A little coffee and a lot of talk


A handful of people sit around a table in a café in downtown Jerusalem – their espressos and lattes in front of them. They are chatting in Spanish – every few minutes laughter bubbles up from the table.

It looks like a group of friends meeting for coffee after work. But it is a meeting of Talk Café – a drop-in language learning program that aims to get people talking in whatever language they wish to speak more fluently – Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and German are all offered in Jerusalem.

“Talk Café is a way we found to allow people who know a language, either because they’ve lived in a country to know it from home, to improve in an informal way in a social setting,” Moshe Beigel, the founder of Talk Café told The Media Line. “It gives people the ability to talk without making a fool of themselves.”

Students pay $13 per class to Café Talk, as well as order at least a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The drop-in idea is to accommodate busy schedules, Beigel says. The restaurants benefit as well from customers in the slow periods of the late morning or early evening.

Each class starts with a sheet of vocabulary words about a certain topic. A recent Arabic class, for example, offered driving words including intersection and roundabout. Missing were the curse words that most Israelis already know in Arabic.

The “moderator” S., who asked not to use his name because he works for other NGO’s, is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, and has a BA and an MA from US universities. He says he enjoys helping students achieve more fluency in Arabic.

“To be honest, it’s exciting,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve always been fond of languages and once you learn the language you learn the culture. I am lucky to have a job to be able to facilitate learning about language and culture.” 

In Israel, while all Jewish students are supposed to study at least one year of Arabic, most do not learn much more than the alphabet. Some Israelis also see Arabic as the “language of the enemy” and prefer not to study it. While the Arabic group at Talk Café is usually small, it brings together people who would not usually meet, says founder Beigel.

“We’ve had American Muslims who know Arabic from the Qur’an but don’t speak it, coming to the class with a full hijab (a scarf covering their hair),” he said. “And we had someone who worked in Israeli intelligence, and someone else who is a settler (lives in the West Bank). They all sat down, had a plate of soup, and spoke Arabic together.

In the Spanish group, one woman is brushing up her Spanish for a job interview. In the German class, one woman is on her way to visit her daughter who lives in Berlin, and wants to be able to speak to her grandchildren.

It is, however, Hebrew, that has the most demand, with at least seven classes a week – three in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank community of Efrat, heavily populated by English speakers. Many of the students are immigrants to Israel from North America, and while the Israeli government will fund and pay for an “ulpan” or intensive Hebrew language course, many student say they have trouble speaking, even if they understand Hebrew well.

“Talk Cafe is not intimidating and that is the key for me,” Renee Atlas-Cohen, a lawyer and tour guide who moved to Israel from Chicago 14 years ago told The Media Line. “No one calls on you, subjects are fluid and therefore usually interesting. For a few hours after Talk Café I feel more confident speaking Hebrew and that is huge for me.”

The teachers, who are called moderators, say their biggest challenge is how to involve students with different language levels. Talk Café is not for beginners, and not for someone already fluent, but there is a large gap between someone who can speak a few sentences in Hebrew, and someone who speaks well, and just needs a little confidence.

“I teach Hebrew in other places as well and most places they teach grammar but students don’t get a chance to talk,” Talia Huss, a graduate student who teaches both Hebrew and Spanish at Talk Café told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to keep conversation at a level that is not too easy, but that involves everyone in the conversation.”

Beigel says that Talk Café was born of his own experience.

“I moved to Israel from England 35 years ago,” he said. “In English I sounded quite intelligent, but in Hebrew I sounded like a fool. The idea of Talk Café is that people can stop sounding like fools.”

Bibi says he and Obama had ‘good conversation’


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his one-hour, late-night phone call with President Obama was “a good conversation.”

“We spoke about our common goal of stopping Iran from developing its nuclear weapons program, and our desire to closely coordinate our efforts,” Netanyahu told The Jerusalem Post.

Though Netanyahu would not give details of the conversation in the call late Tuesday night, U.S. time, he made it clear that he told Obama what was on his mind.

“Obviously I have my views and am not exactly shy about expressing them when I think that Israel's vital security concerns are involved,” he told the newspaper. “This is my responsibility as the prime minister of the Jewish state. We are facing the greatest security challenge of any country on the face of the earth, and when I feel I need to speak out, I do.”

The leaders spoke a day after Netanyahu strongly demanded from Obama clearer red lines that could trigger military action against Iran. The Obama administration said it would not outline such lines.

A statement issued Tuesday night by the White House said “The two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and our close cooperation on Iran and other security issues. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward.”

Israel fears that Iran is approaching the point of obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“The world tells Israel, 'Wait, there's still time',” Netanyahu said Tuesday in English at a ceremony in which he greeted Bulgaria’s prime minister. “And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?' Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

The White House statement issued Tuesday night also denied reports that Netanyahu requested a Washington meeting later this month, which international media said was turned down by the White House.

“Contrary to reports in the press, there was never a request for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama in Washington, nor was a request for a meeting ever denied,” it said.

The choosers


Last month, I was eating dinner alone at a neighborhood pizzeria when I overheard a conversation that made me stop mid-tongue burn.

“I’ve never dated a Jewish man,” a waitress on break said.

“Really?” said her friend. “You should try it.  In fact, I’m becoming a Jew.”

“What?”

At that point, I had to interrupt. 

“It’s none of my business,” I said, “but, in a way, it kind of is my business.”

I took out my card, offered it to the woman converting, and told her she had to write her story for our new issue of TRIBE. She said she would, and now Olivia Gingerich’s personal essay is on Page 30.

The truth is, I am somewhat obsessed by conversion journeys.

My mentor and forerunner in this is Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino. A pioneer in so many areas of Jewish life, Rabbi Schulweis was among the first mainstream rabbis to accept and welcome converts. He broke the taboo against appearing to proselytize — a taboo, he pointed out, that is based on myth, not law.  He led services for converts and, more importantly, integrated them into the shul’s larger congregation, making sure they were offered a warm hand instead of the all-too-common cold shoulder.

Rabbi Schulweis even wrote a book about it, which has just been re-released.

“Not our births, but our becoming defines our being,” he writes in “Judaism: Embracing the Seeker” (Ktav). “Not the origin of ancestry, but the character of our progeny, defines us.

“To the spiritual seekers who would enter the gates of Judaism, let the synagogue open its portals wide and welcome our growing family of inherited history and faith.”
Much of the rabbi’s book is devoted to converts telling their stories, and for all the differences in the details, the stories have much in common. At some point, the convert, pushed on by an inner need, a mysterious leaning, makes a choice. It is never easy. It requires leaving behind what is comfortable, acquiring new knowledge and new habits, swimming against the tide.

The reward is a new way of understanding the world and one’s purpose in it, a new community, a new heritage and tradition.

That trade-off is at the core of the convert’s journey, but, to be frank, isn’t it at the heart of each of our journeys? In a world that doesn’t force us into ghettoes or brand us according to our faith, in a society that wholly accepts us, welcomes us, and allows us to pick and choose from a marketplace of traditions and beliefs, we, too, must choose. We must feel in our hearts and know in our minds the tradition that speaks to us, the rituals that move us, the values that matter to us. And then we must decide, for ourselves and, as Rabbi Schulweis points out, for our progeny, if, and how, we are to live our faith.
In that sense, Olivia Gingerich is hardly alone: We are all converts.

What Men Want (To Say)


On a typical coffee date, because we’re meeting for the first time, awkward conversation comes with the territory. Neither of us completely reveals what we’re thinking or feeling. We’re shy, holding back, concealing, putting on a good face, feeling the other person out.

How much more interesting the first date would be if we both were to communicate our true emotions. Still, those actual thoughts and feelings are definitely present, whether uttered or not. They’re simply bubbling under the conversation’s surface; biding their time until we feel more comfortable and trusting with one another.

For instance, take this (nearly) verbatim transcript from one of my coffee dates. All un-uttered thoughts have been italicized for the protection of the emotionally fragile.

Me: Lauri?

Here I go again. Date No. 163, but who’s counting? At this rate, by next May I’ll have dated every unattached woman in the city. At which time I’ll have to start importing them from other countries and taking Berlitz classes.

Lauri: Hi, Mark. Nice to meet you.

Dear Lord, please don’t let this one be a stalker, a jerk or have serious psychological issues like the last six. I believe I’ve reached my annual quota for restraining orders.

Me: Should we get some coffee and sit down?

And then decide within 10 minutes whether there’s a chance we might eventually see each other naked or, and most likely, never see each other again?

Lauri: Sounds good.

Looks like I’m gonna have to train this one how to dress, make eye contact, speak, stand up straight and do something with that hair. Yep, this one’s a definite fixer-upper. Again. Dear Lord, just shoot me now.

Me: So, have you been doing this Internet dating thing long?

Exactly how many guys have you rejected, and how many have rejected you? Be specific. You have five minutes to answer. Show all work. Begin.

Lauri: You’re actually only the first coffee date I’ve been on.

Today. The sum total of all my coffee dates could fill Dodger Stadium. And it’s always I who do the rejecting, because I am perfect and they are flawed. Capiche? So unless your own perfection level approaches mine, you might as well start heading over to the stadium right now.

Me: What are you looking for in a relationship?

Are you a) High maintenance? b) Emotionally needy? c) Nuts?

Lauri: Oh, I don’t know. I guess the usual — chemistry, shared goals, friendship.

A man with Brad Pitt’s looks and Bill Gates’ bank account who can make me yodel in bed. That specific enough for you, Sparky?

Me: What kinds of things do you like to do for fun?

And please know that the red flag goes up immediately with any hint of chick flicks, shopping or eating at restaurants whose names begin with a “Le.”

Lauri: I’m pretty down-to-earth. Just the usual.

That is, if you define “usual” as a) Frequent, “where is this heading?” talks about our relationship; b) Having my mother visit us as often as possible; c) Making it my lifelong mission to interest you in ballet and opera.

Me: Is it just me, or am I sensing some chemistry here?

I’m picturing you without your clothing right now, but I’m gonna have to do some up-close and personal research in order to get the full effect.

Lauri: You might be right.

It’s just you.

Me: May I walk you to your car?

And check out your rear view as I, the perfect gentleman, allow you to walk in front of me?

Lauri: Sure. Can I contribute something to the bill?

And need I remind you that a “yes” answer on your part will forever brand you as a cheapskate of the highest caliber?

Me: Oh, no, I’ve got it. Thanks.

I accepted one of those invitations to contribute once before and ended up as the featured newcomer on www.cheapdatestoavoid.com for two months.

Me: Well, here we are. It was really good to meet you.

Because I enjoy taking two-hour chunks out of my day to spend time with people I’ll never see again.

Lauri: You, too. You seem like a really nice guy.

And we’ll have our next date when Paris Hilton becomes a nun.

On second thought, perhaps those dates are better off with the actual thoughts and feelings remaining bubbling under the conversation’s surface. After all, if you start off a romantic relationship with absolute honesty, no telling what madness and chaos would result.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional
stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He
can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

Danger in Not Knowing Our Story


Claire Luce Booth, the wife of the owner of Luce Publications, reported a frank conversation with a Jewish friend. Booth said, “I must admit being positively bored by all this talk of the Holocaust and its constant repetition of Jewish suffering.” The Jewish friend replied, “I know just how you feel. I feel exactly the same way about the Crucifixion.”

Each would like to see the other's story go away. But neither will go away. Golgotha and Auschwitz, the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, remain the dybbuk of our culture. They must both be confronted and understood.

I saw Gibson's Passion movie because I had to. When in conversation with Christians or Jews, they ask me, “Did you see the movie?”, and I reply, “No,” the conversation is broken.

The conversation must not be broken. The dialogue must continue. I cannot and ought not hide my eyes from this crucial and excruciating story seen by millions throughout the world. Both terms “crucial” and “excruciating” are more than etymologically related to the Latin “crux“, “cross”, Latin for “excruciare“, “to crucify”. I saw the movie at a public screening and behind me sat a woman who sobbed and gasped throughout the movie. I understood her tears. She saw in this tortured, relentlessly violated figure on the cross a martyrdom, which in Greek means “witness” and “agape“, an altruism which is the highest form of love, to sacrifice oneself for another. The god-man on the cross died to save her soul.

She cried, and I cried. I saw, on that Roman cross, the crucifixion of my people. For two thousand years my people have been hounded by the unspeakable accusation of deicide, the murder of God. Blood libel, pogrom, inquisitions, expulsion, are bound with fearsome chains to the Passion story. On the cross, I saw 1.5 million Jewish children hanged, 90% of Eastern European Jews decimated, eight out of ten rabbis in Europe slaughtered. Who can reasonably expect that I can see this picture of priests and crowds, draped with prayer shawls, hovered over by a she-devil, without a measure of paranoia? Who can expect a traumatized people to review this film with dispassion? I remembered my zayde's fear when he crossed the street before a church, not out of disrespect, but out of fear. The Crucifixion may be a symbol of self-sacrificial love, but to a black man, a fiery cross set on his lawn by the K.K.K. is no act of compassion.

We both cried, she because she saw in the Crucifixion the saving of her soul, and I because I saw in it the cremation of millions of innocent lives. In the movie, I was not troubled by the discrepancy between the New Testament and Gibson's version, nor the logic which condemns Judas for doing that which he was fated to do by the design of the Father who willingly sacrificed His son to wipe out the sins of mankind. Faith is not logic. Against all arguments, the Church father Tertullian declared, “Credo quia absurdam est” — “I believe because it is absurd.” Beyond logic or the intentional or unintentional anti-Semitism of the movie, I became troubled by something else. That became clearer to me on one particular occasion, when seated at a dinner alongside an intelligent Jewish man, who initiated a conversation about the movie he had just seen. The intensity of his discomfort and nervousness was evident. He touched my hand and asked me with earnestness, “Rabbi, how do we answer it? Did the Jews kill their god? Why do we Jews reject Jesus? Why did we not appreciate his suffering?” The depth of his questioning revealed that something more than anti-Semitism was at stake. His question recalled my earlier years in the rabbinate when parents would come to ask me, “What do I say to my child who wants to know 'Why can't we have a Christmas tree?'” It soon became evident to me that the parents were not concerned about the tree, but with the root of the question. Not, “Why can't we have a Christmas tree?” but, “Why can't we be Christians?” In other conversations about the movie with some Jews, I heard similar undertones of doubt and came to realize that Jewish ignorance is lethal, that it eats away at our morale and our self-understanding. It made me more aware of how dangerous the lack of philosophic and theological grasp of our tradition is.

We have to understand their sacred story but assuredly, we must understand our own sacred story. Every religion has its root story which expresses the purpose and meaning of life — who we are, what we hope our children will become, how we regard those who may not accept our story. Every religion has its own unique story. Mine is not superior to yours, nor yours to mine. Without understanding what Judaism affirms, we are left only with what others consider our rejection. Out of ignorance of our own story, we tend to see ourselves through the eyes of those who view us as apostates.

My friend echoes their question, whether or why we killed the son of God. I don't understand the question. The question derives from their story, their premises and presuppositions. What does it mean to torture and murder God? In my story, the question makes no sense. In my story, God is not a person, not incarnate, not made of flesh and blood. In my story, God is not visible, not mortal, not victim, not capable of being killed. God is not a sacrifice. In my story, we bring sacrifices in the name of God, but God is not our sacrificial lamb. Abraham's sacrificial ram is not Isaac, the son of Abraham, nor the son of God. In our story, when Abraham believes that God would have him sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of God in the Bible contravenes: “Do not raise your hand against this child or do anything to him.”

The accusation “Why did Jews kill God?” begs the question. It makes sense only if you accept the theological premises and presuppositions of another story. I feel trapped, much in the same way that the defendant is tricked by the lawyer's question “And when did you stop beating your wife?” It wrongly assumes that which is to be proven. In my story God is not to be made into any image: “You shall not make me into any image or any likeness that is in the heavens above or in the earth beneath.” We sing it in our liturgy: “God is not a body, nor the semblance of a body.”

We must respect the uniqueness of each other's story, but we cannot impose our story upon the other. Am I to respond to your question “Why did you reject Jesus as the son of God?” with “Why did you reject the tradition of Moses? Why did you reject the mother faith?”

If you understand the affirmation of our faith, you will understand that the rejection does not single out Jesus for rejection. In our story, no one, neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor Moses nor David is accepted as divine, perfect or infallible. There is no rejection of any priest or prophet, only an affirmation expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no person who has walked the face of the earth and has done good and who has not sinned.” In our story, no one who walks the face of the earth is divine. In our story, the struggle is against apotheosis, making of anyone a god. No priest, patriarch, rabbi is worshipped. We have no saints; we have no beatification or canonization of any patriarch, priest or prophet. In our story, we do not even know where Moses was buried lest his burial place become a shrine. In our Passover story, the name of Moses is not to be found in the Haggadah, lest we deify a human being. This is our affirmation, not our rejection. Our affirmation of the One-ness of God is prior to the claim of the Trinity of God.

We are asked why we do not accept a savior to save our souls from the burning coals of hell and perdition. Here again the question is loaded: The question makes sense from the point of view of their story that is based upon the belief that every human embryo is stigmatized by an original sin, not a consequences of free choices, but, like DNA, an involuntary sin inherited from conception. In that story, sin is supernatural and therefore cannot be overcome, erased or expiated by human deeds or human efforts. In that story, vicarious atonement, the death of God's son, can wipe out my sins. But that never was our story. In our story, no sin is original, no sin is supernatural. My sins are not inherited, they are chosen by me and I am responsible to expiate for my transgressions. There is something I can do to apologize, forgive and repair for the hurt.

In my story, neither God, nor priest nor rabbi can stand in my place. In my story, there is no vicarious atonement, no surrogate for my doing teshuvah. If I sin, it is I who must pay, I who must appease. No one else, neither father, nor mother, nor saint can suffer for the hurt I have inflicted on others. It is I who must bind the wounds, set aright the broken bones. In our story, no one can fast for us, no one can pray for us, no one can beg forgiveness for us.

When you speak of saving our souls from hell and perdition, you impose another story upon ours. In our story, hell is not “down there.” Hell is not an eternal torture for people who don't believe in our story. In our story, hell is here on earth — starvation is hell, slavery is hell, genocide is hell, terror is hell, prejudice is hell, hatred is hell. In our story, in the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Jacob it is taught that “One hour of repentance and the practice of good deeds are better than the entire world to come.”

You cannot read your story into mine and then question my fidelity. Out of your story comes the belief that souls must be saved, that “extra ecclesia nulla salus“, “outside of the Church nobody is saved.” That story is not ours. In our story, no one who does well, no one who lives a good and decent life, is excluded from the world to come. In our story, the sages declare: “I call as witnesses heaven and earth that be it an Israelite or Gentile, a man or a woman, only according to the deed does the Holy Spirit rest upon him.” In your story, souls are saved. In our story lives not souls, are to be saved.

It is true that we own different stories, but it is equally true that those stories can change, and that stories have changed. It is a desecration of the nobility and power of the Church's moral capacity to change, as it is a blasphemy to Islam or Judaism when the wisdom and compassion to change is denied. Experience, history, compassion and moral sensibility correct our stories and add to them new wisdom and new love. What concerns serious critics about the movie is it's assault upon the post-Vatican II Church which has proven to be sensitive to the misuse of the Christian story.

Something revolutionary occurred forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council opened its doors to 2,540 bishops gathered in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most unforgettable figures in contemporary history, Pope John XXIII, introduced two concepts that revolutionized religious thinking in the twentieth century and into our century. One concept, “aggiornamento”, called for the “updating of the tradition;” and the other, a French term, “ressourcement“, urged “the recovery of ancient sources,” especially the sources from Judaism, the mother tradition which nurtured and gave birth to Christianity and to Islam. After thousands of years of persecution, Inquisition, Crusades, Pope John XXIII courageously opened up the windows of the Church.

In 1960, Pope John XXIII with a notable Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, and began an intense discussion with him. Jules Isaac presented the Pope with a book entitled Contempt of the Jews, in which he appealed to the Pope to remove the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic elements in Catholic liturgy. Pope John XXIII kept Jules Isaac in the Vatican for three days, and when they emerged from their deep conversation, Jules Isaac said to the Pope, “Can I leave with hope?” And the Pope responded, “You are entitled to more than hope.” Thus began the greatest blessing of the Church and honor to the memory of its savior.

Lest we allow the movie to eclipse the moral heroism of the Church, let us recall the changes within the Church. Only yesterday, at the turn of our century, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, called upon Pope Pious X to support the cause of Zionism and the return of the homeless people to Zion, Pope Pious X responded with a classic position from the old Church theology: “We are unfavorable to the movement. We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we can never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Should the Jews manage to set foot on the once promised old-new land, the missionaries of the Church stand prepared to baptize them.” This was the stigma of Cain, placed upon the wandering Jew, who would have no rest until the second coming of Christ.

But this present pope, John Paul II, on December 30th, 1993, and against the internal opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states, and even over the objection of his Secretary of State, established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, exchanged ambassadors and put an end to the Church's condemnation of the Jewish people as the eternally uprooted, wandering Jew. That event was celebrated here at Valley Beth Shalom at a Service on a Friday night in the presence of Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles and bishops and priests and nuns from the Catholic community.

It is important that men and women of good will, from churches and synagogues, not allow high jacking of Vatican II post-Holocaust Church. Mel Gibson does not hide his opposition to the Pope, nor to the papacy, since John XXIII.

Jews and Catholics alike honor this pope, under whose auspices a “Mea Culpa“, a plea for repentance, was proclaimed. This pope, in our time, urged the Church to remember in the words of the Pontifical Commission wrote: “The Second Millennium draws to a close. It is imperative that the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recording all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his counsel.” This Pope, in our time, called on the sons and daughters of the Church “to purify their hearts in repentance of past errors and infidelities so as to help cure the wounds of past injustice.” In this synagogue, at Valley Beth Shalom, in the presence of the Cardinal and Catholic theologians, we discussed with amity and love the need for repentance, the acknowledgment of responsibility of the Church and the importance of excising from Catholic liturgy, Catholic prayer, those sections that were plainly anti- Jewish and anti-Judaic.

We must not allow this retrograde movie to dismiss the remarkable progress of the Church when Father John Pawlokowski, among others, searched through the Catholic textbooks taught in parochial schools to eliminate those passages inimical to Jewish life and to Jewish thought. The prayer on Good Friday that condemned “Jewish perfidy”, the alleged betrayal and treason of Jews, was excised. In January 1965, the prayer written by Pope John XXIII to be read in all Catholic churches, was printed in Commentary Magazine. It must be read over and over again: “We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people. We realize that the Mark of Cain stands on our forehead across the centuries that our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew. And we shed tears that we caused, forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for crucifying a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did.” It would be a betrayal of hope and of goodness to let a hate-filled film become the definitive statement of Christianity. It would be a blasphemy to raise Gibson's perverted notion of the New Testament based upon the writings of two Medieval, anti-Semitic nuns as the Catholic position.

What are we to do? We must recognize the struggle, after 2,000 years of anti-Judaic venom, to detoxify the poisons of contempt. We must engage our Christian brothers in a continual dialogue to educate, to understand the sanctity of our respective stories.

But first, Jews must understand their own story, their own theology — what it is that we believe, and why it is that we believe, else they will be confused and defensive.

We must take advantage of the new interest in religion, amongst Christians and Jews and unbelievers, and turn the sorry state of events into the great opportunity to penetrate darkness with light, sickness with health and contempt with compassion.

May not be reproduced (except for personal use) or published without written permission of the author. For permission, contact Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, 818-530-4007 or lcowley@vbs.org

Stalin’s Jewish State


When Yale Strom was growing up in a traditional,socialist-Zionist home in Detroit, he was riveted by his father’s tales of aJewish state founded 20 years before Israel in a Siberian swamp.

Three decades later, he remembered the obscure Jewishgeography lesson to make the intriguing documentary, “L’Chayim, ComradeStalin!” about the Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) founded by Stalin in 1928.

Papa Joe’s motivations weren’t altruistic; he hoped topopulate the Chinese front and to funnel Zionist dollars into the U.S.S.R. Butat least 40,000 Jews made the gruelling, 5,200-mile journey to build a Yiddishmecca in waist-deep mud and snow. They were successful, in part, untilStalin’s purges closed most Yiddish institutions and sent residents off toGulags from 1948 to 1953.

Musician-filmmaker Strom — whose documentaries aboutvanishing Jewish culture have carved a niche in the Yiddish revival movement –retraced the journey when he boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made theweek-long trek to Birobidzhan in 2000. He alighted in the world’s only railroadstation with Yiddish-language signs, although finding Yiddishkayt provedelusive in a region where less than 6,000 Jews remain. Eventually, he visitedthe local synagogue, the Yiddish newspaper and the capitol’s main thoroughfare,still called Sholom Aleichem Boulevard.

He interviewed local Jews and recorded conversations withhis suavely anti-Semitic interpreter, Slava, who turned out to be the grandsonof the high-ranking official who originated the idea of a JAR.

So was the JAR a Yiddish utopia or a Jewish reservation, thedocumentary asks. Strom and his wife, “L’Chaim” writer-producer ElizabethSchwartz, think it’s both: “It’s historically significant as a Jewish statefounded on Yiddish secularism,” Schwartz said. “But it’s also a bit like thefake TV suburb in the film, ‘Pleasantville,’ where everything seems perfect,but realities start to bleed through.”

Strom, nevertheless, maintains his youthful fascination withwhat he calls “the first Jewish state established since 70 B.C.E.” “These werepioneers who made aliyah to the end of the world,” he said.

The film opens March 5 in Los Angeles. Strom will alsoperform with his jazz-infused klezmer band, Klazzj, at the Workmen’s CircleMarch 9. For information, call (310) 552-2007. Strom’s “The Book of Klezmer:The History, the Music, the Folklore” (A Cappella Books, $28) is now in stores.

The Four Menches


The haggadah speaks of the Four Sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. And on a good night in Hollywood, you can pick up all four. The first Saturday in March is a girls’ night out (with the understanding we intend to pull men). Elizabeth, Sasha, Sarah and I throw on low-cut tops, low-rise pants and do the L.A. barhop thing.

The night kicks off with dinner at Jones. The Wise Son, Scott, sits at the booth next to ours. The waitress-in-training serves this bright young man my seared ahi salad and brings me his loaded pizza. A serendipitous mistake. After straightening out our leggo-my-Eggo sitch, Scott offers to buy me a beer. And we’re rolling.

A consultant, Scott spent four years in investment banking, grabbed an MBA and is now a three-piecer. He’s sharp, sexy and proves to not only be business savvy but flirt savvy. By the time we finish dinner, I know I’d have fun searching for his afikomen. The feeling is mutual, and Scott asks for my number.

He must have taken notes in his B-school communications class, because he phones me that Monday. The Wise Son understands that the rules of dating apply to him and that a timely phone call is key. We head out on a date that Thursday.

I meet the Wicked Son, Marc, at North. This player, armed with a Nokia cell and a helmet of gel, spends more time getting ready than I do. He says this signless Sunset bar is as yesterday as an apple martini, and he’s only here because he knows the hostess.

Despite his slick exterior, there’s something seductive about him. We continue to chat and swap things in common. We like the same films, read the same books and run the same Santa Monica stairs.

The conversation goes well, and next thing I know, I’ve been hit by a smooth criminal. I laugh when he calls the bartender “chief” and smile when he hands me a lemon drop. He invites my gang to an after-hours party, and I coyly accept directions and his cell phone code.

Everything about Marc shouts “buyer beware.” He’s a staple at the Hollywood Hills party circuit, someone who’s always looking for TNBT (the next big thing) and TNNG (the next new girl). And when he finds her, he’ll toss me like yesterday’s Variety. My girls vote no against Proposition After-Party, but I hold onto Marc’s number. This Wicked Son believes dating rules apply to other men, not him. But what can one date hurt?

We girls head west down the strip to Red Rock, where we meet the Simple Son, Josh. This cutie with the tousled hair teaches fifth grade, surfs before class and spends weekends at the beach. His surfer-boy charm and no-worries ‘tude make me want to ride his wave home.

But Josh is a little slow on the draw. I’m flirting my heart out, but nothing seems to penetrate that sea-salt head. Finally, I buy a round of tequila shots. He asks “What is this?” And Sasha explains that women have been freed from the chains of chivalry. An interested girl can now buy a guy a drink. And just when we think all flirting fell flat, Josh scribbles his number on a coaster. Seems Simple Simon just needs things spelled out.

The Fourth, Ryan, is a yummy actor with a cute shankbone. We meet him in the 2 a.m. line at Pink’s. As the girls and I chow cheese fries, the 22-year-old toddler tells us about his plans to make it big. Fresh off the plane, this L.A. newbie brims with wonder, dreams and an incredible smile.

Compared to the bitter herbs Sarah usually meets, Ryan is really refreshing. It’s clear he’s into his Mrs. Robinson, but is too nervous to ask for her number. So the girls and I unleash the wily ways of L.A. dating on this innocent Midwestern boy. We pass along our knowledge of the rules, the game and Sarah’s number to the wide-eyed boy.

Sometimes it seems you need a candle, a feather and a wooden spoon to search out an eligible L.A. man. But more often than not, bedikat-mensch only requires a fun ‘tude, an open mind and a little red tank. In this sprawling city, there’s a new guy around every bar stool, and each is as different as the place you found him.

Now, I’ll admit that not all nights are as successful as that Saturday. But they have the potential to be. And that’s the fun of being single in this city. You never know what an adventure holds. Why will this night be different than all other nights? On all other nights, you turn up as empty as Elijah’s cup, but on this night, you might meet a man. Or in our case — four.

In Country


Israel may suffer from a lot of shortages — oil, water, new immigrants — but it has an astounding abundance, an endless supply, of opinions.

I began hearing them on my Delta flight to Ben-Gurion Airport. I heard more standing in the passport-control line — and I hadn’t even officially stepped foot in the country yet.

A few more came my way as I headed south toward my brother-in-law’s kibbutz in the Negev. A high school student wearing a kippah and tzitzit poked his head into my car and asked where I was headed. He heard my American accent. "It’s good you’re not afraid to come here," he said, as if I had asked. "You know, we watch the reports on CNN, the kids getting shot in your high schools, and we think it’s really dangerous in America."

These opinions come unbidden, without preamble, as if people are just jumping into the middle of an ongoing conversation.

That conversation is a mostly depressing one, as I’ve heard in the past few days here. The economy has been sucker-punched by the plunge in tourism, the worldwide recession and the high-tech bust. The pre-Oslo sense of isolation has returned, made worse by a sense that Israel has been betrayed by its Palestinian peace partner and by its American Jewish supporters, who have voted with their feet to stay away in droves.

But if the al-Aqsa intifada has darkened opinions, it has also refined them (opinion in Israel has long been more diverse, more freewheeling and less infected with guilt and jingoism than its American Jewish counterpart). The left here, as evidenced by a recent newspaper interview with Chaim Shur, the father of the left, is now more wary, if not outright disdainful, of its former Palestinian partners. The right, as evidenced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself, is more willing to consider the limitations of force.

And the debate continues, amid a daily life that is as full and vibrant as ever. After all, Israelis have always argued politics the way Angelenos talk about movies and real estate — it’s just what’s in the air.

The only opinion that’s been hard to come by here is how the current crisis will end. To that question, I usually get just a slow, silent shrug.

Denial Squared


I recently participated in two dialogues about the crisis in the Middle East. One was with Palestinian Arabs at a local university. The second was with Jews who have been longtime supporters of the Oslo accords.
The dialogue with the Arabs took place in a large college gym. Some 2,000 students filled the stands expecting some kind of vicious spectator sport. Instead of two sides coming out fighting, they witnessed a strange conversation.

The Arabs acted as if I did not exist. No matter what I said, it was as if I were thousands of miles away. Never did they relate to any of my points.

I had made a decision going in that my focus for the evening would be the policies of the Palestinian Authority that advocated violence. I showed copies of school books published by the Palestinians calling for a jihad to liberate all of Palestine with maps of the hoped-for country that included not just the West Bank and Jericho, but Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed and Beersheba. They didn’t say a word about it.

When the moderator asked them about protecting Jewish holy sites and challenged them because of the destruction of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, they responded that the Jordanians did that. “We,” the dapper Palestinian doctor stated, “will protect all Jewish holy sites.”

I then asked about Joseph’s Tomb and the ancient synagogue in Jericho and finally described the military assault that had been launched that very day against the Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem by the PLO. They had nothing to say.

The evening ended with a new understanding of the Palestinians. No matter what you say, what you suggest, you are not there. Never did they engage in any real conversation or respond to any point that I raised.

A few nights later I did a repeat performance. This time the panel was made up of Jews at an event put on by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The teach-in, a product of a co-sponsorship by several Jewish groups, put me up against three articulate spokesmen in favor of the Oslo accords. They all spoke a similar language.

We are in a politically weak position, they said. We cannot rule over the Palestinians. Jerusalem must be divided. Only after we give in to the PLO demands will we live happily ever after with Yasser Arafat.
They at least talked to me. They were willing to admit that “there were problems.” But the mantra continued: “Oslo, Oslo, Oslo.” they chimed away. Weeks of violence did not sway their religious fervor for the peace process. It was irrelevant that the deal was land for peace. Today 90 percent of the Palestinians live on land they control. We gave up the land and there is no peace.

Under duress they admitted there were problems. The Palestinians’ support of violence is “troubling.” The school system of the Palestinians that prepares the next generation for jihad “needs to be looked at.” “We made a mistake not looking at the culture of violence in Palestinian society,” they said.

But one of the speakers suggested that we too have not kept all the conditions. The Arabs suffer from checkpoints and security checks; both sides have broken the Oslo accords, he lamented.

Comparing terrorists who kill Jews to the Israeli Army’s security procedures astounded me. Jews are being killed. The Israeli Army has reacted with a limited response. It checks Arabs who travel outside Palestinian-controlled territory for weapons, and for good reason: Arabs kill Jews. Comparing the action of a country that seeks to protect itself to a society that teaches violence to children and sends its soldiers to kill civilians is beyond belief.

Here lies the strange commonality between both groups that I debated. The Arabs don’t want to come to terms with the fact that Jews cannot give them more land as long as they advocate violence. They do not want to give up their dream of liberating all of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Jews who remain vocal advocates of the Oslo accords refuse to recognize these bitter realities. They still support the dividing of Jerusalem, the uprooting of settlements, and giving up more land to Arafat.
But there is one important difference between the two. The Arabs seemed to keep alive the hope to rid the Middle East of Jews. On the other hand, those Jews who still support the Oslo accords are motivated by a true concern for Israel and the stability of the Jewish people. But good intentions do not buy peace. The harsh reality is that Israel’s security and strategic position has been seriously weakened. Instead of sitting politically impotent in Tunis, Arafat sits in Ramallah, shooting at the citizens of Jerusalem with guns provided by Israel. It’s time to wake up to reality.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His e-mail address is
tzedek@sprynet.com

Conversations at the Keyboard


Not long before Leonard Bernstein died, in 1988, the ebullient conductor and composer approached pianist Jeffrey Siegel backstage at Lincoln Center. His business was urgent. He wanted to discuss Siegel’s “keyboard conversations,” concerts with commentary pioneered by Siegel and based on Bernstein’s TV performances of the 1950s and 1960s.

Purists had raised eyebrows about the conversations, contending that a musician should not speak onstage. But Bernstein believed that they could help counter the prevailing apathy toward classical music.

“The last thing he ever said to me was, ‘Never diminish the number of keyboard conversations. It’s the most important work you are doing,'” says Siegel, who took heed.

During half the year, he is a typical concert pianist, playing Mozart or Brahms in a white tie and tails. During the other half, he performs dozens of keyboard conversations in 17 cities, a format he first developed for a community outreach program while studying at Juilliard 30 years ago. It’s nothing like the zany antics of P.D.Q. Bach, he insists. The conversations are part conventional recital, part music appreciation class. Before performing each piece, Siegel discusses the work at hand, plays excerpts to illustrate musical themes and offers tidbits of history. For example, he will tell his audience that Beethoven wrote his mighty “Appassionata” Sonata at the time of his encroaching deafness.

When Siegel appears at the Skirball Cultural Center this week, to benefit the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, the topic will be the Jewish-American composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Bernstein. Siegel will reveal what makes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” sound bluesy; how Copland suggests a chase in “The Cat and the Mouse”; why the composers are not Jewish artists, but artists who happened to be Jewish.

“It is more difficult for me to perform and speak in the same concert,” Siegel says. “But it makes the concert so much more meaningful for the listener. It allows people to feel like musical ‘insiders,’ to experience more than just a pleasant wash of sound.”

For information on the concert — Oct. 25, 8 p.m., followed by dessert and champagne — call (626) 799-4167.

End of Conversation


I visited Los Angeles recently and learned thattwo of those dialogues, in which I had been active, had expiredwithout ceremony. The Cousin’s Club, which survived eight years oftension, argument and even, on occasion, genuine dialogue, was nomore. And the Arab-Jewish Speakers Bureau, born of the famoushandshake joining Rabin and Arafat in the White House Rose Garden,has likewise departed from the scene.

This last closure caused me particular regretbecause it grew from a dog-and-pony act that Don Bustany, a localspokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Ideveloped over the years. Whenever a university audience or asynagogue (rarely a church, never a mosque) wanted to hear Arabs andJews argue, we would pile into Don’s car — it being far morereliable than mine — and drive to Santa Barbara or another center ofcuriosity about the Middle East. It was all quite friendly andcollegial, but underneath ran a vein of deep and serious purpose. Onthe way back home, particularly whenever the debate got hot, we oftencompared notes. Although our efforts had no appreciable effect on thepoliticians and warriors of the region, they certainly gave ussatisfaction.

I discussed the fate of dialogue between me andBustany with Alfred Stern, who replaced me as Don’s opponent; andwith Carol Levy, director of the local office of the American JewishCongress, which, with the Jewish Federation Council of Greater LosAngeles, was instrumental in getting the speaker’s bureau under way.(The bureau, I was told, is not dead but in a state of suspension,pending the finding of a new Arab partner.)

The bureau was first announced with much fanfarebefore 200 people at a dinner at the El Amir restaurant. From thebeginning, the plan was to maintain equal numbers between Arabs andJews. (One of the problems with the Cousin’s Club and similar groupswas that they tended to include three or four Jews for every Arab.)The bureau’s initial board consisted of 15 Jews and 15 Arabs, andeach side enrolled two organizations. The AJCongress and the AmericanFriends of Peace Now represented the Jewish side; the American-ArabAnti-Discrimination Committee (AADC) and the National Association ofArab Americans (NAAA) spoke for the others.

At first, everything went well. Four people fromeach camp were the debaters, a training program was organized forothers, and the opportunities to speak were legion.

But with the election of Netanyahu as Israel’sprime minister, problems began to develop. Younger Arabs, some ofthem recent immigrants from the territories, reacted angrily at thethought that Arabs should speak publicly with the “enemy.” Finally,AADC headquarters in Washington ordered its people in Los Angeles towithdraw from participation. According to Bustany, they had to besensitive to the needs of their members who were, in Bustany’s words,”the direct victims of Zionism.”

An attempt was made to restore the balance withthe Association of Arab University Graduates, but the group declined,on the grounds that it is an academic association not given toengaging in rough-and-tumble debate.

The reasons for the demise of the Cousin’s Clubare more complex. After emerging from a strange amalgam of est andother New Age aberrations of the 1970s and 1980s, it later droppedthose trappings to become a place of genuine debate, meeting inprivate homes and public rooms long before such dialogues wouldbecome fashionable.

But from the beginning, the outnumbered Arabs werealways on the offensive, the Jews on the defensive. Carol Levy toldme that, in the end, the dialogues foundered on the Jews becomingtired of having to deal with the same accusations and never beingable to move into substantive discussion and a useful exchange ofideas.

I had a taste of this myself during my recent LosAngeles visit. Bustany invited me to appear on his KPFK radioprogram, “Middle East Focus.” He began by asking for my ideas for aMiddle East peace, but they never got heard. Almost immediately, heswitched to demanding an apology from Israel for the “wrongs done tothe Palestinians”; I was never able to get back to the originalquestion. One could see where that formula, endlessly repeated, couldstifle any debate.

Yet the Cousin’s Club lasted for eight years, soit must have met needs on both sides. People participated in it formany reasons, and there were different motivations for Jews andArabs.

Some Jews were defensive about Israel and refusedto concede that it had any faults. Others were purging the guilt theyfelt about what they saw as Jewish persecution of Arabs. And a smallminority came to learn the points of view of the other side, forwhatever reason.

Among the Arabs, there was also a variety ofmotivations. Some came to vent their anger, while others expressed,in a more restrained way, their resentments. As the intifada grew,newly arrived Palestinians who were more angry began to appear, anddialogue became more difficult.

In the end, everyone I met with agreed that therewas burnout on both sides. The Jews who felt guilty came to thinkthat they had paid their dues. Enough already. Some of thePalestinians thought that they were being used and that dialogue withthe enemy merely legitimized unacceptable positions. And the generaldiscouragement of hopes for peace that followed Rabin’s assassinationand then Netanyahu’s election seemed to make the entire enterprise afutile one.

Judging by what I heard and read, Jewish-Arabdialogues are out. And the posturing parties in the Middle Eastcouldn’t care less.

 

Contributing writer Yehuda Lev writes fromProvidence, R.I. Marlene Adler Marks is on vacation thisweek.

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