Herzl: A visionary father of a nation

Theodor Herzl was an assimilated Viennese journalist who became the unlikely founder of modern Zionism and a main catalyst for the creation of the Jewish State of Israel.

That much most of us know in broad strokes, but for those thirsting for a more detailed picture of the man’s background, family life, setbacks and triumphs, we recommend a visit to a Laemmle theater to see “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl.”

Director and writer Richard Trank (and co-producer with Rabbi Marvin Hier) of the 96-minute documentary has done a thorough job in researching and hunting down historical footage, and is aided by the professional narration of actor Ben Kingsley. The latter has been a frequent presence in pictures produced by Moriah Films, the Oscar-winning documentary arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Herzl is given voice by Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, a long way from Waltz’s American breakthrough role as the Jew-hunting SS colonel in “Inglourious Basterds.” Music is by Lee Holdridge, and bookending the film at the beginning and conclusion is Israel’s president Shimon Peres.

Herzl was born in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and site of the largest synagogue in Europe.

As did most assimilated Jewish families in central Europe, the Herzl family conversed in German, and by the age of 8, young Theodor reportedly knew all of the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller by heart, roughly the equivalent of reciting all of Shakespeare’s works from memory.

While Theodor was still a child, the family moved to Vienna and later he became a lawyer, while on the side writing plays that met with only moderate success.

But he made his real mark as an outstanding journalist, married into a wealthy Jewish family, and during a stormy marriage fathered three children. 

In 1890, the Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press), a leading Viennese newspaper, made Herzl its Paris correspondent, which turned out to be a fateful move for the man and the Jewish people.

He famously covered the treason trial of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, and “Dream” focuses on that momentous miscarriage of justice to illustrate the up-and-down history of French Jewry. This included becoming the first Jewish community in Europe to receive full citizenship under Napoleon, to the anti-Semitic mob outbursts during the Dreyfus trial.

The trial awoke Herzl to the dangers facing Jews all over Europe, and he prophetically predicted that a time would come when even the powerful Rothschild banking family would be expelled from Europe.

In short order, the lawyer-journalist laid out the blueprint for a future Jewish state in his book “Der Judenstaat,” which detailed the administrative, economic and military structure of the imagined country.

No detail was too small for Herzl’s middle-European mind, and as one of the new nation’s very first acts he urged the erection of … an opera house.

At the beginning, Herzl’s fantasy vision was derided by almost everyone. Orthodox Jews told him that only the Messiah could give the Jews their own country, while the Reform movement advocated Jewish integration within the host populations of European countries.

Trank and his colleagues do a particularly effective job of tracking Herzl’s triumphs and setbacks during the First World Zionist Congress, held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland.

The road ahead would be rocky and bloody, but Herzl, who died at 44, had laid the foundation stone while confiding to his diary the then insane belief that a Jewish state would be proclaimed within 50 years, at the latest (he was off by one year).

“It Is No Dream” will screen at four Laemmle theaters, starting Aug. 17 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. The documentary is also set for two-night (Aug. 18 and 19) engagements at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

CAMERA, the Zionist Organization of America West, AMIT and StandWithUs are co-sponsoring the Aug. 21 evening show at the Music Hall, which will include a Q&A with director Trank. For information and tickets, call (310) 855-9606.

For information on all other screenings of “Dream,” visit laemmle.com. For additional background information, visit moriahfilms.com.

A ‘Clue’ about creation

My kids got Clue for their birthday a few years ago.

I loved this game as a kid. When we started to play, I realized Clue was a great metaphor for creation — the story of how we came into being, the greatest mystery of life. And like Clue, the one thing that is not a part of the creation story is “why”? Why did any of the suspects commit the crime? Why did God create the world? Why are we here in this life?

We cannot and should not look to the Bible for the origin of the universe, but rather, according to Aviva Zornberg, a modern genius of biblical scholarship, we should look to Genesis as “describing the potentialities of purpose…. What is given at the beginning challenges the human to the self-transformations that will him/her, in spite of everything, to stand in the presence of God” (“The Beginning of Desire,” p. 36; egalitarian language in italics is mine).

From the beginning, this existence is intimately connected to our relationship with our Creator. For without the breath of life, the divine gift that enables us to come alive, we would only be dust and dirt, a clump of earth with no distinguishable character. The mystery of life dwells in the fact that while we might get closer and closer to understanding how the world came into being, we will never be able to solve the question of “why.”

For that, we need our faith, our traditions, our Torah and our God. The purpose of religious life, therefore, becomes what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called the answer to the most profound question that faces us. This is not an answer to the question of origin, but rather an answer to the question of meaning.

We are facing a world today that, according to Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, is more dangerous and seemingly out of our control that at any other time in recent history. Our economic crisis and global poverty, Darfur, global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — just to name a few — are all challenges we must confront. And yet the language of creation, the mysterious words of Bereshit come to remind us that all is not lost or hopeless. Since the beginning of time we have found ways to kill and dominate each other; according to the end of the parsha this week, we have been evil and mean spirited since the very beginning. However, the message of God, through the language of the Torah and the lessons of Genesis 1, teaches us that we are meant to be partners with the Divine, meant to figure out different and holier ways to coexist with one another, and that compassion, love, justice and peace will always win out in the end. That is what it means to be created in the image of God, betzelem elohim, as we are told in Bereshit. The road back to Eden winds through all people, and tikkun olam (repairing the world) is our universal path to replanting the very Garden that we were evicted from, back to the place God called tov meod (very good). That is the essence of my theology and how I understand Rabbi David Wolpe’s powerful new book “Why Faith Matters.”

There is a famous midrash surrounding the creation of the human being in Genesis 1 that has always intrigued me. The Torah indicates through the plural language, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26), that God consulted with someone or something before creating us. Most of the commentators think that God talked to the angels, the heavenly court, for advice on the creation. However, one powerful midrash from Genesis Rabbah 8:5 teaches the following in the name of Rabbi Simon: “When the Holy One came to create the first human being, Love said, ‘Let the creation occur, for this creature will do loving things.’ But Truth said, ‘Let the creation not occur, for this creature will be all lies.’ Justice said, ‘Let the creation occur, for this creature will do justice.’ Peace said, ‘Let the creation not occur, for this creature will only be contentious and not peaceful.’ What did the Holy One do? God took Truth and hurled it to the Earth.”

This is a confounding midrash, for why did God only hurl Truth to the ground when we see that Peace also argued against creation?

One answer, from the Kotzker Rebbe, teaches that when we are not seeking our own personal truths, then peace will be possible. While this is a good answer, we can go even further. Ultimately, we would like to live in a world with all four of these characteristics: Love, Peace, Truth and Justice (the latter three are what Pirke Avot calls the pillars of the earth). But before we can get there, we must seek to create a world based on love and justice first. From that place, peace can occur and then, if we are lucky, we can identify truth.

That is the meaning of life, the great mystery that God puts before us. Can we live with the love and compassion for all, with justice for all? And just like the game Clue, we might understand the “who, what, where and how,” but we need Divine help and guidance to grasp the “why.” Love and Justice offer us a doorway into answering that question. May we pursue them, live by them and seek to spread their healing power throughout the globe, starting right here in our own hearts.

Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (www.pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.


Rhonda Lee Abrams, Community Advocate, Dies at 56

Rhonda Abrams never made a friend she didn’t keep. She was a devoted wife, mother, community advocate and confidante who served as a bridge to bring people together from various facets of her life. More than 400 of these friends and family members turned out to honor her at a memorial service at Hillside Memorial Park on Aug. 26.

Killed in an automobile accident on Interstate 5 in west Fresno County on Aug. 21, Abrams, 56, would not want to be remembered for the tragedy, her husband, Greg, 53, told the overflow crowd, but rather for the large and small joys she brought to people.

Family was the center of Abrams’ life, including sons Zachary, 22, and Jeffrey, 18. So was the Jewish community. A Woodland Hills resident, Abrams had been an active member of Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance since 1985 and was slated to serve on the Women’s Department Campaign Board for 2009. She was also a Lion of Judah member since 2002.

“She was a great presence and will be sorely missed,” said Rhonda Seaton, Valley Alliance spokesperson.

Abrams’ commitment to the Jewish community can be traced back to the late 1970s, when, as a young woman living in Buffalo, N.Y., an early first marriage began unraveling. Feeling isolated, and having little money, she reached out to Jewish Family Service for professional help.

“The Jewish community was there for her,” her husband said. “It helped her regain her sense of self and sense of adventure.”

That sense of adventure led to California, which she had once visited and which remained a childhood dream. Without telling her parents, she drove across the country on her own in 1980. When she reached Los Angeles, she headed straight for the beach where she picked up a handful of sand and shouted in celebration.

Rhonda and Greg met in September 1981, at a social hosted by Beverly Hills residents Janet and Max Salter, providing opportunities for young Jewish professionals to meet and marry. The couple, who wed on April 28, 1983, were their first successful match. The Salters subsequently became godparents of the Abrams’ sons.

Rhonda Abrams grew up in Milton, Mass., and trained as a dental assistant. She later moved into marketing, working at Hospital Satellite Network in Los Angeles, but she always regretted not receiving a formal education. Believing that she would make an effective therapist, she participated in the Wagner Program at American Jewish University, a two-year course to train people to work as volunteers in social service capacities. She later studied hynotherapy at the Hypnosis Motivational Institute.

In addition to Valley Alliance, she was active at Temple Judea in Tarzana and Heschel Day School in Northridge.

“She touched the community,” Rabbi Don Goor said. “I never saw Rhonda when she wasn’t smiling.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions in Rhonda Abrams’ memory be sent to the Howard Rubenstein Memorial Trust of the Julia Ann Singer Center, an outpatient service of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, or to the Alzheimer’s Association, in honor of Rhonda’s mother.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Rhonda Abrams died Aug. 21 at 56. She is survived by her husband, Gregory; sons, Zachary and Jeffrey; brother, Steve Karoul; aunt, Marilyn Mohr; and cousin, Jeffrey Mohr. Hillside

Sara Aryeh died Aug. 18 at 87. She is survived by her son, Jamshid; daughters, Sima and Roza; and seven grandchildren. Chevra Kadisha

Nancy Brodsky died Aug. 20 at 54.She is survived by her husband, Robert; and sons, Mickey and Jake. Mount Sinai

Donald Dubin died Aug. 18 at 81. He is survived by his wife, Judith; daughter Deidre (Alan) Waxman; son, James (Rose); stepsons, Henry (Jessica) and Randy Steingieser; and three grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Judith Shirley Feld died Aug. 21 at 84. She is survived by her daughters, Dale Sills, Robin Feld, Georgiana Nygaard and Blythe Smiley. Hillside

Nelly Fiss died Aug. 19 at 79. She is survived by her husband, Maurice; sons, Andre (Wilhemina) and Sylvan; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Dora Franen died Aug. 15 at 81. She is survived by her husband, Samuel; son, Henry (Valerie) Poltorak; daughter, Rachel (Barry) Steingard; four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and sister, Regina Bendler. Mount Sinai

Florence Freedman died Aug. 21 at 92. She is survived by her husband, Raymond; daughters, Kate Levy, Marcia Weinberger, Judith (Allan) Whitman, and Randi; seven grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and sister, Zelda Vogel Silver . Groman

Leon Goldberg died Aug. 20 at 83.He is survived by his wife, Bertha; sons, Mark (Molly) and Bruce (Joy); daughters, Ronnie (Craig) Robbins and Vicki (Richard) Moorigian; eight grandchildren; brother, Martin (Harlee); and niece, Laurie. Mount Sinai

Marion Alexandra Golenternek died Aug. 22 at 92. She is survived by her sons, Martin (Rebecca) and Richard (Susan) Cohn. Hillside

Howard Green died Aug. 21 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Georgette; and sons, Marc and Lawrence. Groman

Lillian Isaacson died Aug. 22 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Natalie (Paul) Reich; and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Annalee Rose Kaplan died Aug. 15 at 73. She is survived by her husband, Jack ; son, Mark (Lorelie Beth); granddaughter, Jennifer; and sister, Miriam (Elias) Liberman. Mount Sinai

Dorothy Heller Kory died Aug. 13 at 89. She is survived by her daughters, Maureen and Patricia. Home of Peace

Alice Leonstini died Aug. 21 at 90. She is survived by her daughters, Marcella Mitilneos and Stella. Hillside

Gerald Lushing died Aug. 17 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Gloria; daughters, Nancy (Robert) Dean and Linda (Howie) Greller; sons, Glenn (Carin) Freeman and Michael; and 12 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Alex Marcus died Aug. 19 at 89. He is survived by his wife, Ida; son, Paul (Joy); three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Eleanor Mendel died Aug. 19 at 93. She is survived by her son, Jerry; daughter, Elaine; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Groman

Ed Meripol died Aug. 20 at 94. He is survived by his sons, Anthony (Stephanie) and Ronald (Martha); brother, Robert; and sister, Ethel Rothstein. Hillside

Diane Mintz died Aug. 20 at 93. She is survived by her sons, Melvyn and Sidney; four grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and sisters, Betty and Mildred.

Harry Naiman died Aug. 21 at the age of 94. He is survived by his daughters, Joan (Jerry) Browner, Sandra (Kent) Sullivan and Ellen (Robert) Tye; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Amy Roberts Padwa died Aug. 15 at 99. She is survived by her daughters, Sandy (Dr. Robert) Small and Rheda (Robert) Harris; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Philip Saffman died Aug. 17 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; daughters, Louise (Michael Burns) Wannier and Emma (Wayne Sossin); son, Mark (Darya); brother, Simeon (Hilary); and eight grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Gertrude Sladnick died Aug. 17 at 95. She is survived by her husband, George; daughters, Terrie and Carolyne; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Groman

May Rose Taylor died Aug. 18 at 88. She is survived by her husband, Sam; son, Barry; daughter, Cheryl; and grandson, David. Hillside

Albert Valensi died Aug. 18 at 72. He is survived by his wife, Penina; and sons, Joshua and Adam. Hillside

Doris Wecker died Aug. 16 at 74. She is survived by her son, Mark (Lauren); and brother, Saul Yellin. Eden Memorial

Martha Zins died Aug. 15 at 87. She is survived by her daughters, Helene (Michael) Miller and Shelley Middleton; and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

In the quest for ‘the God particle,’ mystics get a new machine

large hadron collider

The Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy ” target=”_blank”>blog every day. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial

When Eileen Isenberg thinks about her own funeral, she has a very clear picture in her mind.

“First I want 20 minutes of sad,” she said, to allow people to remember her, with the second movement of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto playing in the background.

“Then I want people to bring out the klezmer music and platters of all different kinds of rugelach and chat about the good stuff and the fun.”

When it's time to push the casket down the aisle, she wants a band she's already picked one to break into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” New Orleans-style, and the mourners to step in line and escort the casket to graveside.

“I want to leave my dear friends with a sweet taste in their mouths and a twinkle in their hearts,” said Isenberg, 77, a Reform Jew who isn't planning to die anytime soon.

This is definitely not what a Jewish funeral used to be. At least not in the non-Orthodox world.

When it comes to thinking about the end of life, be it in the business of funeral homes or in the minds of Jews everywhere, the world is changing.

“It's not about mourning the death anymore. People want to celebrate life,” said Isenberg's daughter, Lynn, a Marina del Rey resident who launched a customized funeral planning business, “Lights Out Enterprises,” after penning the novel, “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, 2005). Lynn Isenberg believes mourners can celebrate without compromising the life and integrity of the deceased.

Blame it on the baby boomers. One outgrowth of the aging of 78 million largely nontraditional Americans born between 1946 and 1964 is that they are revolutionizing the final frontier with personalized send-offs, both for themselves and their parents.

You can also blame it on our death-denying, death-defying culture. Why fall back on those morose, antiquated and tiresome rituals when we can put some “fun” back into the $11 billion funeral service industry?

And you can blame it on the high cost of dying. And the lower cost of cremation. Along with the opportunity to have our ashes mixed with cement and forged into an artificial reef ball, to rest eternally on the ocean floor.

Or blame it on ignorance of Jewish burial and funeral customs. The fact that we don't know a grave from a crypt. Or what to do if we happen to be unaffiliated, intermarried or tattooed.

Still, while not everyone is jumping on the “I gotta be me” funeral bandwagon, a funny thing is happening on the way to the mortuary.

These days, more and more Jews are breathing new life into Judaism's age-old approach to death and dying. They're also sometimes discovering that the rituals the ones that have always been followed by the Torah-observant world can speak to them as well in fresh and personal ways.

For traditional Jews, this is no surprise.

“It's been done this way for 3,600 years,” said Moe Goldsman, who has served as funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar since 1989. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

As with most things Jewish, the practices governing burials are based on Torah: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), as well as, “As we come forth, so shall we return” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

They also operate on the principles of respect, speed and simplicity, rendering everyone equal in death, with these key components:

  • Nothing should be done to prohibit the natural decomposition of the body. Embalming or cosmetic enhancement is prohibited.
  • The body is accompanied or watched from the time of death until burial. It is ritually cleansed and dressed in white linen shrouds.
  • Burial is in a plain wooden casket, with no metal parts. The casket remains closed.
  • Burial takes place in the ground, as soon as possible.
  • Flowers are discouraged. Charitable contributions are instead suggested.


Historically, each community's holy society, or chevra kadisha (not to be confused with the Los Angeles for-profit mortuary by the same name), took on the responsibility of caring for the deceased, considered the most sacred task in Judaism because it's a mitzvah that cannot be repaid. Over the years, the non-Orthodox community has relinquished this obligation to the care of strangers.






Jon Kalish of NPR's 'All Things Considered' recorded a chevra kadisha preparing a body


“Someone passes away, you call the mortuary and they pick up the body. You're totally removed,” said Sinai Temple's Cantor Joseph Gole. “It wasn't too many generations ago that you did taharah (the ritual cleansing and purification of the body) right on the kitchen table, in the house.”

Tachrichim or shrouds, Hillside Mortuary

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed

“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

Spectator – What It Looks Like From Here

Biting off more than most of us can chew, husband and wife authors Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams have taken on the enormously ambitious task of tackling that age-old question: How did the world get here, and does our existence really matter? Primack is a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, and Abrams a lawyer and writer with a life-long term interest in science; their new book, “The View From the Center of the Universe, Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos” (Riverhead Books, 2006), uses cosmology — the astrophysical study of the history and structure of the universe – to meld “Meaning” and science to reach a greater understanding of the origins of life. In the process they also show how humans have long sought connections between their actions on earth and the cosmos.

The book is dense and deals with many complex theories, histories and sciences in layman’s language. After examining the makeup and history of the universe using current scientific data, Primack and Abrams argue that humans hold an essential place in the universe and are not merely inconsequential beings in the great unknown. They argue that our current knowledge of the verifiable scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity gives us a unique understanding of the universe and the opportunity to shape the future destiny of the planet we live on.

The book discusses origin stories and myths from many religions, but it is the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah that best resonates with the authors’ view of our role in the universe.

“The interesting thing about the Kabalistic creation story — particularly the version of it that was developed by [16th century Kabbalist] Isaac Luria — is that it has certain similarities to the modern scientific story,” Primack said in a joint Journal interview with Abrams. “In the Kabalistic story the creation of the universe is connected to the human role in it, and that is what we are trying to do — connect people with the cosmos.”

Nevertheless, their own Jewish backgrounds did not limit their exploration, they say.

“Meaning is not owned by one religion,” Abrams said. “We are Jews, we think like Jews, but we don’t restrict ourselves to the imagery and the concepts that come from Judaism. We try to find the most apt mythological description [from any religion] for these concepts.”

Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams will lecture on “The View from the Center of the Universe” on May 11 at UC Irvine, Room 100 Engineering Lecture Hall at 8 p.m. For more information visit

Sacred Words Come Naturally

Ellen Bernstein has been called the birth mother of the Jewish environmental movement. In 1988, she founded Shomrei Adamah (Keepers of the Earth), the first national Jewish environmental organization, and since leaving the group in 1996 has been an educator, consultant and writer. Her new book, “The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology” (Pilgrim Press), is a gem, beautifully written and produced. While it is inherently a narrative about ecological issues as framed by the first chapter of Genesis, it is really a deeper poetic work about being alive to life’s wonders, feeling connected to creation and to the Creator.

Although Bernstein is a person of action, her goal is not so much to foster activism as to help people gain appreciation of the environment as well as Judaism. Readers will learn about nature and experience what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Bernstein, one of the few Jewish authors besides Evan Eisenberg who writes lyrically about nature, describes seeing with the soul and cultivating intimacy with the earth.

“Genesis I is particularly beautiful and poetic,” she says. “I was inspired … to contextualize environment in a totally different way.”

In seven chapters, each devoted to a day of creation, Bernstein weaves biblical text, midrash, the writings of naturalists and autobiography. In her chapter “Water, Earth and Plants: The Third Day,” she gracefully slips from talking about the physical qualities of water to its natural flow to open-heartedness in a few paragraphs.

While growing up in what she describes as a lackluster Jewish environment in New England, Bernstein sought solace and adventure in the woods. After pursuing environmental studies at Berkeley, she studied Eastern religions but revisited the Bible in search of wisdom she might have missed. She came to realize that “ecology and the Bible were using different languages to describe the same thing…. Both teach humility, modesty, kindness to all beings, a reverence for life and … that the earth is sacred and mysterious,” she writes.

In the 10 years it took Bernstein to complete “Creation,” she studied theologians such as Nachmanides and the 19th-century German Orthodox Rabbi Raphael Hirsch, “who expressed an uncanny ecological perspective,” she says.

As she was writing, she heard the words of the 11th-century philosopher Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda: “Meditation on creation is obligatory. You should try to understand both the smallest and greatest of God’s creatures.”


Welcome to Our Wedding!


A very nice added attraction to your ceremony is the wedding booklet. This is a personal supplement to your wedding that the ushers will give to each guest as they are taken to their seats. The bride usually chooses a white or ecru linen material with black ink.

The cover states “The Wedding of … ” and usually has both the English and the Hebrew dates. We recommend art of flowers and we added the quote “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

At the bottom of the front page we inserted:

I marry you because you are now a part of my life.
In all decisions you are a consideration.
In all problems (mostly in term of solution) you are a factor.
In all joy you are sharing; in all sorrow support. — Peter McWilliams

The inside two pages are very creative; along the margin on the left, we wrote:

We would like to thank each of you for traveling today to celebrate with us this very special day in our lives. Each of you has, in some way, shared a part of our lives and have special meaning to us.

We have chosen to celebrate our marriage in [city]. [Name of place where you are getting married] is special to us because this is where [example: the bride celebrated her bat mitzvah and it is the first place we shared the High Holidays together].

Since there might be guests who are not familiar with a Jewish wedding, you might include some mention of the following:

Ketubah: Before the start of the formal wedding ceremony, the couple signs their ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. The ketubah usually consists of both a traditional Conservative text and an egalitarian text. The traditional text, written in Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect, is legally binding and states their actual obligations. Oftentimes, they add an Egalitarian text in English that represents expressions of their shared goals, personal commitments and desires for their relationship. Two very special Jewish friends are chosen to witness the signing.

Chuppah: The wedding canopy under which the bride and groom stand during the marriage ceremony. It symbolizes the home that they will create as husband and wife and is open on all four sides to signify that family and friends are always welcome. It is also seen as a sign of God’s presence at the wedding.

Kiddush: The blessing over the wine and occurs twice during the ceremony. The two cups are thought to symbolize the joy and sorrow the couple may encounter in life. By both parties sipping from both cups, they are expressing their willingness to face life as equal partners.

Sheva Brachot: The Seven Blessings that comprise the bulk of the wedding liturgy. The blessings cover many themes — the creation of the world and humanity, the survival of the Jewish people and of Israel, the marriage and the couple’s happiness and the raising of the family.

Breaking of the Glass: The ceremony ends when the groom smashes a wrapped glass — or in some cases, lightbulb — with his foot (at some weddings, the bride and groom step on it together). This ancient custom has a variety of interpretations. One of the oldest is that one should not be frivolous. When there is joy and celebration, there should also be awe and trembling. A similar interpretation sees the breaking of the glass as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that we should never be so joyous as to forget that there is much sorrow in the world. Another translation is that it serves as a reminder of the sanctity of marriage — a broken glass cannot be mended.

On the back page, you might include something like this:

Now that the ceremony has concluded, there is one more requirement all of you, our guests, must fulfill. You are obligated to rejoice and celebrate to make our wedding complete!

Once again we would like to thank each of you for taking the time to share this important day in our lives. A special thanks goes to the rabbi, chazzan and our families and friends for their guidance and support throughout the planning of our wedding.

You might include a photograph of the bride and groom, and we also like to add some art of Jerusalem. You will add what is important to you, because this is your special time and it is the most important day of your life.

Joan G. Friedman lives in Reading, Pa., and can be reached joan@friedman.net.