proxy, the courage that gives him the right to call me a coward.

While some of us are working carefully and, by necessity, quietly to bring more Jews into the community, Prager’s sermon to the choir, his mocking castigations, his arrogant assumption of moral clarity, contributes nothing — and makes things worse. He drives Jews away.

Michael Tolkin is the co-writer of “Changing Lanes,” named the best picture of the year by Catholics In Media Associates. His most recent novel, “Under Radar,” is published by Atlantic Books.