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Spiritual, Not Religious

On a family trip to Mexico City last week, we decided to spend Shabbat doing one of the most unrestful activities I can think of — we hiked up a pyramid.

There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the Teotihuacan pyramids, although they once functioned as a kind of religious site, built in honor of sun and moon, and were used over the millennia for various unseemly rituals, including human sacrifice. The Aztecs stumbled upon the pyramids built by an unknown ancient civilization and named them Teotihuacan, meaning “birthplace of the gods.”

Between the polytheism and the barbarism, it was an unconventional choice for the Sabbath. Go figure, then, that we bumped into a group of yogis from Los Angeles who turned our secular exercise into a spiritual imperative.

“It’s meant to be that we’re meeting you here today,” a woman with curly hair and an Australian accent exclaimed.

Spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal

The yogis were in Mexico City for a public meditation “superclass” to be held the following morning, led by their African-born, L.A.-based guru, Joseph Michael Levry, founder of Naam Yoga in Santa Monica. Levry is an internationally known author, speaker and teacher who draws on various wisdom traditions — including kabbalah — to teach a mind-body healing practice. On Sunday, he was scheduled to lead his fifth superclass in Mexico City, in downtown’s Zócalo central square. Thousands were expected to attend.

“You have to come!” a blonde from Belarus said.

As they offered my father chewable hydration pills for the uphill climb, they extolled the virtues of Levry’s practice and how it heals ailments, decreases crime and manifests your dreams. Sensing my innate skepticism, one of them asked, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a Jew,” I said.

“So am I!” the Australian said. “I mean, I wasn’t born Jewish, but I am Jewish. I’m in love with Israel. Jerusalem is the most amazing, holy place I’ve ever been.”

Turns out, Levry took his disciples to Israel for a “Divine Spiritual Alchemy Retreat,” where they meditated at sunrise by the Dead Sea and chanted for peace at the Kotel.

Maybe this is bashert, I thought.

So I set my alarm for Sunday morning and rallied the troops for meditation con Los Mexicanos. If Levry’s superclass was really capable of supernal healing power, I had a lifetime of Jewish neuroses to drain from my system.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: 10,000 people gathered in one of the world’s largest and oldest public squares, waving their hands in the air chanting, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo.”

Imagine if the Aztecs had met Joseph Michael Levry.

For the next hour, my family and I stood, sat, sang and laughed; we stretched, we danced, we chanted familiar words in dialects I’d never heard. Levry told a story about Moses, followed by a chant of “I am / I am / I am that I am.”

A few rows in front of me, a young woman wore a headscarf imprinted with shimmering Hebrew letters that glinted in the sunlight. It felt as if the universe had conspired to bring a group of American Jews to spiritual enlightenment via Mexican ruins and an African-born yoga master.

As beautiful as the moment was, though, I couldn’t shed my skepticism. The Jewish aspects only reinforced my worry that this experience might belong in the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” drawing wisdom from religious tradition while draining it of religious obligation.

Because while prayer and meditation can pry open our hearts and bring us into contact with the Divine, we make a mockery of spirituality if we spend our lives soothing our own souls and meditating on mountaintops. Jewish tradition tells us that the test of an enlightened spirit is not found in meditative bliss, but in contact with the world and other human beings.

Devotion to God can be beautiful, meaningful — even fun — but the religious life teaches us that the best way to love God is to demonstrate that love through moral action.

In a busy, crazy, tragic, broken world, it was inspiring and reassuring to see so many people engaged in the spiritual quest — the precursor to a better world. But spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal satisfaction. Self-healing is not enough.

The religious life intentionally pairs spirituality and service, because without obligation, spiritual ecstasy is just an exercise in narcissism.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

via Flickr

The Partisan

“I don’t vote.”

That was Politico senior writer Jake Sherman’s answer to a question I asked during a panel on politics at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly about how journalists can maintain objectivity in our hyperpartisan age.

He was joined on stage at the Nov. 12 session in downtown Los Angeles by New York Times’ L.A. bureau chief Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor Christina Bellantoni and conservative commentator and radio host Hugh Hewitt — though none of the others, nor I, copped to taking such a measure for our craft.

Sherman is surely not the only journalist willing to sacrifice a civil right for an ideal, and his ruthless pursuit of fairness and balance in journalism is admirable. But I confess I’m skeptical of what his forfeiture costs.

“So, does that mean you consider yourself a journalist before a citizen?” I asked.

Sherman batted away that question, essentially saying no. But surrendering his most fundamental right as a citizen in order not to appear partisan in his vocation is an alarming solution.

To give up one’s vote is a dereliction of duty.

My knee-jerk reaction to his declaration was mild disturbance. To give up one’s vote — the most essential unit in a democratic system, the axis around which everything else spins — is a dereliction of duty, and takes for granted the principal privilege of living in a free society.

On the other hand, Sherman spends most waking hours of his life contributing to the cause of a free press, upholding one of the essential institutions of democracy. His willingness to guard the integrity of the enterprise is an inspired choice, especially in an age of partisanship and rampant media bias, when almost every major journalistic institution in the country is associated with one political bent or another. “Free press is as fundamental a responsibility as voting,” Sherman told me. “And I can’t do it responsibly while expressing private or public preference for a candidate.”

Can journalists do their jobs if biased towards particular political outcomes? At the very least, should they disclose their bias in the interest of transparency?

The conservative commentator Hewitt said he’d like to see this happen, but I’m not convinced that more partisan declarations would repair what’s broken in our media. Maybe Sherman is on to something.

It’s no secret that hyperpartisanship has paralyzed our politics and produced a brutal political warfare that has resulted in government stasis and inefficiency.

Right now, a majority of Americans view our nation’s government with varying degrees of rage, disillusionment or utter disbelief. According to a recent Gallup report, American confidence in government remains abysmally low, with slightly more than a quarter of Americans (28 percent) saying they’re satisfied with national governance. That number is better than the historic low of 2013, when the government approval rating was 18 percent, but it is well below the 38 percent average since 1971.

“Most U.S. adults are dissatisfied with how the executive and legislative branches are doing their jobs, and majorities hold unfavorable views of both major political parties,” the report stated.

Even Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, disapprove of the way it operates. In fact, “The federal government has the least positive image of any business or industry sector measured; Congress engenders the lowest confidence of any institution that Gallup tests; and Americans rate the honesty and ethics of members of Congress as the lowest among 22 professions in Gallup’s most recent update.”

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a vote might offer validation to a fractured political system — or worse, serve as an exercise in obsolescence. Because when Americans were surveyed about the biggest problems facing our nation, our government came out on top.

Think about it: What bothers Americans most is not North Korean or Iranian nuclear aggression, not China’s growing economy or rampant domestic mass shootings, it’s the unremitting bickering, obstructionism and partisanship that characterizes 21st century American democracy.

During a Shabbat lecture at Sinai Temple in Westwood on Nov. 10, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that what America needs more than anything is a restoration of citizenship over partisanship. He called for rededication to the values we share as citizens of this nation — not least among them, the beloved right to exercise our moral and political will at the polls.

Not every American citizen is a journalist, but every American journalist is a citizen. It would be a shame to forsake the thing we have in common in order to stand apart. For citizens, voting is an act independent of any result. It is not a partisan exercise but an expression of belonging.

Just do it.

Harvey Weinstein attending the 'Can A Song Save Your Life?' premiere at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival on September 07, 2013 | usage worldwide (Newscom TagID: dpaphotosthree087710.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Change? Not So Fast

There is great excitement among feminists in America that our culture finally is heeding the voices of women.

Over the last several weeks, hundreds of women — millions, if you count Twitter — have come forward with their tales of alleged sexual harassment, assault and rape, mostly against men who have wielded their power to extort sexual acts. Throughout the media, this was heralded as a watershed moment, and we have since been inundated with grandiose declarations that a “sea change” has occurred in the way we understand and acknowledge sexual predation in the workplace and elsewhere.

The only sea change I detected at this gathering was the fish of the day.

A handful of accused men even faced consequences, albeit not legal ones: Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company, expelled from the motion picture academy and abandoned by his wife. Journalist Mark Halperin was dismissed by NBC News. Leon Wieseltier, weeks from launching a new publication, was dumped by his financial backer, Laurene Powell Jobs. All this after Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly already had been fired from Fox News, though not without multimillion-dollar compensation packages.

“Our consciousness has been raised,” declared journalist Rebecca Traister.

But I say: Not so fast.

Last week, I had dinner with two high-level film producers, both male, and two women who worked for one of them. The only thing we discussed for three hours was Harvey Weinstein and the sexual politics of the entertainment industry.

And let me tell you something: The only sea change I detected at this gathering was the fish of the day.

Both male producers agreed that Harvey Weinstein is an “ugly, pock-marked, smelly bully.” But a rapist? Not so much.

“Most of the women accusing Harvey made a deal with the devil,” one of them said. “If you go to a man’s room at 11 at night, you know what you’re in for. And believe me, I stayed down the hall from him at the Hotel du Cap in Cannes, so I saw the processional of actresses who knocked on his door at all hours.”

So, I guess sexual assault is permissible if it occurs after 11 p.m.?

Next, I was told “the vast majority” of women accusing Weinstein of sexual impropriety really were trading sex for career advancement.

If that’s true, I asked, shouldn’t more of his accusers be movie stars?

When I puzzled over the fact that so many women would claim abuse if they had made “deals” with Weinstein, I was told their confessionals were born of shame for having prostituted themselves early on.

I brought up the actress Annabella Sciorra, who told The New Yorker that Weinstein violently raped her in the early 1990s.

“I’ve known Annabella Sciorra for many years,” one of the producers said, going on to offer a preposterous claim intended to disparage her.

“If you don’t want sex,” the other admonished, “why would you open the door to a man in the middle of the night?”

Actually, “It wasn’t that late,” Sciorra told The New Yorker. “Like, it wasn’t the middle of the night, so I opened the door a crack to see who it was. And [Weinstein] pushed the door open.”

I also asked about Rose McGowan, who suggested Weinstein raped her in 1997. She, too, was callously dismissed.

And when the subject turned to other infamous Hollywood abusers, I was lectured on how “each year, 2,000 young actresses come to L.A. and they will do anything — anything — to be famous.”

I got the feeling these producers feel like victims themselves, since so many young women must use them for parts.

“It’s called ambition,” one of them said.

“Decades ago, I was desperate to sell a TV show and I slept with the female executive who could give it the green light. So I closed my eyes during the act and fantasized about someone else. We do what we must.”

Consensual sex is the sort of ordeal that afflicts men in power.

But when it comes to women, any objections I made about gender inequity, discrimination, intimidation, subjugation, threats, lawyers and hush money were batted away. Even the women at the table referred to one known Hollywood predator as “sweet.” When I suggested he, too, soon would be outed, one producer got so “sad” he skipped his appetizer.

“It’s a witch hunt,” one of them declared.

And he is scared. Because, just like Weinstein, these two are old guard “dinosaurs” whose era serving as gatekeepers to the entertainment industry, with its attendant sexual perks, will soon become extinct.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

A conversation with God before Yom Kippur

writer sits at her desk, hands limp at the keyboard. After several minutes of silence, she leans back, closes her laptop and speaks aloud.

ME: God, I confess I’m reaching out to you because I’m having severe writer’s block over what I should write for Yom Kippur.

GOD: [silence]

ME: It feels strange to talk to you like this. Outside of shul, I mean. We haven’t really done this in a long time. I’m not even sure you’re listening.

GOD: [silence]

ME: Right. You’re probably busy with more important crises than writer’s block. I’ve been reading about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar … the African famine … the hurricane damage … far-right parties in Europe … North Korea. You’ve got a lot on your plate. I don’t envy you. I think I’ll just update my journal.

GOD: [clearing throat] I’m sorry I’m late, Danielle.

ME: Holy shhh…!

GOD: This time of year is … [makes exasperated sound]. But I’m here now. In fact, I’m everywhere.

ME: Wow, I didn’t expect you to answer.

GOD: It has been a while, Danielle. You were much more expressive to me during your year of Kaddish.

ME: I’m sorry. I’ve been a little checked out. I guess I had more to say back then. It’s easier to pray when you have a purpose.

GOD: There is always a purpose to prayer.

ME: I get that in theory. But, you know, that was such a unique time, losing my Mom. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come every year. It’s hard to just switch it on. I’m having a hard time making the whole holiday drama feel new.

GOD: What is old you will make new, and what is new you will make holy…

ME: Are you giving me a commandment? An 11th? Wait. Didn’t Rav Kook say that?

GOD: Yes, but I whispered the idea to him. We work in partnership, Danielle. He was a smart one, that Kook. One of my best. Very good listener. So were Moses, Buddha, Muhammad, Einstein, Beethoven….  The list goes on.

ME: Well, if you want to implant genius ideas in me, I can be a good listener.

GOD: I’ve been trying.

ME: Oh. Do you think you could try a little louder?

GOD: I don’t grant wishes, Danielle.

ME: Not even if it’s good for the world? Like, maybe you could “disappear” Kim Jong Un the way Mexican drug traffickers do with journalists?

GOD: Those journalists did my work well. I was proud.

ME: Why would you reward people doing “your work” with death?

GOD: Why do you think so negatively about death? It’s all part of my plan. I haven’t told you what happens after this.

ME: After life?

GOD: My ways are a mystery.

ME: That’s right. God works in mysterious ways. I’ll bet you whispered that one, too.

GOD: Indeed. It got shortened and sloganeered over the years, but it was best expressed through the German author Novalis: “We dream of traveling through the universe — but is not the universe within ourselves? The depths of our spirit are unknown to us — the mysterious way leads inwards.”

ME: Again, if you want to whisper things like that to me, I’m game.

GOD: Danielle, everything you need is already inside you.

ME: Then why doesn’t it feel that way? Why do I always focus on what’s missing, what’s unrealized and undone in my life? I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. You’ve given me so many gifts and blessings. But, still. Life is a lot harder than I imagined it would be.

GOD: If it were easy, you wouldn’t strive. My world needs strivers.

ME: I want to do your will, God. But the problems of the world are so overwhelming. To be honest, a lot of the time I get bogged down with the problems of my own life. How do I know what to focus on? Do you want me to heal the world or heal myself?

GOD: You have a beautiful soul, Danielle.

ME: Thank you for the compliment. And, for my soul.

GOD: You’re welcome.

ME: God?

GOD: Yes?

ME: I don’t want you to go away. This is kinda nice. I think I might need you.

GOD: Do you remember learning to ride a bike, Danielle? You didn’t ride on your own until your father let go. Sometimes I hide my face in order for you to grow.

ME: Wait! Before you go, I still need you to tell me what you want of me.

GOD: It’s in the Talmud, Danielle. Rahmana liba bayeh — I want your heart.

ME: But you already have it. I promise.

GOD: One thing I’ve never been able to figure out is why my children make so many promises they can’t keep. I even give you an out: Kol Nidre. Every year, all oaths are annulled.

ME: That doesn’t make any sense, though. Why wouldn’t you want me to keep this promise? How will we ever heal the world if every year you allow us to cancel our obligations?

GOD: Because there’s wisdom in annulling a promise.

ME: That doesn’t bode well for matrimony.

GOD: A promise, by definition, depends on certainty, and few things in this life are certain. I made it that way. I guarantee you life — but not an amount. Who shall live and who shall die is known only to me.

ME: And yet, you expect us to just go on — with courage, with purpose, in goodness — without knowing what’s in store for us?

GOD: Danielle, the human condition is one of uncertainty. If you can weather, with more peace of mind, the unknowns of your life — and your writing — you will live better. Life will unfold regardless of your needs or wishes. The spiritual task is how to bear the mystery, and how to help others bear it too.

ME: Bear the mystery. What does that mean? What does that look like? Should I give up writing and go help the Rohingya?

GOD: [silence]

ME: God? Are you still there?

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Top 15 Jewish Los Angeles stories of 5777

The Jewish year 5777 wasn’t eventful only on the national stage. Here in Los Angeles, the Jewish community had its share of notable controversies and causes for celebration.

The following are 15 local stories that had L.A. Jews talking this year.

Danielle Berrin recalls her assault by Ari Shavit (October 2016)

In a courageous cover story, Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin detailed how a prominent Israeli journalist, later named as Ari Shavit, groped and propositioned her during a professional interview. Berrin related her experience to the universal prevalence of sexual assault, an issue that emerged in the public spotlight when a video surfaced of then-presidential nominee Donald Trump making lewd comments about women to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood.” Shavit admitted he was the subject of Berrin’s story several days after it was published, apologized and resigned from his positions at Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Channel 10 TV.

In highlighting the gendered endemic of sexual assault and the stigma of speaking out, Berrin, who later was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club, began the Jewish New Year with a timely call for justice.

Jewish Family Service CEO Paul Castro announces retirement (October 2016)

Paul Castro

Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), announced Oct. 13 that he would leave his post in December 2017 after 35 years at the nonprofit. Castro is not Jewish, but that never interfered with his leadership on JFS projects like the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center and the Westside Jewish Community Center’s Social Day Care Center for seniors and people with disabilities. During his tenure as CEO, Castro raised $17 million of the $25 million needed to rebuild the JFS Lois and Richard Gunther Center, the future hub of JFS outreach.

On Sep. 12, 2017, another prominent Jewish community leader announced his retirement: American Jewish University President Robert Wexler will step down at the end of the academic term, after 25 years at the school. Under his stewardship, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1996 and merged with Brandeis-Bardin. Wexler is credited with overseeing numerous campus construction projects and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to more than $100 million.

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Marvin Hier delivers benediction at Trump inauguration (January 2017)

Rabbi Marvin Hier


Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, stirred controversy when he offered an original prayer and a blessing to President Donald Trump at his Jan. 20 inauguration. Hier, who performed the invocation alongside various faith leaders, defended his decision by stating a peaceful transition of power is “the trademark of democracy.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous speaks at D.C. Women’s March (January 2017)

The day after the inauguration, 3.3 million women in 500 American cities marched in protest of Trump’s presidency and in favor of universal human rights. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR delivered a speech at the Washington, D.C., Women’s March that referenced the Exodus story of Shifrah and Puah, two rebellious Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill Hebrew firstborns. On the largest single-day protest in American history, Brous appealed to spiritual unity and shared humanity.

Photo by Rob Eshman

Jews join immigration ban protests at LAX (January 2017)

Following Trump’s executive order that shut the United States’ doors on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, Jews joined thousands of Los Angeles natives who gathered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in protest. A number of signs at the protest highlighted harmony between Muslims and Jews, or drew comparisons between the refugee ban and Hitler’s early strategies.

B’nai David-Judea disobeys OU ban on female clergy (February 2017)

In the face of a Feb. 3 Orthodox Union (OU) policy statement that opposed the inclusion of women in Orthodox clergy, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Orthodox Pico-Robertson synagogue B’nai David-Judea issued a defiant response: Clergy member Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn would be offering the drasha that Shabbat. Kanefsky referred to the ways “women have vastly increased the amount of Torah study, Mitzvah observance and spiritual sensitivity within their respective Orthodox congregations,” and criticized the OU for “imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues.”

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz

Colorful L.A. rabbi known as ‘Schwartzie’ dies at 71 (February 2017)

The red-bearded rabbi who wore rainbow suspenders and set up Jewish astrology readings on the Venice Boardwalk died on Feb. 8. Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz was the founder and director of Chai Center, a Jewish nonprofit outreach organization in Los Angeles that engages Jews through weekly Shabbat dinners, free High Holy Days services and other events.

Cartoon in UCLA student newspaper denounced as anti-Semitic (February 2017)

UCLA cartoon

Outrage erupted on UCLA’s campus when the Daily Bruin published a cartoon that struck many as anti-Semitic. The cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing in front of the Ten Commandments, with one caption stating, “Israel passes law seizing any Palestinian land,” and another suggesting Israel would follow its “stealing” with murder. The Daily Bruin issued an apology for the cartoon, which even drew a denunciation from a pro-Palestine group on campus.

Leah Adler, restaurateur and mother of Steven Spielberg, dies at 97 (February 2017)

Leah Adler

Leah Adler might have been best known as film director Steven Spielberg’s mother, but she earned her own renown in the Los Angeles Jewish community as the owner of kosher restaurant The Milky Way on Pico Boulevard Adler, who died Feb. 21, was a former concert pianist from Cincinnati who enjoyed chatting with restaurant patrons about kosher cuisine and providing life advice. Some might recognize her from the 1994 Academy Awards, when Spielberg kissed her and described her as his lucky charm while accepting the best director Oscar for “Schindler’s List.”

JCCs receive bomb threats amid national scare (February 2017)

Westside JCC


The Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) became one of more than 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools across the country to receive bomb threats over the phone in 2017. Among the other targets was the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, which received a hoax threat Jan. 31 that prompted the evacuation of approximately 300 seniors, parents and children. The Los Angeles Police Department evacuated the Westside JCC and searched the premises, but the threat was a false alarm. Four months later, University Synagogue of Brentwood and both Wilshire Boulevard Temple campuses also were shut down due to online bomb threats, none of which materialized.

Stephen Miller

Exploring Jewish Trump aide Stephen Miller’s L.A. roots (March 2017)

Stephen Miller began his work with the Trump campaign in 2016 as a “warmup act” before the presidential candidate took the stage at rallies. Later, as senior adviser to the president, Miller worked closely with Stephen Bannon to craft the executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Given Miller’s zealously nationalistic political rhetoric, it surprised many to discover he is the great-grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The Jewish Journal profiled Miller’s youth as a congregant of liberal-leaning Los Angeles synagogues and a graduate of Santa Monica High School.

Politicizing the pulpit (June 2017)

When Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe argued in a Jewish Journal article that rabbis should refrain from expressing political opinions in their sermons, he ignited a debate that engaged rabbis and community members from every corner of Los Angeles. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous all penned responses in the Journal challenging Wolpe’s apolitical position and questioning the possibility of drawing a line between politics and Torah. Wolpe’s article gave rise to a sort of symposium that considered a rabbi’s moral responsibility amid a politically turbulent year.

Marilyn Hall

Marilyn Hall, wife of Monty Hall, dies at 90 (June 2017)

Actress, writer, producer and philanthropist Marilyn Hall died June 5 at the age of 90. Hall, wife of game show host Monty Hall, produced documentaries for Jewish institutions such as Brandeis University, the United Jewish Welfare Fund and Tel Aviv University. Her roster of accomplishments also includes producing  two Emmy-winning TV movies and co-writing “The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook.”

Westwood flyers warn of new Hezbollah-inspired group (July 2017)

Iranian Jews were on edge when they discovered flyers in Westwood’s Persian Square district announcing the inception of a group calling itself the “Army of Hezbollah in America.” The handbill, written in Farsi, vowed to avenge any U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf with terrorist attacks on American soil. It also denounced the influence of the “Zionist media.” The Los Angeles Police Department said it turned over information about the flyer to the FBI for investigation.

Izak Parviz Nazarian

Iranian-Jewish philanthropist Izak Parviz Nazarian dies at 88 (August 2017)

Izak Parviz Nazarian, co-founder of investment firm Omninet and former board member of technology company Qualcomm, died on Aug. 23 at age 88. After a difficult childhood in Iran, Nazarian fought with the Haganah in Italy and joined Israeli troops in the War of Independence. Nazarian immigrated to Los Angeles after the Iranian Revolution, where he built a successful technology empire with his brother, Younes. A passionately pro-Israel philanthropist, Nazarian founded the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming Israel’s electoral system.

After Nazis: Sex, art and Israelis

It was not inevitable that Berlin would recover.

The thought occurred to me as I stood in the doorway of a massive Berlin building with walls 6 1/2-feet thick in one of the strangest and most brilliant examples of the city’s postwar reinvention: a Nazi bunker turned private art museum.

Since it launched in 2008, the Boros Collection — Sammlung Boros in German — has become one of the hottest tickets in town. Reservations for guided tours of no more than 12 people at a time book months in advance and remain the only way to see the carefully curated exhibition of contemporary art, which includes sculpture, painting, photography, film and installation.

The eccentric and amusing collection is a worthy enough draw, but for some, not as enticing as the building itself: a five-story, above-ground bunker built in 1942 by Nazi architect Karl Bonatz that has undergone more reinventions than Madonna.

The Berlin bunker, like the city itself, has been transformed from its hideous history into something almost beautiful, a trend fueled by a growing economy that is attracting emigrants from all over Europe — and Israel. Berlin has become the America of Europe, a multicultural melting pot.

But its history still shows. Outside, slabs of stark, gray concrete are riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel gashes. Inside, black paint from the bunker’s days as a fetish club are splashed beneath an artist’s methodical brushstrokes.

The symbolism is self-evident: You can reinvent the past, but you cannot erase it.

The harsh exterior of the bunker suggests the conditions in which it was built. Assembled by forced laborers (these were the Nazis, after all), it was designed as a civilian air-raid shelter. Later, the Red Army took it over for use as a prisoner-of-war camp. During the years of Communist East Berlin, its weather-impervious interior made it a suitable storage facility for imported produce, earning it the nickname “the banana bunker.”

Imagine telling Hitler that the city in which he preached ethnic cleansing and racial superiority would one day
become a multicultural melting pot.

By the 1990s, it fell into disrepair and entered a phase as a hardcore sex club — replete with techno music and fetish parties — before Christian Boros, a Polish-born advertising mogul, purchased it in 2003. Boros commissioned a major renovation of the building, which included a glassy, fifth-floor penthouse for him and his family. Nazi bunker, meet McMansion.

“This building isn’t meant for art,” Boros told The New Yorker in 2015. “How the art fights against the ugly building is very interesting to me.”

Boros offers an apt metaphor for Berlin itself: perhaps not meant for art, but determined to fight its ugly past with tools of transformation.

Modern Berlin may have bullet holes and Holocaust museums, but it also hums with the currency of the times: art, architecture, fashion, food and young people. To walk its streets is to witness a city redefining itself as a place of refuge, open borders and progressive policies. Today it is Berlin, not Paris, its overindulgent neighbor to the west, that can claim the mantle of most dynamic avant-garde culture on the continent.

Imagine telling Hitler that the city in which he preached ethnic cleansing and racial superiority would one day become a multicultural melting pot. How it must roil him in his burnt grave that the progenitor of Jewish extermination now hosts a thriving community of Israelis who have decamped from their mother nation, the Jewish state.

But Berlin’s reasserting itself as the cultural and economic capital of Europe does not come without political scrapes or scars. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy to admit 1 million refugees from war-torn states in the Middle East remains a divisive issue. Some wonder whether migrants will integrate; others worry if integration will steal jobs.

Despite the rise of multiculturalism, I met young Muslims who report discriminatory treatment at jobs and schools. Anti-Semitism is denounced in public but persists in private. And there’s no telling if or when a terrorist attack could plunge the country into cultural and political regression. As one young Muslim representative in the Bundesrat — Germany’s upper house — put it, “Merkel is praying every single night that a terrorist attack doesn’t happen here.”

A Berlin on the brink has existed before. And yet, as Christopher Isherwood captured in his 1945 book, “Berlin Stories,” which spawned the play on which the musical “Cabaret” is based, the young, idealistic intellectuals and artists of the time pressed on in the face of moral and political collapse. Today, young Berliners press on despite the shame of their history and the millions of ghosts that haunt their streets.

It makes sense that a place that massacred so much human potential would later strive through every means possible to re-create meaning and beauty after brokenness.

German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

No one really knows exactly what he meant; Adorno’s words still are the subject of much dispute and debate. But it’s clear he perceived a powerful relationship between suffering and creation.

It’s possible he meant that there was no point to art after Auschwitz because humankind had proved itself irredeemably evil and human striving was, therefore, meaningless.

I prefer to see his words as a call to arms: That there can never be enough poetry after Auschwitz. No amount of art or reinvention will ever be adequate to the task of portraying the horrors of the Holocaust, or atoning for it.

Sorry, Berlin.

But that doesn’t mean art should be surrendered. On the contrary, I admire today’s Berliners for making so much more of it.

Letters to the editor: Talking Trump, Shapiro, and worthy award winners

Talking Trump

I don’t often read Marty Kaplan’s column, but this week I did, and how glad I am to have done so (“Roget’s Trumpasaurus,” July 7). Regardless of one’s political views, it is a beautifully envisioned, constructed and written piece. Thank you, Marty, for writing it and thank you, Jewish Journal, for printing it.

Immanuel “Manny” Spira
Los Angeles

Marty Kaplan is a blessed thinker and writer. His column on Roget’s and our vocabulary was terrific. Just what I needed as I sat here wondering when Congress would impeach the man before someone took him out permanently.

Government under Donald Trump is like watching democracy die. The CNN wrestling video was the last straw from this indecent, inelegant, crude, revolting hack.  If only the GOP had the backbone to admit he is their mistake and get him out of the White House.

Rev. Emmalou Kirchmeier
Bradenton, Fla.

Shmuel Rosner uses some of the text from President Donald Trump’s speech in Poland to conclude “How Trump’s Sentiments Are Israel’s Sentiments” (July 14). I think this is a mistake. It’s a mistake to believe that Trump has any sentiments or deeply held beliefs regarding Israel, or any other group, or nation, or principle (aside from what is good for Trump’s ego is good).

Sometimes, as has now been noted on several occasions, Trump comes across as “presidential” when reading from a teleprompter, words written by someone else. Actors come across as presidential on the stage.
Sadly, the closest we can come to what is going on in the dark mind of the president is to read his tweets. And even these sentiments change frequently. To read into a prepared text read by Trump any depth of feeling or conviction is a mistake.

Coleman Colla
via email

I would like to know why Donald Trump has a favorable rating only in Russia and Israel. I’ve seen polls where Barack Obama and John Kerry rated less than 10 percent in Israel. We American Jews will always be totally supportive of Israel but, with such divergent conclusions, it really makes it harder and harder.

I’ll point to only one issue out of hundreds. When Trump gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to get more than $100 billion in military aid, do people think that somehow that is good for Israel?

Mark Haskin
Marina del Rey

Based on Ben Shapiro’s assertion, as “fact,” that “Trump is the most moderate Republican president since Richard Nixon” (“How the Dems Can Lose 2018,” July 14) and that Republicans have moved to the political center while Democrats have slid to the far left, I say, for one, Nixon presided over the creation of the EPA, which Trump is tragically dismantling. Ronald Reagan, who fought for gun control laws and who granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, would be considered a liberal by today’s GOP, ever since an extremist, uncompromising group of congressmen and women known as the Tea Party gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Not even after 9/11 did George W. Bush react so extremely against Muslims as Trump has demonstrated.

Likewise, Shapiro’s take on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who currently polls as the most popular politician in the U.S., is stereotypically reduced to the archaic notion of “socialism,” as applied to the USSR during the Cold War, which has no relation to the “democratic socialism” Sanders espouses. If anything, Sanders champions policies supportive of the working and middle class that got Franklin D. Roosevelt elected president four times, and others, such as nonprofit health care, which is the norm worldwide. 

Frederick Abrams
Los Angeles

The Lessons of Hiroshima

I share Rob Eshman’s reluctant doubt that “Never Again” is dependable. As the generation that experienced the horror passes, so, too, does the horror itself. We wanted to slam the door on it forever but slamming the door isn’t always the same as slamming it shut. Actually, our holocausts aren’t remarkably original long-term (I’m Armenian).
When I look clear-eyed toward the Jews’ current refuge in Israel, I admit to the same doubt as toward future holocausts as Eshman.

David Morgan
Los Angeles

Separation of Church, State

While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Orthodox Union (OU) share common ground on many issues, we believe the OU’s position on government funding of religious institutions is shortsighted, and not in the long-term best interest of the Jewish community (“Jewish Groups Differ Over Ruling About Public Funds for Religious Institutions,” July 14). Jewish history is pretty clear on this point: With the king’s purse comes the king — and all his meddling and regulations.

For more than a century, the ADL has steadfastly promoted the idea that the separation principle has been a key to religious freedom for Jews and other religious minorities in America. It protects religion from government oversight and interference, and keeps the government from favoring or promoting certain religious faiths or doctrines. When the government provides funding to religious institutions in any capacity, it has the effect of promoting religion. 

The Trinity Lutheran decision raises more questions than answers on the scope of government funding now available to religious institutions. We are concerned it will be read as leaving the door wide open to such funding. Requiring taxpayers to fund religious institutions is not wise policy.

Amanda Susskind
Pacific Southwest Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League

What to Do About the Wall

I support Shmuel Rosner’s call that we American Jews demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu honor the original January 2016 decision to give Conservative and Reform congregations official recognition at the Kotel (“Fight or Flee? American Jews Face Post-Kotel Dilemma,” June 30). Orthodox Judaism does not speak for me. But Judaism does. I believe in a broad construction of Jewish law and culture. For me, Judaism is a great religion because it was the first religion to center on ethics, not on ritual practices that could ensure a good harvest, etc. If Reform and Conservative Judaism have no official status in Israel, then America soon will be recognized as the true home of world Jewry.

Barbara Judson

The July 7 edition of the Jewish Journal contains a remarkable story by David Benkof (“Diaspora Jews Cannot Expect Veto Power Over Jewish State”). Besides the incredibly arrogant tone, it is intellectually dishonest. To call the “Kotel architecture” issue a kerfuffle is demeaning. As is ignoring the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government reneged on an agreed-upon compromise. Finally, while Benkof has a legitimate point in stating that Diaspora Jews cannot expect veto power over the Jewish state, then I assume that he also agrees that Israel has no legitimate case against the United States when it takes positions in the United Nations General Assembly with which Israel vehemently disagrees.

Tom Fleishman
Valley Glen

Kudos to Berrin

Lately, I’ve been thinking what a fine journalist Danielle Berrin has become, and when I read “When the Dream of Israel Clashes With Reality”  (July 7), I realized each story is better than the last. Several pages later, I learned she has been named journalist of the year by the Los Angeles Press Club. So very well deserved.

Marilyn Russell
Los Angeles

After surviving the Holocaust in Poland, I was sure that for the rest of my life, all Jews, including women, are equal. Berrin’s story, so well done, points out that I am wrong.  Women, of all places in the “free” country in Israel, are not equal to men. How can that be? The country that rose on the ashes of 6 million because of great bigotry and inequality. Wake up, Israeli leaders: All of us, we love Israel, and we want to continue to love it!

Bob Geminder
Rancho Palos Verdes

President Donald Trump Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Politicians can’t solve every problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Journalists and pundits are having a field day with the ironies swirling around President Donald Trump’s dialectic on ending terrorism, delivered last week to the leaders of nearly 50 Muslim nations during his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Not least was his effort to single out Iran as the primary funder and fueler of terror while ignoring Saudi support for a vast network of madrasas teaching Wahhabism, an extremist sect of Islam. Also unmentioned by Trump was a reminder that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers — plus mastermind Osama bin Laden — were from Saudi Arabia, a country one former U.S. ambassador described as the “ideological and financial epicenter” of “theofascism.”  

But there was another more significant omission in Trump’s prescription for combating terror. You can drive out terrorists from a country physically, but how do you drive hatred from their heart? What do you replace it with? 

“Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding and the false allure of their craven ideology will be the basis for defeating them,” Trump said.

The president deployed his vision for combating terrorism mostly through the prism of  “hard power”: a top-down leadership approach that ostensibly involves international diplomacy, military might, policy-making, spying and the international banking system. He’s the American president, after all, and that is his purview.   

But is there an alternative?

Perhaps Trump didn’t want to get too specific about a more grass-roots approach because that would creep too eerily into Saudi funding of madrasas and offend his “gracious hosts.”

But hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists. Trump himself said he does not wish to “impose our way of life” on any other nation. But in one sense, our way of life — upheld by a liberal education — is exactly what is needed.

When it comes to the world’s most intractable conflicts — and Trump’s framing of the fight against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil” certainly qualifies — hard power must be met with partners in social change.

So let’s pivot to another seemingly insurmountable conflict, the one between Israel and Palestine. Last week, while Trump was en route to the Middle East, a group of scholars and teachers from that region headed to Los Angeles for the conference “Learning the Other’s Past,” organized by Professor David N. Myers, chair in Jewish History at UCLA.

The focus of the conference was an Israeli-Palestinian educational partnership, PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East), which produced a “dual-narrative” textbook teaching Israeli and Palestinian histories “Side by Side,” as the volume is titled.

At a certain point, the creators of the project reasoned, the only way to bridge the chasm that divides Israelis and Palestinians is to expand educational possibilities. Palestinians need to understand the Jewish imperative for statehood in their ancestral land and learn about the Holocaust. Likewise, Israelis need to recognize Palestinian claims to the land and understand how Jewish statehood triggered a Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” 

Hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists.

“For me, the theory of change that really resonates most powerfully is bottom-up, people to people, community by community, school to school,” Myers told me. “That’s the kind of work that culture and education and the arts and history can promote in advance, [and which] seems to stitch together the fabric of a meaningful nonviolent coexistence.”

Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can negotiate borders, sovereignty, holy sites and settlements. But no amount of dealmaking can undo the fear, hatred, distrust and resentment that have built up between two peoples for more than a century. Only individual contact with the other side — and The Other’s story — can do that.

It is a shame and a disgrace to “hard power” that both the Israeli Ministry of Education as well as the Palestinian Ministry have banned the dual-narrative textbook from public school curriculums. A daring few are teaching it anyway, as are several other countries. The overwhelming resistance within Israel and Palestine to teaching this broader narrative, one that encompasses multiple perspectives, is a cynical attempt to entrench future generations in a protracted conflict.

It also proves that education is just as threatening as violence: Knowledge can inculcate one-sided, nationalistic ideology or it can unlock human empathy and understanding. A madrasa can be a gateway to God — or hell.   

The process of unraveling a narrow worldview, especially if one’s identity depends upon it, is always fraught.

I asked Myers, an observant Jew and a lover of Israel, what it’s like to sit in conference rooms listening to Palestinians tell stories of Israeli-inflicted pain. How does he hold his love for Israel in the same heart that aches for the suffering on the other side?

“It’s the great challenge of my life,” Myers said. “I wake up in the morning obsessed with the question, and I go to bed at night obsessed with the question. I have a deep, searing, powerful, emotional connection to [Israel], the people, the culture, the language. And yet, it often tortures my soul.”

The only solution is reconciliation, empowering people through knowledge.

The writer Adam Thirlwell teaches that power is “always an assault on individual integrity” and thrives when there is “communal blur.”

If that’s the case, Trump’s words in Saudi Arabia were sadly out of focus.

Author Dorit Rabinyan

In Israel, a love considered ‘treason’

Israel’s Education Ministry gave Dorit Rabinyan a gift in late 2015 by banning her book “Gader Haya” from the list of required reading for high school literature classes.

The ministry reasoned that the book threatened “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” because it portrayed a love story between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. Those identities, the ministry insisted, are best kept “separate.”

“Young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation,” the ministry said in a statement.

What foolishness.

Telling young people what they can’t do only makes them want to do it more. The Israeli public responded voraciously by buying the book. It topped best-seller lists, sold out within days and made international headlines.

Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on the author’s sad, true love story, which most certainly broke her heart but barely dented her Zionism.

“I really gained so much of my Zionist patriotic identity due to getting close with my partners on the other side,” Rabinyan told me during her American book tour last week. Her novel recently was published in English under the title “All the Rivers.”

“My choice to believe in the future of harmony and coexistence comes from a reconfirmation of my position as a believer that this piece of earth between the ’67 line and the shore of the Mediterranean should be Jewish,” she said. “A Jewish democratic state with a neighboring Palestinian democratic state. Never had this loyalty been validated with such truthful discussion and debate than when I was looking [at the conflict] through the eyes of the one I aspired to live in harmony with.”

Before she fell in love with real-life Hassan (in the book, “Hilmi”), Rabinyan said her peace activism “was all sterile, paper, slogans, shouting out in the same demonstrations for 30 years.”

It wasn’t until the ultimate confrontation with The Other — in the bedroom — that her political position, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” was “tested to its core.”

“[I had] to acknowledge how much we have in common, how similar we are,” she said. “There’s a saying from [comedian] Sarah Silverman that I love: She says, ‘What’s the difference between Israelis and Palestinians? They’re all brown and noisy.’ ”

It’s a quaint idea, but it shows the limits of humor. According to Uri Ram, one of Israel’s leading sociologists and the president of the Israeli Sociological Association, an Israeli-Palestinian love affair represents a transgression of the highest order.

“This is the major taboo,” Ram wrote to me in an email.

It’s so taboo, it almost never happens. So few statistics exist regarding this rare phenomenon, the lack of any established pattern or trend makes it an irrelevant field of study.

“The type of relationship described in the book is not only difficult to imagine and a cultural taboo, it is also physically impossible to maintain,” another Israeli sociologist — this one asked not to be named, citing trepidation in discussing this subject — wrote in an  email. “Palestinians from the territories are not permitted entry into Israel and Israelis cannot visit the Palestinian Authority, either, so there’s an actual physical and legal barrier there.”

An Israeli-Palestinian romance “could only happen in an ‘extra-terrestrial’ setting like New York,” — as is the case in Rabinyan’s life and work — “where both sides can disconnect themselves from the norms and social mores of both their societies,” the sociologist added.

Perhaps that’s why Israeli-Palestinian romance has captivated the artistic imagination, flourishing in art and literature — including A.B. Yehoshua’s 1977 book, “The Lover.” The theme is particularly prevalent in Israeli theater. According to the Palestine-Israel Journal, this type of art is perhaps “a metaphor for the desire for conciliation; for there is nothing like a ‘love story’ to represent a yearned-for peace.”

In reality, this love is seen as nothing but betrayal.

“Israel is not a liberal democracy, but an ‘ethnocracy,’ ” Ram explained. “[It] bases its dominant Jewish nationalism on an ethnic model of citizenship based on blood, compared with the model of territorial citizenship. Intermarriages [or inter-relationships] are not considered as a private deviation from norms, but rather as a transgression of the boundaries of the national community.

“They are considered a treason of Zionism.”

Imam Abdullah Antepli, the founding director of Duke University’s Center for Muslim Life and a senior fellow of Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, agreed that interfaith relationships pose a threat to traditional tribal orders. But there is a special place in hell for those that occur within an ongoing and violent political conflict.

“Interfaith marriages of all kinds undermine the basic human desire for continuity and survival of a tradition,” Antepli told me, “but especially if that fear is in the context of a political war.”

As a proponent of interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims, Antepli frequently experiences condemnation by members of the pro-Palestinian community.

“My ‘sin’ is that I engage and talk to Zionist Jews, [and that] I’d like to create a space where pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli Jews can have a conversation,” he said. “Imagine going beyond this action and falling in love with that Zionist. Imagine trying to raise children.”

Falling in love with your ‘enemy’ is the ultimate treachery. “One of the ways you can betray your own people the worst is [to] fall in love with the people who hurt your people.”

Beyond the political stalemate, intermarriage is forbidden in Jewish religious law, and civil marriage does not exist in Israel, making intermarriage legally impossible. But within Islamic law, Antepli told me, there is flexibility — even encouragement — regarding intermarriage between Muslims and members of the other Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths.

Historically, Muslims harbored less cultural anxiety over intermarriage than Jews, because they often were a powerful majority in the regions where they lived. Jews, on the other hand, were minorities who often experienced intense hostility from their host cultures and depended on in-group marriage to survive.

American Muslims, however, find themselves in a different position today. As a minority in the U.S., the community is beginning to grapple with cultural anxieties about assimilation.

“The day after the Pew study came out about American Jews, [showing the high] rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jewish communities, there were nine voice messages at my office from Muslims around the country, telling me, ‘Imam Abdullah, you seem to know something about Jews and Judaism — tell us how we will not end up like the Jews!’”

Sometimes, cultural norms and religious law can diverge. According to the Quran, it is “kosher” for a Muslim man to marry a Jewish woman, just as Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, did.

“He used romance, family ties and tribal relationships in a very sophisticated and successful way,” Antepli said. “But only after violent conflict ended.

“With the existing bleeding wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no viable solution on the horizon, I think it’s very difficult to bring our communities there. [Intermarriage is] way too far for even the most progressive, inclusive, peace-loving Muslims and Jews.”

Danielle Berrin is senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Enslaved by politics

One thing you learn by engaging in “dialogue” with Jews is what the essayist Joseph Epstein put this way: “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”

I discovered this truth — yet again — when I served as a guest speaker at an international Passover gathering at a beach resort south of Cancun, Mexico. On the second day of Pesach, I stood in front of a mostly Modern Orthodox crowd from 11 countries and delivered a warning: My lecture, “Seeking Truth: Journalism in the Age of Trump,” was going to be critical of the president.

Before I finished my second sentence, six people walked out.

My premise wasn’t exactly provocative. Anyone who has read a newspaper in the last six months knows that America’s press has taken a beating from Trump — both during his campaign and the first few months of his administration. What I had hoped to do, rather than provoke, was use my Passover pulpit to defend the institution of a free press as an essential feature of democracy — and establish some common ground. I didn’t think it was controversial to draw upon philosophical reinforcement from John Adams, the First Amendment and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To do this, I based my presentation strictly on facts: that is, things that have actually happened. That was my first mistake. We are now living in an “alternative fact” universe where a “fact” is a dirty, politicized word that doesn’t settle a dispute so much as provoke one. A fact used to be a thing that was “indisputably the case,” as defined in the dictionary — a common, shared language, like, “Sugar is sweet.” But now, a fact is considered subjective, open to debate.

I had hoped to have a civil discussion about how we, as a community, could respond to Trump’s effort to repress our press. Instead, what emerged during the Q-and-A after my lecture and in the days afterward was a combination of acrimony, distrust and disrespect that reveals the extent to which deep and ugly political divisions in the Jewish community are tearing us apart.

Here is some of what I heard: My talk was “offensive”; I have “garbage” in my head; I “don’t know facts or history”; political correctness is “fake news”; the media “lost credibility a long time ago,” “doesn’t report accurately,” is “biased against Israel,” “never questioned” Barack Obama; and – my personal favorite – “I wanted to walk out, but I actually came back in because I believe in discourse.”

No kidding!

The broad, sweeping generalizations were astounding. The New York Times might as well be Al Jazeera. There was no acknowledgment that American newspapers employ thousands of reporters worldwide, many of whom risk their lives to bring us information. What does it matter, if it’s information you don’t like?

During a panel I moderated on campus anti-Semitism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), I referred to the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territory — another “fact” that can’t be called a fact because it’s open for debate. A woman approached me at lunch all hot and bothered because how dare I say what I said. “The Arabs want to kill us!” “The Palestinians don’t want a state!” “They weren’t there first anyway!” And she could “prove scientifically” that God exists and the Exodus happened.

I declined the lesson in metaphysics, but when I asked her to address the disenfranchised Palestinian population in “Judea and Samaria,” she said she had no solution. She’s hoping the Messiah will come.

Me, too.

Some of these arguments seem ludicrous, but these are the kinds of statements that earn applause in certain Jewish circles.

During an evening lecture by former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has spent the last 30 years working on the Middle East conflict under four administrations, Democrat and Republican, a woman took issue with Palestinian self-determination. After going on and on, he finally stopped her. “You’re not going to convince me,” Ross said. “I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years.”

“Unsuccessfully,” she sniped.

The room was silent. But Ross, the consummate diplomat, kept his cool, letting slide a public insult that labeled his career a failure.

Some of us are so far down the rabbit hole of self-righteousness and self-rightness, we have forgotten how to be kind.

The Torah tells us that Moses, the most vaunted leader in Jewish history, was a man of deep humility, a quality our current political discourse sorely lacks. Communal certainty has replaced critical thinking. The State of Israel has become more sacred than the People of Israel.

What is under attack in our community isn’t politics, but pluralism itself. For the right, criticizing or challenging Israel is an unforgivable heresy. For the left, moral superiority has become unassailable orthodoxy. For both, the other perspective is viewed as “destroying the Jewish people.”

And guess what. It is.

Our community will be profoundly compromised if we choose ideology over one another. Communities that prize ideology over humanity are doomed to fail. We know this. We criticize Islam endlessly for the very same reason.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Linda Sarsour speaking onstage during the Women’s March on Washington in Washington, D.C, Jan. 21, 2017. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Why should we care what Linda Sarsour says?

The internet treated us to quite a debate last week. The issue: Are Zionism and feminism, two of the most successful social revolutions of the 20th century, compatible?

In a New York Times op-ed, Jewish American Emily Shire wondered if her identity as a Zionist would alienate her from a resurgent feminist movement aligned with the Palestinian cause. “I am troubled by the portion of the International Women’s Strike platform that calls for a ‘decolonization of Palestine’ as part of ‘the beating heart of this new feminist movement,’ ” she wrote. “Why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?”

She was answered by Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American activist and one of the organizers behind the Women’s March on Washington. In an interview with The Nation, Sarsour responded bluntly: “It just doesn’t make any sense for someone to say, ‘Is there room for people who support the state of Israel and do not criticize it in the movement?’ There can’t be in feminism. You either stand up for the rights of all women, including Palestinians, or none. There’s just no way around it.”

On one point, Sarsour is right: To believe in the rights of women is to believe in the rights of all women — including those in Sudan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. A feminism that lacks inclusion is a flawed feminism. There’s just no way around it.

But many in our community only heard Sarsour say: “criticize Israel.” And so the debate descended into something vicious and misguided, helped in large part by The Nation’s deeply irresponsible headline — “Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No” — and a reporter who was even more irresponsible. She offered Sarsour an unrestricted soapbox on which to air her views, without ever thinking to ask if she supports the same Jewish right to self-determination that Sarsour is seeking for the Palestinians.

I spent a few days thinking about why this little tempest matters, and you know what I concluded? It doesn’t.

“Basically, this is a conversation about theory,” Anat Hoffman, perhaps Israel’s most famous feminist, said when I reached her by phone. “The practical, immediate repercussions of this are zero.”

Talking is not especially useful to Hoffman, who is one of Israel’s leading activists. She is a founding member of the Women of the Wall movement, which seeks prayer equality for women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a legal advocacy arm pursuing gender equality, social justice and religious pluralism. Hoffman spends most of her time bringing lawsuits against the State of Israel, demonstrating that arguments about the definition of political movements are far less consequential than policy change.

If people like Sarsour count no Jewish Zionists among their friends or colleagues, it is virtually guaranteed they will never modify their views.

For women who work in the trenches of Israel’s justice movement, the tension between Zionism and feminism is nothing new. The Orthodox establishment within Israel’s government has precluded women from realizing their full rights since the country’s founding.

“What about the 50,000 women who cannot get divorced because there is no civil marriage or civil divorce in Israel? What about the gaps in salaries? What about domestic violence?” Hoffman said. “To the Jewish woman who says that for the first time she feels a tug between her Zionism and her feminism, I say: ‘Good morning, sister!’ ”

How one Muslim-American woman defines feminism, or Zionism, is irrelevant. Any thoughtful person can define his or her personal politics and has the right to set their own political priorities. What matters is that we stop instantly vilifying anyone and everyone with whom we don’t agree — whether within our own communities or outside of them.

“Zionism needs a good kick in the ass,” Hoffman said, “as long as there’s one condition: that you love Israel, that you are committed to the existence of Israel, and to the right of the Jewish people to have a sovereign state and self-determination. Then you can criticize Israel as much as you want.”

But what about people like Sarsour, who might not love Israel? Should we, as a community, even bother talking to her? Where do we draw the line?

“If you believe terrorizing innocent civilians is the way to achieve liberation, then that crosses my line,” Hoffman said. “Someone who believes the only way to go is to explode buses in Israel — he is my enemy.”

A shared premise of nonviolence is a reasonable rule of engagement. Better to engage — even our foes — than walk away from the table altogether, right? At least if we’re talking, there is hope our views will prevail over time, or that we’ll reach a compromise. After all, if people like Sarsour count no Jewish Zionists among their friends or colleagues, it is virtually guaranteed they will never modify their views.

Sarsour says she is committed to non-violence, but other aspects of her record are troubling. She fights on behalf of the oppressed but seems to have little regard for Jewish history. Nowhere is there a record of her support for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and she has tweeted that Zionism is “creepy” and akin to racism. Is it worth talking to her if she doesn’t support Israel’s right to exist? If she’s really an anti-Zionist activist disguised in social justice clothing?

“I believe in Sarsour’s right to self-determination and an independent state of her own,” Hoffman said. “And I would like you to find out if she believes in my right to [the same]. Because I have no other choice: Hebrew is my language and Jerusalem is my home. I have nowhere else to go.”

That’s a Zionist feminist talking.

"On Tyranny" author Timothy Snyder. Photo from Wikipedia

‘Tyranny’ historian warns Americans: Don’t forget lessons learned

Yale historian Timothy Snyder has spent the better part of his career studying 20th- century authoritarian regimes, from fascist Germany to the communist Soviet Union. Educated at Oxford, Snyder has written extensively about the rise and fall of modern political systems and the catastrophes that ensue when civil society breaks down.

His latest work, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” is addressed to Americans who are disturbed by the radical new politics introduced into American democracy by the Trump administration. It is both a warning and how-to manual, urging citizens who cherish American democracy to defend democratic institutions and their own independent minds.

Snyder will appear in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills through Writers Bloc.

DANIELLE BERRIN: At what point did you start to consider the threat of tyranny — a serious charge — a legitimate critique of the current administration?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I’m trying to adopt the perspective of the Founding Fathers, [who thought] that we need to be very thoughtful about [democratic] institutions, because if you’re not thoughtful about the institutions, the system can fall apart at any time. What I’m trying to do is look back at recent examples of modern tyranny — Nazi Germany, fascism, communist regimes — to see how democratic republics tend to break down. I have to point out, if the book seems relevant now, I wrote the “Twenty Lessons” in November, and had [finished] the book by Christmas. So I couldn’t even judge the present administration. What I was judging were the tendencies of a [president-elect] who seemed to be entirely indifferent to the foundations of our political system.

DB: What did you find most alarming about him?

TS: In Donald Trump’s campaign, there was an absence of support for democracy and an absence of support for human rights. He never talked about those things, whereas other American politicians do. The second thing that concerned me was the Russia connection; I don’t think American politicians should be seeing foreign tyrants as models of leadership. The third thing was the war on truth — not just lying at the margins the way all politicians lie — but the broad-gauge full-on attack on the truth. [Trump] was using language to build up a kind of counter-world, an alternative reality, a myth in which his supporters could live … that’s fascist.

DB: In the book, it’s clear you’re trying to address a wide audience — both left and right. But do you really think the same people reading Breitbart are going to read a work of scholarship?

TS: Look, this book is written from the position of an American citizen who thinks that the American republic is in danger. And the various kinds of moral and intellectual commitments I have don’t line up perfectly with one party or the other. In a lot of ways, I’m sympathetic to conservatism — when it’s actually conservative.

DB: You talk a lot in the book about truth and lies. How do you combat propaganda when truth itself has been politicized?

TS: Without the enlightenment — without the belief that there is truth on earth, and that we can discover that truth — there will not be democracy. There will not be rule of law. If we let truth go, we’re not going to have the system that we have. Journalists are now in a position where you get to be pioneers; you get to be the stars. Because the mainstream is now all this junk. People still say “mainstream media” but the mainstream [has changed]. You guys are now edgy. You guys have a chance to be heroes in 2017.

DB: In order for Hitler to be successful, you write that he needed the complicity of ordinary citizens to carry out his policies. That puts a lot of responsibility on citizens. How much power does the populace actually have to make or break a dictatorship?

TS: Citizens have a huge amount of power and usually what they do is give it away without thinking about it. We [learn] the rules and we adapt. That’s how we survive. But sometimes things change so drastically, we have to check our social impulses and be an individual. We have to stop and say, “This situation is different. I’m not going to automatically adjust.” The smartest analysts of authoritarianism, they all make the point that it depends upon consent. That the little choices you make matter. Just going along is a choice; and when you go along, you’re making regime change happen.

DB: Some people are deeply disturbed by what is happening within our government, but others argue that democracy remains intact — the press is still functioning, we still have rule of law. Even you could write a book “On Tyranny” without fear of repercussions. How close do you think we are to fascism? 

TS: There are things that are short of fascism that are absolutely terrible: If America becomes a kleptocratic, authoritarian regime where we have ritualized elections in which everybody knows who will win in advance; where you can’t become prosperous or wealthy without the support of the people in power; where you think about what you’re going to say before you say it — we’re not very far away from that. It won’t take too many pushes to get into a situation where it’s normal for us to think that the president is the richest person in the country and that the next several presidents need to be named Trump. Fascism would be something more. Fascism would be [White House chief strategist Stephen] Bannon succeeding in creating a sense of white nationalism in the U.S. [with] lots of internal violence deliberately directed toward creating a national identity. That’s a higher bar for evil.

DB: Trump has targeted and maligned many minority groups. Why is it important for an authoritarian leader to have scapegoats?

TS: If you want to change the regime, you take a group and say, “This group is not your neighbors, it’s not your fellow citizens; this group is an element of an international plot.” For Hitler, it was Jews, but it can be anybody. The mechanism is the same. So with American Muslims, you’re taking a group that is basically assimilated, basically small, and you’re saying, “Don’t think of them as individuals. Don’t think of them as citizens or as customers. Think of them as part of some larger threat.” That is politically important because it changes domestic politics [to become] about fighting the larger global threat — whether it’s terrorism or the Jewish international conspiracy. And that means that the normal things of domestic politics — like prosperity, group interest or freedom — those things are suddenly less important.

DB: The president hasn’t targeted Jews the way he has Muslims and immigrants, but the political climate has enabled an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. As a historian of the most anti-Semitic period in history, is the current surge of anti-Semitism here significant?

TS: Those who are saying that anti-Semitism isn’t as bad as it seems is what the Orthodox community in Poland did in the second half of the 1930s; it’s exactly what the German Jews did in 1933. If Jews are going to remember the Holocaust, they have to remember the whole thing — including that normalization burst right after Hitler was elected. That impulse to rationalize — you have to check yourself: What do I think it means as an American Jew that the [headstones in] cemeteries are going down? What do I think it means that there’s all this hate speech? That there are now swastikas in places where there weren’t swastikas before? It sounds crazy and obvious, but this is a time for American Jews to be thinking about the Holocaust — not so much from 1944 in Auschwitz, but from early 1933 and the transition. Because if you only think about the end, you forget about the beginning. And if you only look at the end, nothing is ever as bad as the end — until the end.

Timothy Snyder will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m. on March 21 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Tickets are $20.

Woman at The Wall

Erev Shabbat brings a beautiful chaos to the Kotel, a swaying sea of souls, singing, screaming, offering up their spirits, just to be a speck beneath a tower of history.

I had never visited the Kotel on Shabbat before, but last week I found myself eagerly entreating the tznius lady policing modest dress near the back of the plaza to loan me a sheath so I could enter the sacred space in Jerusalem that has also been the center of so much strife for modern Jewish women. 

Next to me was a raven-haired Israeli editor from The Jerusalem Post, who had been trailing the group I was traveling with — 47 or so “storytellers,” mostly from the U.S., ranging from Michelle Obama’s speechwriter to a screenwriter for Seth Rogen. We were touring Israel as part of a leadership development program sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. 

A bit defiantly, the Post editor tried to persuade me not to wear the sheath, which, for her, symbolizes secular acquiescence to the religious right. But my dress really was too short, and I wanted to focus on the Wall, not disapproving stares.  

So I pulled the coverup around my waist and headed for the entrance with the Post editor at my side, until I took a wrong turn and wound up at a blocked partition. I swung around and gave my Wall companion a puzzled look.

“Shows how many times I’ve been here,” she muttered with a bit of disdain. 

Suddenly it occurred to me that this Israeli Jew had no clue how to enter the women’s section. She lives and works in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, the ancient language of her people, but she was a total stranger — an alien even — at Judaism’s holiest site. A shade of sadness softened my Sabbath joy.

“This place belongs to you as much as any other Jew,” I told her. 

“I know,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a place that makes me so uncomfortable.”

As the central gathering site of Jewish religious life, we have seen how constantly the Wall is the vortex for opposing visions as to how it should function: Who should pray there, how they should pray, where they should pray, what they should wear while they pray and so on. Even though it exists as the spiritual center for all Jews, it is in reality largely dominated by the Orthodox and falls under the jurisdiction not of the democratic Israeli government, but of Israel’s religious establishment. 

Women in particular — represented by the Women of the Wall movement — have for years protested the traditional limits on their participation dictated by the chief rabbinate, which forbids women to read Torah at the Wall and a variety of other rites available to men. The Wall does not function as an exemplar of democracy and liberalism; it is a place of tradition, a physical vestige of the past where modern ways and ideas are absent, even irrelevant. 

But being at the Wall last Shabbat convinced me that from afar people have a rigid imagination of what really goes on there. We’ve heard about the struggles of the Women of the Wall and how they’ve been excoriated and spat at and even physically assaulted. We’ve heard about some very bad behavior that expresses the opposite of what is holy, and desecrates the sanctity of a place where God is thought to dwell. 

We hear much less about the ways the culture of the Wall has already shifted in the direction of progress.

I admit I was a little bit shocked (and delighted) when the first thing I heard upon entering the women’s section was the Arabic word Salaam. A group of young women on a Birthright trip were singing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” a popular song in Hebrew and Arabic that has become a clarion call for peace — and a plea to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Farther up, I passed a group of young Modern Orthodox Americans who were davening Kabbalat Shabbat so loudly they put a new spin on Kol Isha, “a woman’s voice,” which in religious circles prohibits men from hearing one. As I moved closer to the Wall itself, I encountered women of every stripe, sect and color – young and old; religious and secular; Israeli, American, Yemenite, Moroccan, French and Spanish; many dressed in their finery, some not; Sabbath brides sparkling like the jewels that adorned their hands and necks; women rocking their new babies in strollers; heads of hair wrapped in patterned cloth, other hair flowing freely. Here was a world of women trembling together in prayer. 

When I finished my own prayer, I decided to move toward the mechitzah for a moment and spy on the men. Instead of an impossible barricade, there was a platform running the length of the divide, which women could step upon to peer into the men’s section. I literally ducked for fear of a man seeing my face until I realized the woman next to me was having an entire conversation over the mechitzah with someone on the other side. I had never seen such a thing! I thought women were supposed to be invisible! And yet, here they were, leaning across, waving and staring and talking to men as if they were at the back of an L.A. synagogue during the Amidah.

That’s when it dawned on me exactly what the Kotel is: one big crazy synagogue where every Jew from everywhere is an automatic member, where everyone talks to everyone, where there really is no decorum, where Jews gather from all corners of the world, break the rules, talk to each other, talk to God — and it’s a beautiful thing.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Letters to the editor: Jesse Owens, Donald Trump, Dennis Prager and more

Jesse Owens’ Winning Ways

I had the pleasure of attending a dinner where Jesse Owens spoke about his experience in the 1936 Olympics in Germany (“This Week in Jewish History, July 29). He said, “Hitler died on a Jewish holiday.” Throughout the predominately Jewish audience, you could hear, “Huh?” “What holiday?” “It wasn’t a Jewish holiday.”

Mr. Owens heard this, and waited. Then, with impeccable timing, he explained, “Any day that Hitler died is a Jewish holiday.” Laughter resounded in the room. He had us in his pocket with his wit and gentle charm and grace.

Susan Cohen via email

Taking Rape Seriously

I recognized that Danielle Berrin was poking fun at Donald Trump’s bigotry in her most recent article when she remarked about how she and her sister saw no rapists when they traveled to Mexico (“Where Are the Mexican Rapists?” July 29). However, I was disappointed that, in her attempt at humor, Ms. Berrin perpetuated some common misconceptions about rape. She reported, “[M]y sister and I were so utterly ignored by the country’s infamous rapists that my sister remarked early in our journey, ‘Nobody’s even hitting on us!’ ” Ms. Berrin then facetiously admitted to “the possibility that we have an inflated sense of our own attractiveness,” but that she expected more attention from the Mexican men with whom she came in contact. This pairing of a woman’s attractiveness and the likelihood that she will be raped is a fallacy. Rape is a crime committed not out of sexual desire, but out of a lust for power. Furthermore, rape is not on an extreme end of a continuum that begins with flirtation. This fact makes Trump’s accusation all the more repugnant.

Guy Handelman, Sherman Oaks

Berrin responds: Thank you, Mr. Handelman, for making this important point. I intended to suggest that, far below rape, even harassment, which is common, wasn’t something that my sister or I experienced.

Trump Supporter Speaks Out

I read Rob Eshman’s screed and I am a Jew (“All Together Now,” July 29). You will be surprised the morning after the election when the Chicago Tribune repeats its monumental bold headline blunder, the one that read “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Remember to email me.

What bias makes your head so thick? Did you get paid to write that? If yes, who paid you?

Martin Kessler via email

Hold the Movie ‘Kreplach’

As much as I admire David Kipen and his wonderful Libros Schmibros bookstore, I take major exception to his calling “Tiempo de Murir” a “kreplach Western” simply because its director and studio heads were Jewish (“ ‘Kreplach Western’ Screening a New Frontier for Boyle Heights Lending Library,” July 29). By this skewed, ethnocentric logic, American Westerns by the likes of William Wyler and Anthony Mann or any other Jewish director working for a Jewish-headed studio would have to be so designated, as well. In keeping with the “spaghetti Western” geo-culinary template, I suggest “arroz con pollo” Western instead.

Vincent Brook, Los Angeles

Prager and the Police

The propaganda penned by Dennis Prager is the type of rhetoric that divides the country. The idea that only the people on the left side of the political stratum are responsible for police brutality and the deaths of police officers is absurd, to say the least (“The Left Has Cops’ Blood on Its Hands,” July 22). 

Prager’s attack on Michael Eric Dyson, an esteemed professor of sociology, is typical stereotyping, suggesting that if a Black man projects an opinion that is contrary to his own beliefs, then he must be a Black radical. Prager quoted a paragraph of Dyson’s article and used it out of context. One should read the entire article to fully understand the positive message of Mr. Dyson. 

Prager’s position on having the police vigorously patrol Black areas to reduce the murder rate is unreasonable and lacks meaningful solutions. To that, I quote Michael Eric Dyson: “Black people protest, to one another, to a world that largely refuses to listen, that what goes on in black communities across this nation is horrid, as it would be in any neighborhood depleted of dollars and hope — emptied of good schools, and deprived of social and economic buffers against brutality. People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets.” I fear that the only person who is filled with “anti-isms” is Prager himself.

Bervick J. Deculus, Tarzana

Prager responds: Any response to Mr. Deculus would simply involve restating the facts and studies I cited in my original column. Therefore, I will respond only with a heartfelt suggestion — that Mr. Deculus read Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Jason Riley, Larry Elder, Jesse Peterson and other Black writers and scholars who, unlike Michael Eric Dyson, do not blame whites for most problems afflicting Black life, and who feel immensely blessed to be American.

Where are the Mexican rapists?

After two weeks of traveling through Mexico, I feel a duty to report that I did not encounter a single rapist. 

Potential Zika? Maybe. By my second day on the coast of Tulum, I counted 75 bug bites — despite the Deet and mosquito nets. But rapists? Not one. The elephant absent from the circus.

According to what we hear about Mexico, it would be reasonable to worry that American sisters traveling unescorted through the country might be placing themselves in peril. But let the record show that my sister and I were so utterly ignored by the country’s infamous rapists that my sister remarked early in our journey, “Nobody’s even hitting on us!” 

I will allow, of course, for the possibility that we have an inflated sense of our own attractiveness — but still: We were two flesh-and-blood-females traveling alone and wearing lipstick and we didn’t even get so much as a whistle. Frankly, I did better in Burma.   

What is most disorienting about Mexico is how contrary the experience of being there is to the perception many Americans (including one presidential candidate) have of it. There is persistent hysteria about Mexico’s dark underbelly — a place of lawlessness, corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking and dangerous cartels. And while it’s true that some of these issues present real challenges to Mexico’s striving democratic republic, the country also deserves a reputation more expansive than that it consists of marauding wannabe immigrants, on the one hand, and spring breakers drinking in Cancun, on the other. 

I’ve traveled to Mexico twice in recent years — first in 2013, with the international development organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and again as a tourist this summer. This does not qualify me as an expert on Mexican society, but my visits have given me an authentic and meaningful glimpse into Mexico’s history, treasures, struggles and dreams. I visited Mayan ruins, walked the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, washed dishes with an indigenous community in the Sierra Madre, swam in a fresh-water lagoon, dined in Michelin-worthy restaurants and slept in a bedbug-infested cabana on the beach. So I’ll let you in on an open secret: Mexico is awesome. It is cosmopolitan, diverse, culturally rich, gastronomically inspired and breathtakingly beautiful. The people — and sometimes, especially the men — are kind and thoughtful and helpful in ways that would shock me to experience in the U.S. 

My sister began our recent trip with moderate concern. After I phoned her, ecstatic that The New York Times’ top destination for 2016 would be the best choice for our annual trip together, the first thing she did was visit the U.S. State Department website to search for travel advisories. There was nothing very alarming, though: Mexico, according to the State Department site, is mostly safe, except for some rural areas it suggests Americans avoid. Still, colleagues and friends warned my sister of kidnappings and violent crime. I tried to comfort her with the fact that we are neither important enough nor rich enough to be worthy victims.

What we found, instead of menace, were signs of a growing, world-class economy. During our first dinner in Mexico City, in the hip, bourgeois neighborhood of Roma Norte, we found ourselves engrossed in conversation with two worldly locals at the adjacent table: the Argentine-born head of Google Mexico and a French-born executive at Nestlé. They presented a portrait of Mexico fast on the rise, a place of golden opportunity. 

Others agree: Last April’s Milken Global Conference included the panel “Mexico as a Global Powerhouse,” one of a very few Michael Milken chose to moderate. And yet, those are not the stories of Mexico that make headlines.

None of this is to say that Mexico is a flawless country. About half its population lives below Mexico’s national poverty line (about $158 per month in cities, less in rural areas) and one man, Carlos Slim, among the world’s richest people, possesses personal wealth equivalent to about 6 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Like all countries run by human beings, Mexico has a long way to go before it realizes a truly just, equal and free society. 

On the AJWS trip in 2013, I met with communities and NGOs on the hopeful side of this struggle: Naaxwiin, for example, is a collective devoted to women’s health, reproductive and political rights; Ser Mixe is an indigenous community committed to sustainable living; ProDESC, a legal defense organization, takes on great risk in order to represent underserved communities in the fight to protect their social, cultural and political rights — especially in the face of growing multinational mining interests. But this is the good news! Instead of fleeing to the United States, plenty of hardworking, talented Mexicans are staying put to help build their country into something better.

Mexico is so appealing, I met more than a few Israelis who have decamped to the dreamy Yucatan Peninsula, with its turquoise sea and silken powder sand, in order to build hotels, condos and beach resorts. 

But the most memorable moments of my travels came in quiet acts of kindness: like when Marvin, a cab driver, waited for over two hours (at no additional cost) while I dealt with flight delays and other mishegoss; or when a nameless boy and his 5-year-old sister stopped in the sweltering heat to help me untangle my jacket from my bike chain. 

To some, peril. To others, paradise. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Letters to the editor: Ancient rituals, gender politics and more

Ancient Ceremonies

Why do we always try to find new rituals and borrow them from our neighbors, like “baptizing” the feet of a newborn girl (“Alternative Rituals for Girls’ Naming Ceremonies,” June 24)? Judaism has its own beautiful ancient ceremonies.

Since at least the 10th century (the time of Rashi), it was customary in Germany to host a festive event during which they would give a daughter a name, both Hebrew and secular, known as “Chol Kreisch.” With emigration of Western European Jewry to Poland, the custom was accepted there but did not last. But this ceremony has been preserved until now among German Jews and is being revived today in other Jewish communities (see Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz).

By the 1400s, this ceremony would always be on the fourth Shabbat after birth, at the Torah reading when the mother was well enough to come to the synagogue. All the children in the community would participate, as well as a minyan of adults who would study Torah. Appropriate verses from Jewish scriptures are recited by all. A Humash or siddur is placed in the crib. The focal point of the event is the lifting of the crib by the children and declaring the name(s) of the infant loudly, three times. “How shall the child be named? … So and so!” The children were then given sweets and fruits followed by a festive meal.

Rabbi Israel Hirsch via email

Trump and Weiner

Question: What do Donald Trump and Anthony Weiner have in common (“Trump and Weiner,” June 10)?

Answer: A major character flaw.

Question: How is the flaw manifested?

Answer: A demonstrated capability of being a bad role model for American children, adolescents and adults.

Consequence No. 1: Losing a mayoral election contest.

Consequence No. 2: Struggling to win a presidential election contest.

Marc Jacobson, Los Angeles

Gender Politics

Danielle Berrin thinks that Hillary Clinton’s nomination is cool because she’s a woman (“The Torah of Female Power,” June 10). Berrin is only promoting identity politics without assessing the merits of the candidate. Hillary did not break the glass ceiling. She got to where she was because she married the right man. There are women who rightfully deserve recognition for their achievements. Hillary is not one of them. But for the fact that Hillary Rodham married Bill Clinton, Mrs. Clinton would have been just another lawyer trying to dig her way out of career mishaps.

Berrin would have us believe that the major issues of this election are women’s reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work. It’s obvious that a woman who wants an abortion can get it legally. Also, the reason that women may not be earning the same as men is not because of any discrimination against them. It’s because of other factors, primarily career choice. Research in 2013 by Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University economist, shows that women overwhelmingly choose college majors that lead to lower-paying careers.

Berrin is not at all cool. She’s just engaging in identity politics to justify her political bias toward liberal left Democratic candidates.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

Observations About Michael Bernardi

Naomi Pfefferman errs in her article about Michael Bernardi and his father, Herschel (“Stage Legacy Michael Bernardi Carries the ‘Fiddler’ Torch on Broadway,” June 3). The latter broke through the McCarthy-ite blacklist not in “Fiddler,” but — years before he took over the role of Tevya — in the musical “Bajour.”

As Herschel told me on a chance encounter in Manhattan in 1964, he had auditioned for the role of Tevya but was offered only the part of the butcher. As a longtime reader of Sholem Aleichem stories and monologues in English and Yiddish here in L.A., Herschel was incensed at what he saw as a slight. He then auditioned for “Bajour” — a musical about Roma (“gypsy”) life in New York and won the leading male role.

When I ran into him that day, he and his co-star, Chita Rivera, were about to visit a gypsy fortuneteller to gain authenticity in their starring roles. “Fiddler” opened on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964; “Bajour” followed exactly two months later.

Hershl Hartman, Los Angeles


The edited version of a personal appreciation of philanthropist Jona Goldrich written by Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, included text not by the author (“Jona Goldrich, Philanthropist and Real Estate Developer, 88,” July 1). To read the original, visit Hutman’s blog, Conversations With Survivors, at

An article about the history of Temple Israel of Hollywood (“90 Years of Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Leading Men,” July 1) included incorrect dates for when Rabbi Max Nussbaum left Berlin and when he arrived at the synagogue. Nussbaum fled the Nazis in 1940 and joined the temple congregation in 1942.

A “Moving and Shaking” item (June 17) about the Israel Cancer Research Fund incorrectly identifies the title of Martin Finkelstein. He is the organization’s regional president.

Letters to the editor: Baca, BDS, Women in the Torah and more

Gratitude for Baca 

I want to respond to Michael Rubinstein’s letter regarding political cronyism (June 10). I suppose Mr. Rubinstein did not learn the Jewish concept of hakaras hatov. The Jewish community will eternally be grateful to former Sheriff Lee Baca for all that he has done for us. I am personally aware of his involvement in saving a kollel member when lost in the mountains, and without Baca’s help he would not have survived. Likewise, under his administration, the sheriff’s department guaranteed every Jewish inmate the right to practice his/her religion. Lastly, Baca and numerous Israeli police chiefs fully cooperated in fighting terrorism to save Jewish lives.

More than 250 Jews, Christians and Muslims gave Baca a standing ovation as he accepted the well-deserved honor at Congregation Bais Naftoli. Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Congresswoman Diane Watson and many more federal, state, county and local officials should be commended for their participation. By the way, the sheriff never pleaded to any corruption whatsoever.

Andrew Friedman, Congregation Bais Naftoli president 

No Palestine, No Peace

David Suissa’s argument that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is best fought by exposing the lack of concern of Palestinian leaders for their people is fatally flawed (“Fight BDS with a Pro-Palestinian Narrative,” June 10). The argument has validity only on the assumption that an independent Palestinian state exists. It does not exist, and in fact Suissa’s underlying assumption seems to be that it should not be allowed to exist. Until it does, responsibility for the Palestinian people is shared by the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders.

Suissa also says that exposing BDS harmfulness to Palestinians may “if we get lucky … even be good for peace.” I have no idea what peace he is talking about, but I am convinced that peace can and should never depend on luck.

Barry H. Steiner, CSU Long Beach professor of political science

David Suissa responds: Mr. Steiner ignored my key point: Palestinian leaders have repeatedly refused Israeli offers of a Palestinian state because they put their own interests above that of their people. The day that changes, we will all be lucky, indeed.

A Lot to Like in the Journal

Seems every time I go for some good barbecue, there you and your people are, transforming what I had intended to be a simple mindless hour off into a mind-opening, perspective-stretching afternoon. Great Jewish Journal issue today (June 10)! 

Danielle Berrin’s piece captured a powerful message about the next steps in female power (“The Torah of Female Power”). Eitan Arom’s article helped me comprehend the echo chamber in ways that escaped me when reading other articles (“(((The Emboldening)))”). David Suissa’s words (“Fight BDS with a Pro-Palestinian Narrative”) pushed me to reconsider how I want to relate to the anti-BDS movements and, like a good wine, paired nicely with the other BDS pieces 

Shmuel Rosner, Michelle K. Wolf, Jeffrey Salkin and Daniel Sokatch each enlightened and informed. Loved loved Rabbi Adam Greenwald’s dvar Torah, as it addressed a problem that I saw and couldn’t reconcile. 

Your articles, as you often do, put into words what I was struggling to grasp. You leave me all bothered. Now I gotta figure out how to deal with this unease. Thanks (said both in truth and with sarcasm simultaneously). 

Wait long enough and I’ll find something to kvetch about. That’s what we do. But not today. Because I loved, loved, loved this week’s issue. Bravo to your team. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas

Thank you for continuing to explore topics and authors with diverse, even controversial opinions. For example, this week’s Journal has an article by Dennis Prager on the nature of atheism (“Two Questions for Atheists,” June 10).  Normally, I find Mr. Prager a bit right wing in his opinions, but this article was touching and really got to the core of his seemingly rigid opinions — the meaning of DEATH. I feel I had the opportunity to look underneath the Pedantic Prager and see a little of the humanity inside. Thank you for the opportunity.

Then, lo and behold, I flipped the page and saw the article by Danielle Berrin. “The Torah of Female Power” lifts us higher in our desire to make the world a better place, by reminding us that “freedom from and freedom to” is what the Torah is all about. If we become free and don’t ensure that others who are enslaved become free, then we have ignored our inner “shared responsibility for the well-being of the world.”

Two pages, two great articles about faith — kudos to the Jewish Journal again.

Denise Neumark-Reimer via email

CORRECTION: A column about The Miracle Project (“Anti-Bullying: The Musical,” June 10) misidentified the award won by a documentary on HBO about the project. It was an Emmy Award. 

The Torah of female power

Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

“The biggest threats in the Middle East” Q-and-A with Dennis Ross

Listen to a full discussion with Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin and Dennis Ross about the Israeli-U.S. relationship and his new book, “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama.”

Letters to the editor: E-bikes, Al Gore and minimum wage

Cycling the City

I really enjoyed Rob Eshman’s column (“L.A., Meet My E-Bike,” May 6). I’ve ridden that route as well and am also concerned that there isn’t a big effort to allow bicycle riders a path to cross Los Angeles safely. I live on the Westside and would love to ride to downtown and back without worrying about getting hit. I have participated in CicLAvia and also in the Tour de Summer Camps ride, where last year there were three riders involved in a serious accident just ahead of me. I don’t know the answer, but we have to keep trying to make L.A. bike-friendly.

Ralph Hattenbach, Los Angeles

The Non-Gore Presidency Lesson

Regarding Danielle Berrin’s column “What If Al Gore Had Won?” (May 6), I completely agree. (There is still a Gore sticker on my car!) My family had the honor of spending Passover at a program that featured Sen. Joseph Lieberman and it was a sad reminder of how our democracy was hijacked, leading to the dissatisfaction of many people and the (justified) distrust of our system, which may have disastrous results this November. We will never know how the Gore-Lieberman presidency would have played out, but we should be ever vigilant to participate in the system and listen to what the candidates are saying.

Linda Rohatiner via email 

A hearty thank you to Danielle Berrin for her column “What If Al Gore Had Won?” Al Gore’s message is more important and timely than ever. Climate change deniers spread their lies and misinformation because of the almighty dollar and to the detriment of us all. I just hope we haven’t missed the boat on saving our Earth. I don’t care who says I’m exaggerating: The facts are there, and we need to be scared into taking real action before it’s too late.

Joshua Lewis Berg, Glendale

In Favor of $15 An Hour

Dennis Prager (“Why Do Jews Support a $15 Minimum Wage?” April 29) is wrong on both the facts and the values. His letter is a virtual catalogue of the misinformation that is disseminated about raising the minimum wage. Two hundred economists recently signed a letter in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They wrote: “ … the weight of evidence from the extensive professional literature has, for decades, consistently found that no significant effects on employment opportunities result when the minimum wage rises in reasonable increments. … The economy overall will benefit from the gains in equality tied to the minimum wage increase and related policy initiatives. Greater equality means working people have more spending power, which in turn supports greater overall demand in the economy.” Prager’s unfounded concern for the loss of jobs should be focused on the actual moral issue of corporations earning high profits while simultaneously depriving employees of sustainable wages and the resulting struggle to survive — exacerbated by lowering the wage floor and denying access to the middle class.

Jewish tradition understands a worker’s ability to live in dignity as being equal in importance to an employer’s ability to turn a profit. For this reason, rabbis of every denomination, worldwide, have supported workers’ rights to organize for wages and benefits, which allow them to live with dignity.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Executive Director, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Rabbi in Residence, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice

I wrote my UCLA dissertation on Katherine Philips Edson, who helped to pass California’s 1913 minimum wage law and then for 18 years sat on the state Industrial Welfare Commission to administer it. Dennis Prager’s misuse of history to argue against a raise in the federal minimum wage law is astounding.

The Davis-Bacon Act applied the principle of “prevailing wage,” which called for bidders seeking federal government contracts to match their workers’ wages to rates where the job would be fulfilled. Minimum wage is different in concept and execution, and the origins, motives and historical paths of each policy are distinct. Minimum wage law established a floor, or a bottom value below which workers could not sell their labor. The first U.S. state laws passed in California and Massachusetts in 1913, and by 1926, 16 more followed, in spite of the Supreme Court’s spurious ruling they interfered with the “liberty of contract” protection. Strategists who sought minimum wage (and hours) laws for all workers were forced to narrow their goals and create a sex- (or gender-) based argument in order to at least seek coverage for the most vulnerable workers who were ignored by organized labor, i.e., women and children. Contrary to Prager’s assertion, organized labor did not support minimum wage laws because union leaders feared the minimum would become the maximum and weaken their fledgling influence.

Jacqueline R. Braitman, Valley Village

An Israeli chef at Jean-Georges

On a recent afternoon at Citarella market on New York’s Upper West Side, the young Israeli cook Dan Pelles was leaning over the fish counter, breathing in the perfect bass. “You choose the fish by its smell,” he told me. “The smell should be sweet, like fresh saltwater. Try it.”

I leaned over the glass partition to sniff myself, but the Citarella fishmonger instantly caught me. “You can’t do that,” he scolded. “I could lose my license.”

He tried to persuade us to choose a fish with our eyes only. “You don’t need to smell it. Look at the firm flesh, the red gills…”

“That’s bull—-,” Pelles whispered under his breath. “There are five ways to know if a fish is fresh: clear eyes, smell, gills intact, skin with scales, no belly burns. If it’s open and doesn’t have a stomach, the fish is no bueno.

Earlier that day, I was astonished to learn that the 27-year-old Pelles is a line cook at the famous Jean-Georges Restaurant, housed at the Trump Hotel Central Park and considered one of the most illustrious and demanding kitchens in the world. 

Since it opened in 1997, Jean- Georges has consistently been rated among the top restaurants in the country — it has four stars from The New York Times, as well as the elusive three Michelin stars that some French chefs have literally killed themselves over.

So naturally, when I found out that this young transplant from Tel Aviv is starting his career in this kitchen, I insisted he cook me dinner.

Back in the apartment of our mutual Israeli friend, Pelles got to work whipping up a gorgeous meal: tuna tartar on a bed of avocado mash with baby radishes and ginger marinade followed by sautéed black bass over parsnip puree with cilantro-mint-jalapeño oil. His ambition was even more impressive considering he prepared this in a kitchen not larger than a port-o-potty, with dull knives and a mini stove, using a wooden breakfast table as his cutting board. 

“The thing I’ve learned about the kitchen is the only thing that changes is you,” Pelles said. “Pots and pans will be pots and pans, heat will be heat. You control it. People that f— up a dinner will always make an excuse like, ‘Oh the pan was too hot.’ But the pan was not too hot — you forgot it on the flame.”

Pelles left Israel in 2014 to attend New York’s Culinary Institute of America, one of the premier cooking schools of the world. “I think it was setting up a high standard for myself,” he said of the school’s prestigious but cutthroat reputation. Serving in the Israel Defense Forces prepared him well for the intensity of the professional kitchen, he explained.

“Kitchen life and army life are very similar,” Pelles said. “There’s a known hierarchy; you have to act fast and move fast, you have to move as a unit rather than an individual. There is one goal, and everybody helps each other.”

Pelles developed his love of cooking by spending time in the kitchen with his mother. He recalls childhood memories through descriptions of her food — her perfectly spiced shakshouka, her seasonal tomato soup, the smells that wafted around the block. “As early as I can recall, I was looking at my mother in the kitchen,” he said. “She says that when I was 3 years old, I had a habit of taking all the pots and pans out of the closet and then reorganizing them and putting them back. She used to set [them] out on the lower level so I could reach them.” 

Perhaps two decades of feeling at ease in the family kitchen prepared Pelles for the rigor and perfectionism he’d encounter at Jean- Georges.  

“I remember the first time I entered the kitchen there, it was like entering a Ferrari,” Pelles recalled. “Everything is copper pots and marble floors and spotless, shiny stainless steel tables and ovens. And all the cooks wear white tall hats and white aprons, and they’re moving at a pace that seems like dancers on a dance floor. It was different than anything I knew before it.”  

As we sit, Pelles pours a Jean-Georges ginger sauce over thin strips of ruby-red tuna, and within seconds, I am moaning over the flavor. “Food equals art for me,” he said. “And when you experience good art, you experience emotion and senses. With food, all your senses are awakened.” 

As the New York skyline glistens behind us and a painterly meal is plated before us, our senses are so charged we begin to talk about the place — hamakom — that we all have in common. The meal is so delicious and the company so lovely, I feel sorry for Israel that one of its best and brightest has left. It will always be home, but for now, some Israeli dreams are in New York.

“New York is very fond of Israelis,” Pelles declared with a big smile. “It’s not a shame to say you’re from Israel when someone asks you — compared to other places I’ve traveled. Sometimes I was a little cautious saying I was from Israel, but here it’s easy. Everybody likes us.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

What if Al Gore had won?

The theme of this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference was “The Future of Humankind,” but beginning at 8 a.m. on Monday, all I could think about was the past.

I was sitting in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, surrounded by titans of the finance industry, watching former Vice President Al Gore give a stunning presentation on global warming. 

Before you respond, “Really? Again?” let me tell you two things: First, Gore’s message was just as shocking, riveting and inspiring this week as it was in his 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which put climate change on the political map (though somewhere close to Siberia) and placed Gore back into the public eye after the colossally botched 2000 presidential election. 

In addition to his powerful onstage charisma that stretched to the back of the room, another reason to hear Gore speak is that repetition begets recollection. Gore’s relentless message about climate change helps impress it upon the consciousness of every audience he encounters. As Leon Wieseltier once wrote, “Repetition is one of the essential instruments of persuasion, and persuasion is one of the essential instruments of democracy.”

Gore’s expert shtick — replete with astonishing slides of graphs, time-lapse photography and up-to-the-minute photojournalism — is even more impressive because it connects the perils of climate change to the vicissitudes of the global economy. Gore readily exposes risks and threats to the global order caused by environmental upheaval, but he can just as easily evangelize about opportunities in the “sustainability revolution,” in which the alternative energy market is expanding and exploding worldwide. 

Halfway through his presentation, I thought: “This guy should be president!”

Then I realized, “Oh, sh–.”

But the thought wouldn’t leave me. Sixteen years — 16 years — after the Bush v. Gore recount was supposedly resolved, why do I still feel unsettled?

Well, there’s a lot to be unsettled about. According to a graph that has measured average daily temperatures globally since the 1950s, “extremely hot” days are now 150 times more likely to occur than “cool” or “cooler than normal” days. I am inclined to believe this statistic because I live in a non-air-conditioned apartment, and six years ago when I moved in, it didn’t bother me very much. Now, there are summer and fall days when my plants wither and weep and I literally sweat — indoors, wearing shorts. Every single day, 110 million tons of heat-trapping gases are released into the atmosphere, which Gore described as “an open sewer.” And there is so much heat coming off the oceans and being evaporated into the atmosphere as humidity that storms are intensifying across the globe. 

Gore equates the torrential downpour that occurred in Houston just two weeks ago with “38 hours of the full flow of Niagara Falls.” Then he showed a picture of the subsequent flooding: a family wading waste-deep in the street outside their home, a mother clinging to her infant as someone pushed them in a makeshift canoe.

Gore cited a Pentagon report that warned of climate-related disasters: food and water shortages, political instability, and vast animal and human migrations (animals are moving “poleward,” he said, at an average of 15 feet per day). But his warning became most vivid when he talked about Syria. Before the current conflict broke out, severe droughts decimated 80 percent of Syria’s livestock and wiped away 60 percent of its crops. The result was 1.5 million Syrians were forced into crowded cities. “The gates of hell have opened in Syria,” Gore said. And although he admitted there are multiple reasons for the current conflict, he insisted that “the underlying cause was climate-related drought.”

What if Gore had been in charge when the Syrian drought started to wreak havoc on the Syrian people? What if the world had heeded his message to care for the environment decades ago? How different might the world look today? 

Not just in Texas, still reeling from a cataclysm that caused billions of dollars in damage, but also in the Philippines, where 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan devastated sections of Southeast Asia and became one of the strongest tropical cyclones in recorded history. As of this writing, Thailand is “roasting” through the longest heat wave the country has seen in 65 years. The list goes on and on …

It goes on — even beyond climate change. If Gore had “won” the 2000 election, would 9/11 have happened as it did? How would he have responded? Would we have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would worldwide terror networks be as robust? Would desperate migrants be running rampant all over Europe?

There are great things at stake in every election — when they’re fair and even when they’re not fair. There are certainly big things at stake in the coming election — the least of which is the fact that one of the two major political parties in the United States is simultaneously convulsing and imploding with the realization of its probable candidate.

But looking back, it does seem there was more to lose in the 2000 election than perhaps ever before in U.S. history. And, in retrospect, we did lose. As a nation, we lost a lot — a lot of lives, a lot of money, a lot of self-respect. 

I hope come November we’ll make a smarter choice. The future of humankind depends on it. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Back to school: A bittersweet visit to my alma mater

Last week, I went back to school. 

Not for an additional degree, but for a visit to my alma mater, the University of Florida, which is located in Gainesville, a strange, small town in north central Florida best known for worshipping a predatory swamp creature and football. 

UF and I were a bad fit from the start, like awkward roommates who have nothing in common but matching shower shoes and a mini fridge. I probably shouldn’t have applied there, but I took very seriously the Hollywood imperative dictated by J.J. Abrams’ first TV series and pulled a “Felicity,” following my older high school boyfriend to the college of his choice because my hormones couldn’t live without him. I had that unwavering youthful confidence that I could make lemonade from coconuts, and I was none too concerned about squandering the first major decision of my adult life when my fairy-tale fantasy of one true love hung in the balance. 

We broke up before I received my acceptance letter — a letter, I might add, that was about as hard-won as politely asking the high school registrar to send over my transcripts. I was accepted through early decision with a 75 percent scholarship, but that didn’t stop me from crumpling up my shiny gold “Congratulations” letter the day it arrived. I never applied anywhere else, my college fate sealed in mid-November of senior year, allowing me a good seven months to mourn the end of my relationship and the fateful choice I’d made to throw my destiny into the hands of an 18-year-old male. 

So romance got me to Gainesville the first time, but last week it was my sister, Jessi Berrin, who lured me back, because UF was honoring her with an alumni young leadership award. Given a campus population of some 50,000 students, this was a pretty big deal; my sister is a superstar in Miami, the youngest corporate director of government and community relations at Baptist Health, the largest health care network in South Florida. A group of family and friends joined the five-hour trip from Miami up the Florida Turnpike, where billboards remind you that “A heart beats at 18 days” and endeavor to stimulate conversations such as, “Aren’t you glad your mother chose life?” It was like a Ted Cruz infomercial playing nonstop for five hours. And don’t get me started on the rest-stop food options.

Needless to say, from the moment we packed into the car at my grandmother’s Coral Gables condo and my sister insisted we wear sunglasses with Florida Gators for eyes, I knew I had made the right choice to grab wine on the way out.

As a teenager, I had always imagined myself at a sophisticated school, perhaps in a big city, at a place like NYU, or at an edgy, hip Ivy like Brown — so long as it was a place sufficiently cultured, with a worldly student body and grown-up diversions. But Gainesville was the opposite: very southern, very blond (and not highlights blond, real blond), where women wore Lilly Pulitzer pastels year-round, seemingly everyone joined the Greek system, and beer halls, frat parties and football games ruled the day. UF was a world of Pita Pit and “Pokey Stix,” strip malls and Wal-Mart. So you can imagine how psyched I was to go back to visit.

It was bad enough that I never wanted to go to Gainesville, but it became substantially worse after I got there. I joined a sorority despite the fact that I am not a joiner and possess strong moral objections to the expressed values of Greek life (which is about as “Greek” as Disney World; and for young women, safe as a swamp of gators). I made bad decisions one after the other — I barely studied, gained at least a freshman 15, and got myself into some real mischief on more than one occasion. I’ll spare you the details of my wildly rebellious antics, because frankly, there isn’t enough column space. But imagine all the things you wouldn’t want your children to do and consider that a mild start. 

To be fair, the University of Florida itself is a great academic institution. And after all the messing up I did, I eventually found my niche in the film studies department, where my demanding film professor, Roger Beebe, first mocked me for joining a sorority and then taught me how to think. His experimental, 16mm production class changed the way I saw the world. Maureen Turim’s “Women in Film” class taught me the meaning of feminism and introduced me to Rita Hayworth. So it wasn’t all bad. “Put the Blame on Mame” could have been my theme song.

But the fact is I made choices during my undergraduate years that I regret. I remember college as a time of feeling lost, alienated and unanchored (it didn’t help that my parents were splitting up just then, after 27 years of marriage). I didn’t fit in anywhere, and when I didn’t fit in, instead of quietly turning to my studies, I insisted on exploding my container.

Revisiting that place and recalling a difficult period of my life was unsettling. Uncomfortable thoughts crept in, forcing me to wonder: Am I still that mischievous person? Am I someone who really doesn’t belong but has gotten quite good at faking it? Will the mistakes of my past resurface in the future? All this swirled through my mind as I re-entered The Swamp (the nickname of the Ben Hill Griffin football stadium) for a preseason scrimmage. The team playing itself was symbolic: A decade after graduation, my adult self was confronting my college self. 

Today it’s hard to measure how much my college choice mattered to the rest of my life. Had I gone to Harvard or some other Ivy from which students are catapulted into a powerful network of global leaders, maybe my life would be different. (Going to UF, on the other hand, didn’t preclude my sister from snagging a boyfriend with a doctorate from Harvard). 

My four years in Gainesville were not happy years, but they were full of growth. I didn’t excel academically, but I acquired a good deal of life wisdom I’m glad I got when I was 20. I can’t imagine ever being a “Proud Gator” like my sister, but that’s mostly my fault. Going back to school was a powerful reminder that it’s OK to accept what was, what wasn’t, feel the discomfort, and then let it go.

Letters to the editor: Women in the bible, Cruz control and more

Donors and Pinatas

Rob Eshman’s column (“Cruz Control,” Jan. 22) was brilliant! More Jews should read about Ted Cruz and others like him who share an erstwhile “love” for Israel … Donors and pinatas … excellent description … Thank you. Your columns (mostly) never fail to surprise and inform your readers. 

Sandra Berube via email

Trumping Trump Together

I just caught Rob Eshman’s column, “Jews Against Trump” (Dec. 11).  Let me offer you another Yiddish/Hebrew reaction to your article: “Mazel tov!

Daniel K. Weir, Washington, D.C.

Political Penance in Iowa

I read Marty Kaplan’s piece (“The Idiocy of the Iowa Caucuses,” Jan. 29), and as a lifelong Iowan, I have to say (other than the headline), I couldn’t agree more. Clearly the math isn’t in favor of Iowa going first and, as far as “tradition,” Iowa going first is about as historically significant as a Gerald Ford campaign button.

Iowans (other than media owners) are sick to death of the TV commercials and phone calls at dinner. We look forward to the end of every four-year cycle like some sort of existential springtime when we celebrate the end of long-suffering misery.

We’re nice people. How did this happen to us?  What did we do to make God so angry?

David Miller, Mount Vernon, Iowa

Who Is the Prototypical Jewish Woman?

Danielle Berrin (“Real Housewives of Politics,” Jan. 29) assumes that the public reputation of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin changed from glowing to glowering based on the infidelities of her husband, Anthony Weiner. Berrin writes that Abedin in this regard is just a victim like her boss, Hillary Clinton. 

Berrin gives not a single shred of evidence where Clinton has been insulted over her husband’s womanizing nor the very credible accusations of sexual abuse, including rape. Mrs. Clinton has rightly been grilled over her claim to be a feminist who believes that any woman claiming sexual predations should be heard, while she personally has ridiculed, dismissed and even threatened women who have attested that Bill Clinton sexually intimidated or assaulted them. It is a fair question.

Berrin then makes the astonishing leap in claiming that Jewish tradition also has a record of “women-shaming,” ignorantly stating that Eve and Lilith are “the Bible’s two most prototypical women.” Lilith appears nowhere in the Five Books of Moses, and is referred to only in the Talmud as a wild and harsh precursor to Eve. This is a repugnant form of “Jewish-shaming.” The truly prototypical biblical Jewish women are Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Miriam, Yael and others. Their heroism, bravery, moral clarity, wisdom and actions of self-sacrifice are lauded throughout our sacred writings and the commentaries. However, this doesn’t fit Berrin’s narrow and uninformed worldview.

Judy Gruen via email

Berrin responds: If I failed to give a shred of evidence about the ways Hillary Clinton has been maligned because of her husband, forgive me. The examples are numerous and unceasing — “She’s not a victim, she was an enabler,” Donald Trump told Fox just last month — I assumed I didn’t have to state the obvious. 

To claim that Jewish models of women are only heroic makes us feel good, but is not faithful to the negative stereotypes that have existed throughout Jewish history in texts written almost entirely by men. Lilith, who appears in the Bible in Isaiah, and throughout other traditional sources, is just one example of a biblical woman who needs to be reinterpreted and reclaimed. 

Sometimes, the view that wants to see only the best in our tradition — and our political leaders — can appear narrow and uninformed. 

Cool Cover

Your cover story on cool Jewish LA (“50 Reasons Why L.A. is America’s Coolest Jewish City, Jan. 15) was great: a nice blend of humor and real information. I thought your cover was one of your best ever; really capturing something of our essence and aspirations. Please identify the three people in the photo. Who are those cool Jewgelinos?

I would only amend your Happy Minyan entry (No. 35) to read that the “Simpson’s” connection is cool (though still no appearance by Rabbi Krustofsky), but what is really cool is that we get to hear a thought-provoking, inspirational drash from David Sacks most every Shabbat and Yehuda Solomon’s amazing davening.

Jeffrey Hutter, via email

Editor’s note: The shofar-blowers at Nashuva’s annual tashlich ceremony on Venice Beach are, from left, Myra Meskin, Jared Stein and an unidentified improviser.

Letters to the editor: Mensches, Prager, optimism and Islamaphobia

Out with Outrage 

Just wanted to say thanks for the “defense” and boost of optimism in Rob Eshman’s recent column (“In Defense of Optimism,” Jan. 1), and for all the work he does through the Jewish Journal — for readers, for the Jewish community, and this year, for my family, by posting my piece for Father’s Day. I appreciate your work! Happy New Year. 

Lauri Mattenson, UCLA

Could We Do Better?

I am a 70-year-old woman and a member of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Years ago, I listened to Dennis Prager at PJTC when he was just beginning to sell his books.  I have read some of his books and listened to him at various locations over the years, as well as on the radio. Now I am feeling that he should not be a contributor to Jewish Journal. I do not object to his article about transgender people because it is controversial, or because I do not agree with it, but because in his article he embarrassed and disrespected Rabbi Becky Silverstein. There is no question that embarrassing someone in public is a grievous sin, and though Prager was given the opportunity to answer all the letters generated by his original article, this matter was not dealt with by Prager. Not only did he disrespect and embarrass our rabbi, but also any transgender individual and our synagogue, too, by extension. He should not be given a place from which to do this, and it is your responsibility to the Jewish community to take care of this. There are many younger Orthodox men who could do better than Dennis Prager.

Carol Grant via email

I love reading Dennis Prager’s wise and common-sense column. I have for years. His views, unfortunately, are lacking in today’s politically correct environment. I will continue reading him for years to come.

Laurence Gelman via email

New Year, New Lessons

Danielle Berrin’s discussion of the searing new Hungarian film “Son of Saul” in the first issue of the Jewish Journal for 2016 is an important column to read, even for those who cannot bear to watch such a film (“Seeking a Rabbi at Auschwitz”). Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is never too late to learn new lessons from the Holocaust.

Berrin mentioned the documentary “Shoah” in her column, possibly the most vital film and documentary ever put together, by Claude Lanzmann. (I would be remiss if I did not also mention “The Sorrow and the Pity” by Marcel Ophuls (1969) and “Kapo” by Gillo Pontecorvo (1960).)

My family and I were privileged to hear Walter Bodlander, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, speak for an hour at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 30 to a packed auditorium. The hushed, respectful silence of the diverse crowd gives great optimism for lessons still being learned into the future. Walter’s life, from growing up as a German Jew in Breslau to serving in the U.S. Army coming ashore at Normandy and seeing Dachau liberated, covers so many of the pages of history that we never want to forget. And, lo and behold, he was profiled in the Journal on May 21, 2015!

Ben Nethercot, Topanga

When Rationalizing Isn’t Reasonable

Whatever is driving the rage, groups like ISIS and Boko Haram stick to radical Islam because it gives them moral grounds to do inexplicable, violent acts (“You Are an Islamaphobe,” Jan. 1). They are not inventing these acts out of thin air, these acts are sanctioned by the Quran and Hadis. Of course, many Muslims distance themselves from these groups, but do not condemn them strong enough. The resulting picture in the media is that Islam is a violent movement. Until such time, when enough Muslims around the world develop the guts and speak up against this interpretation and seek reform, the violent picture remains — and rightly so. Living in the past and trying to rationalize this behavior, as the author is doing, is not going to help.

Solie Nosrat via

Mensches, Here and Abroad

I recently returned to Los Angeles from Israel and read the article about Michael Ullman (“The Mensch List,” Jan. 1). There are several similarities between Ullman and Joseph Gitler, founder and chairman of Leket Israel, as they are both attorneys and help provide food for those in need. (According to both our tour educator and Nechama Namal, Leket’s field administrator, 25-30 percent of Israel’s population lives at or below the poverty level). 

Last week, when I was in Israel, I volunteered (picked clementines) for Leket and had a great experience. It was rewarding to know I was giving back to Israelis in need. (There is no cost to volunteer.) 

Leket Israel can use more volunteers and I am hoping you can spread the word. 

Marilyn Stern, Los Angeles

After tragedy, Muslims and Jews join in prayer

It was with a healthy dose of ambivalence that I approached a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer experience on Dec. 6, where 150 local co-religionists convened to declare, “We Are Not Enemies.”

This was just days after two radicalized Muslims slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino and injured many more. Paris was still fresh in the collective consciousness. Stereotypes and certainties about Islam dominated international discourse. 

I couldn’t find myself in one camp or another. My intellect was split in violent opposition: I refuse to demonize all Muslims, but I also refuse to exonerate Islamic jihad. Approaching the interfaith love-fest, I thought, I want to love Muslims, BUT.

The group assembled included participants from B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica and IKAR, along with Muslims from diverse communities. They came together both in spite of — and because of — the terrible act of carnage that tore a nearby California city apart. It was as urgent a time as ever to affirm their belief that interfaith friendship matters. 

The question is: Does friendship make any difference? 

Organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum, a 2-year-old group of imams, rabbis and religious activists who seek to build “communication and cooperation between Muslims and Jews” in Los Angeles, the event was part of a larger initiative launched by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), which promotes Muslim-Jewish relations in more than 20 countries. 

It’s a noble effort, and perhaps a necessary one, as xenophobia toward the Muslim-American community is on the rise in response to a radical Muslim minority whose cruel theatrics in the Middle East and elsewhere have captivated and terrified an international audience. Just one day after the local Muslim-Jewish kumbaya, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

“Even at this time, this terrible time, when terrible things are happening, it’s time to come together and build communication and friendship and trust,” Walter Ruby, FFEU’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations, said Sunday.  

Interfaith events often characterize themselves as “bridge-building,” sometimes over very treacherous waters. They have long been popular (or politically expedient) among Jews seeking to “build bridges” with Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Blacks or Latinos — the list goes on. But there is perhaps no relationship more fraught, more fragile or historically entwined for Jews than their relationship with Muslims. 

All the more reason, some might say, to come together in peace and in prayer. Introducing the holiday of Chanukah to the Muslims in the room, Rabbi Laura Owens of Congregation B’nai Horin prayed for miracles — “which might be just what we need right now.” 

A spokeswoman for MECA — Muslims Establishing Communities in America — called for “dialogue, heartfelt connections and building relationships.”

Following the series of sentimental speeches, the organizers asked audience members to partner with someone of the other faith to answer a series of questions: “Why are you here today?” “What value or belief in your faith tradition really speaks to you?” The goal was for participants to feel “excited” and “frustrated” that they didn’t have longer to engage with one another.

I was sitting next to Karim Gowani, who identified himself as a member of the Ismaili Muslim community, a Shia sect whose Harvard-educated leader, his Highness the Aga Khan, is considered a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. I skipped the shmaltzy list and got straight to it: If Islam is a religion of peace, why do some Muslims commit terrible acts of violence in the name of Islam?

“In Islam, we believe that if you’re killing one person, you destroy the whole community,” Gowani responded. 

That’s funny, I told him. “In Judaism, we believe that if you save one life, you save a world.” It was weird to find commonality so quickly.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve wondered whether it’s unfair to single out Islam as a potentially “dangerous” religion, when the Torah also calls for some pretty medieval punishments: slaying the first-born sons of Egypt, wiping out the Canaanites upon entering the Promised Land, death for those who break the Sabbath — to name just a few. 

“There is anger in every tradition,” Beth Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels reminded the crowd. “This week, we had an event that, for Muslims and Jews who work together, hurt particularly, [one that threatens] to take us miles backward. … Today is a day we must say to each other, ‘Your children are my children; my children are your children.’ ”

Some people believe gatherings like this one have the potential to open hearts and minds, or even create deep bonds. And perhaps that is true. But it is also true that the people who come to such events are probably already open-hearted and open-minded, so do they really change anything? Or anyone? 

It’s easy to be sweet in discussion, but can it be sustained? What happens when someone’s relative is killed or injured in the next war with Gaza? 

There was a very awkward moment toward the end of the afternoon, when the organizers introduced the prayer session. Jews and Muslims were asked to retreat to the back of the room and pray from their own traditions, side by side. Explaining the liturgy of Judaism, one Jewish organizer had to offer a clarification regarding a line about God and Israel, “meaning, the people [Israel], not the country,” she said. 

Muslim women pray during a joint Muslim-Jewish prayer at an event organized by the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum

While everyone else was praying, I contemplated my opposing beliefs: 

Some Muslims want to kill in the name of Islam; some Muslims want to get together with Jews on a Sunday afternoon for conversation and prayer.

Interfaith dialogue can be pointless and naive … interfaith dialogue can be the first ripple in a sea change

Maybe we still secretly hate each othermaybe this is what peace between us actually looks like. 

At the back of the room, Muslim and Jewish children were dancing together to chants of “Allahu ahad” — God is one. Sound familiar? It was beautiful and powerful to see Muslims and Jews murmuring their ancient prayers together, bowing, prostrating, calling and responding, side by side.  

God knows it’s easier to “not be enemies” here. But what of the relationship between Jews and Muslims in Israel? Or in France? Our friendly local efforts are not yet formidable enough to impact the Middle East or the rest of the world — and maybe they never will be. 

But maybe this is where we start.

Inside the mind of Andres Spokoiny

As president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network (JFN), Andres Spokoiny offers guidance and advice regarding the expenditure of billions of Jewish philanthropic dollars. Based in New York, the Argentinian-born Spokoiny helps shape the philanthropic visions of more than 1,500 funders from the U.S., Israel and Europe. Before joining JFN, he served as the CEO of Federation CJA in Montreal and lived in Paris for 12 years as Northwest Europe’s regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). He talked to the Journal recently about why he dropped out of rabbinical school, the role of philosophy in philanthropy and the biggest crisis facing the Jewish world.

Jewish Journal: What was it like growing up as a Jew in Argentina?

Andres Spokoiny: My mom raised me and my brother on her own, at a time when it was very hard to be a single mom, during the military government in Argentina, during the junta, in a very secular, very Zionist, culturally Jewish home. I went to a Zionist socialist Jewish day school and grew up with pictures of [Haim Nahman] Bialik and [David] Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir on the wall. The Jewish community became a refuge for me, both in terms of being able to express a lot of things that were forbidden in the general society, and having a refuge from the ugliness that was all around. It was a very repressive society and the Jewish community was made of havens of freedom and openness and warmth. There was nothing religious about it; it was just the feeling of being part of something, some transcendental sense of belonging that was very meaningful. 

JJ: Your biography includes seven years in rabbinical school, though you were never ordained. What drew you to that path?

AS: I fell in love with the learning itself, with the act of wrestling with the text. When [people] think of Judaism as a closed and dogmatic thing, nothing is more alien to my own experience. In my experience, Judaism was exactly the opposite: The society [in which I lived] was closed, dogmatic, repressive. But in Judaism, you could read a text and have total freedom to interpret it in any way you want. And in those years, there was an American rabbi called Marshall Meyer, who was extremely committed to the human rights movement, and he made a point of saying, ‘I’m fighting for this because I’m a rabbi, and I’m fighting for this because I am Jewish,’ and that left a very, very strong mark on me. 

JJ: Why did you ultimately decide not to pursue the rabbinate?

AS: I never fully adopted a totally observant life. I was in it much more for the search to know — and the more you know, the more you want to know — than for the willingness to actually become a religious leader. I also thought I could contribute a lot to the Jewish people without becoming a rabbi.

JJ: How did that experience change you?

AS: What I got out of it was a deep understanding of the plurality and richness of traditional Judaism. And the sense of mystery, of transcendental belief, of feeling yourself connected with a long chain. It’s a way of coping with mortality, I guess. 

JJ: You have a little bit of the philosopher-poet in you, which makes you something of an anomaly in the Jewish nonprofit world. Do you ever feel like a fish out of water?

AS: I think reflection and ideas in the Jewish world today are devalued. We’re extremely focused on programs and on rapid fixes to social problems, and we’re good at it. We come up with really creative programs. But we’re not so good at dealing with the underlying causes of the problems we’re trying to solve. And philanthropy is about solving problems. So I make a point of elevating the conversation and including these more thoughtful elements in the communal discourse, because if we don’t tackle the quest for meaning in the Jewish world, at some point all of our programs are going to run out of steam. 

JJ: What are the biggest mistakes Jewish philanthropists make?

AS: They don’t fund enough capacity building. They are very afraid of overhead, and that’s extremely problematic because we’re starving Jewish nonprofits of the capacity they need to operate. And it’s an obsession we have, by the way, only when it comes to nonprofits: When I go to Starbucks, I don’t tell them, ‘Deduct 50 cents, because I don’t want to pay for your rent.’ The second mistake [funders make] is that they try to go at it alone. Even Bill Gates, with the billions of dollars he gives away, partners up with other people. Networking and collaboration is critical if you want to really move the needle. Another one is that philanthropy doesn’t have any built-in feedback mechanism. If you have a business and you’re bad at it, you go bankrupt. If you are a grant-maker and you make a bad grant, what happens? You get a gala in your honor. No one tells funders the truth. They need their money. They’re intimidated. 

JJ: What are the biggest problem areas the Jewish community needs to address internally?

AS: If you woke me up in the middle of the night and you asked me what the biggest problem is, I would tell you polarization — the radicalization of positions and the decadence of the civil discourse in the Jewish community. This is a serious problem because it’s part of the American political culture today. But I also think that we’ve been making a mistake by focusing on separate age groups and thinking that one specific age group is the critical one. We have to provide avenues for Jewish engagement for every age group and see Jewish life as a journey and make sure that every stop of that journey is catered to. And pluralism is critical, too: In Israel, we have big challenges between the Arab population and the ultra-Orthodox population, and that’s a ticking bomb that we have to address.

JJ: You’ve said JFN does not set philanthropic agendas. But I wonder how you utilize your own wisdom and vision and observation without establishing certain priorities?

AS: That’s a very delicate tune that I have to dance with, because I have to balance top-down with bottom-up. When I have an intuition or data that an issue is critical, I do put issues on the table when I think something deserves to be looked at by the philanthropic community, but I’m not going to make that issue one in which JFN is going to advocate to the detriment of others. 

JJ: Does it ever frustrate you that you can’t exercise more power?

AS: Sometimes, yes. But sometimes, the more you know, the more humble you become. The trends facing this community are so complex that I may be wrong. The fact that I say things with a lot of authority doesn’t make them right. So I’m very careful. The beauty of JFN is that I don’t need to put the [whole] network behind a single issue. You know the Greek fable about the hedgehog and the fox? The hedgehog knows one big thing, and the fox knows a lot of little things; I prefer a network of foxes than one of hedgehogs.

JJ: If you had $100 million to spend however you wanted — philanthropically, of course — what would you do?

AS: In the Jewish world, there are several issues that need an influx of capital and thinking. One is the issue of Jewish affordability. If you’re below the poverty line, you are eligible for all sorts of things. If you are rich, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re in the middle, that’s when you struggle to pay day-school tuition or synagogue membership or summer camp or what have you. If we could find a way of closing that circle, that would be great. 

An ailing American in Paris

It was a blissful June afternoon in Paris, and everything was perfect. 

I was dining with my friend Francoise at the Café Marly, surrounded by a mix of French glitterati and striving, reverential tourists: Asian women in Dior, Americans in hats, bankers from London. Over my left shoulder was the Louvre, shimmering in her summertime glory.

I was halfway through a Salade Niçoise when the omens of illness began to take hold.

“Would you like a coffee?” Francoise asked in her beautiful French as we finished our food.

“Actually, I have a slight headache today, so I think I’ll skip the caffeine.”

Skipping a coffee in Europe is like skipping out on life; one would do such a thing only in very dire situations.

Later that evening, a glass of wine turned my slight cerebral discomfort into a splitting headache. Could it have been the red, I wondered? Maybe the rich tannins of that old Bordeaux were too intense in the summer heat. I focused instead on the plate of cheese before me: creamy époisses, nutty Comte, Camembert, bleu d’Auvergne. If one cannot drink, I decided, certainly one can still eat.

It would be eight weeks before I could stomach cheese again.

For the next three days, I rolled around an airy French flat off Rue Saint-Sabin, downing water by the gallon, convinced my fever would break and I’d once again be wandering the streets near Place des Vosges, slipping into courtyards of 16th-century chateaus for live, free opera recitals. But while it seemed everyone else was sitting in cafes, clinking glasses in bars, laughing and shouting and falling in love beside the Seine, I was suffocating inside — hot then cold, sweating then shivering. The area near my ribs felt bruised.

By Friday, I had chills so violent they woke me from my sleep. I could hardly walk without losing my breath. Family and friends persuaded me to ditch my Airbnb, check into a hotel, take a bath, order room service and get on a plane home by Monday. I lasted a glorious hour at the Hôtel de Nell before summoning Uber to take me from Opéra to the ER.

What happened next is mostly a blur. 

I remember waiting for what seemed like a very long time in a sterile room on an uncomfortable bed, gripping my stomach as it throbbed. It was the middle of the night. After a blood test, the doctor rushed me in for a CT scan. I remember the burn of the iodine they injected, the warm rush that flooded my body, making it easier for the scanner to see my organs. I remember the radiologist stepping out of the mysterious observation room to ask, “Have you been to Mexico lately?”

“Asia, Southeast Asia,” I said. My mind drifted back to all of the places I’d been, the images changing with the back-and-forth flow of the CT’s moving gurney … the beauty of Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, the flash and fantasy of Bangkok, the beaches of Cambodia. I saw the sharp, brilliant colors of the markets, the children of the slums, their faces, the poverty, the majesty, the street food…

Then I vomited. Then came the morphine. Or was it the other way around? Is that what it’s like when your life starts to flash before your eyes?

For the next six days, my arms became pincushions for two IV’s and countless needles. One morning, I sat in a wheelchair outside the ultrasound room, still too weak to keep my head up. I was alone — in a foreign hospital, my diagnosis unclear, waiting for the doctors to take another look at something on my liver — was it a mass? In the last two years, I had lived through the death of my mother, the death of my stepfather and my father’s cancer. I was a realist when it came to illness. And in that moment, when my ailment could have been anything, I surrendered. I remember saying to myself, ‘What kind of a sick person do I want to be?’ My next thought was, ‘How the (expletive) am I going to break this to my sister?’ Oy. It was enough to give me a heart attack.

I quickly learned that even a well-intentioned, hopeful sick person can be compromised by pain. Pain has the power to destroy character; it can sink your highest self. I also learned I am not invincible — I know, you’re thinking, ‘Duh’ — but until your body betrays you, and you are powerless but for the blessing of modern medicine, the fragility of the body is a reality most of us repress. I stubbornly wanted my will to prevail, when in the end, it was antibiotics that saved me. Being sick turns known truths into profound realizations. 

When I was finally diagnosed with a liver abscess caused by amoebiasis, which you get from contaminated food or water, people told me I was “one lucky Jew.” According to Wikipedia, “Most infected people, about 90%, are asymptomatic, but this disease has the potential to make the sufferer dangerously ill. It is estimated that about 40,000 to 100,000 people worldwide die annually due to amoebiasis.” 

When my doctor finally told me I had a 90 percent chance of complete recovery, my sister panicked. “Only 90 percent?” Jewish anxiety, I learned, is more resilient than any parasite.

In the end, of course, I was lucky. I have fully recovered. So many people have it so much worse. They’re given terminal or chronic diagnoses, have to have major surgeries, or maybe take meds for life. I was bestowed with the blessing of r’fuah shlema, a complete healing. My illness didn’t demand that I learn how to cope with lifelong infirmity.

But I did get a glimpse. I slid right to the edge of comfort and control, and felt, for a moment, what it feels like to not know; to fear; to feel pain; and anger; and regret. I should have been more careful. … Why isn’t my body listening to me? But I’m so healthy! Will I ever again … How did this happen? 

And I never thought I’d say this, but I (expletive) love the French. They saved my life. They served gourmet hospital food in courses, delivered by waiters wearing white gloves, and they were really generous with painkillers. They never said a word when I lit a yahrtzeit candle for my mother in the middle of the ICU, and watched it burn by my bedside for 24 hours. I like to think she was my little bit of light, softly swaying next to me through the dark, uncertain hours.

It’s strange to come so close to death. Whether through illness or accident or loss, it really doesn’t matter; it’s the human brush with the inexplicable, with powerlessness, that changes everything that comes after it. I can no longer pretend I’m invulnerable. I can no longer pretend I have forever to become who I’m meant to be. 

The stoics wisely taught that there are things we can control, but many more things we cannot. It is ultimately not me who is in charge of my fate. Any of us could die — or lose someone we love — at any moment. Yom Kippur offers us the chance to enact a kind of spiritual “death,” denying our bodies in order to focus on our souls. Being sick is a lot like that, because it renders you literally and spiritually naked. Who are you when you can’t perform, or produce, or make love, or eat, or drink, or even get out of bed? 

Being ill forces you to cultivate inner resources. When your body fails, spirit is all you have. It’s the one thing you can control: How do I see this world? What do I believe in? What can I do with my borrowed body and able mind while I’m here?

So I ask you to forgive me, God, for ever having taken life for granted. Forgive me for ever having acted recklessly with my precious body. For not using this magical casing and everything in it, to the best of my ability, every single day. I promise to do better this year. G’mar chatima tovah. 

Jewish Journal receives top honors at 55th Annual SoCal Journalism Awards

The Jewish Journal won top honors in three categories at the Los Angeles Press Club’s 55th Southern California Journalism Awards ceremony, which took place June 23 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Jewish Journal columnist Marty Kaplan, who pens a bi-weekly column on a wide range of topics, from politics to science, received the award for Best Columnist. Reporter Danielle Berrin was honored with Best Individual Blog and critic Tom Teicholz garnered first prize for Entertainment Reviews/Criticism/Columns.   

Berrin’s Hollywood Jew blog, which appears on, was recognized for two entries: “Should ‘Girls’ Just Get Married” and “Wrong to be Funny About Anne Frank?

Teicholz was recognized for an arts column titled “Lessons from Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna,” about the late-19th/early 20th century playwright and essayist .

The Jewish Journal, with a weekly circulation of 50,000, competes against other large publications including the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly, as well as online media like The Wrap and Hollywood Reporter.

The banquet also honored the legendary comedy writer and actor Carl Reiner, who received the President’s Award for lifetime achievement; NBC sportscaster Fred Roggin, who received the Joseph M. Quinn Award; Los Angeles Downtown News publisher Sue Laris, who received the Public Service Award; and journalist Sandra Rodriguez Nieto of Juarez, Mexico, who was honored with the The Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism.

The Jewish Journal was recognized with seven finalist nominations and took home a total of five awards:  Rob Eshman, the Journal’s editor-in-chief and publisher, won second place for columnist,  Kaplan also picked up a second place award for Entertainment Reviews/Criticism/Columns,  and columnist Raphael J. Sonenshein received Third Place for Political Commentary.

In awarding Kaplan for Best Column, the judges wrote: “Like a boxer, [Kaplan] is relentless, coming after you with crisp language and rhetorical combinations, whether the subject is Chris Christie or global warming. Embrace Kaplan’s points or totally discard them, you’ll almost certainly stay in the ring with him until the end.”

Of Berrin, the judges wrote,  “She carefully infuses strong, well-written commentary with her personality and insight, all within the lively online platform blogs provide.”

And of Teicholz, the judges’ comments included: “His reviews are informative and engaging.”

History of Hollywood Jews to show in Vienna

Werner Hanak-Lettner, a curator for the Jüdisches Museum Wien (the Jewish Museum Vienna) has lately been asking a lot of people the question, “Does Hollywood feel like a Jewish place?”

The simple answer could be “not really.” But according to Hanak-Lettner, who is organizing a major European exhibition on the first 100 years of Hollywood, that response would be a superficial reading; the impressions made by movies and celebrity magazines tell only part of the story of how Hollywood created a new paradigm in the American mythos.

“Hollywood is really one of the main cultural histories of the 20th century,” Hanak-Lettner said over breakfast at Hillcrest Country Club, itself a bastion of old Hollywood mystique. “And it is something that is big here in Los Angeles, but it is also big in the world.”

The impetus behind the exhibition, “Bigger Than Life: Hollywood’s First 100 Years,” stems, unsurprisingly, from post-Holocaust contrition. “After the Holocaust, there was a commitment made by the states of Austria and Germany to tell the Jewish history of the various cities, so a wave of Jewish museums was created,” he said.

The nascent Jewish cultural revival is an attempt to reclaim a lost history, but, also, a history that was never fully acknowledged to begin with. “[In high school] we were taught about the Holocaust, but we were not taught Jewish history. When you were talking about Jews and Judaism, it came in the moment when history class was talking about extinction and murder; and if you learn about Jews only in the moment when they are dying, they remain dead bodies for you.”

So Hanak-Lettner, who is not Jewish, came to Los Angeles to track down the progeny of Hollywood legends. He met with a Laemmle, a Zukor and a Warner, and he was desperately looking for a Marx — that is, Groucho’s son Arthur. He also told me he wanted to find the bat that the Bear Jew used to pummel Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” That would be a hit item for the exhibition.

Hanak-Lettner is one of five curators at the Jewish Museum Vienna, where he has been a presence since its inception in 1993. He received his doctoral degree from the Universitat Wien (University of Vienna) where he studied history, film and theater. Hollywood has always captivated him, he said, because it is about “immigration, integration and new media” — themes as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, when a bunch of Eastern European Jews well versed in the textile business traded in their shmattes for movie stars.

Hollywood’s founders went West, Hanak-Lettner said, because the East Coast was code for Jewish emigration. Way out West, they could not only become American, they could envisage the ideal of what it would mean to be American.

“They created not only a whole history, a whole industry, but they also recoined the American myth and gave images to it,” Hanak-Lettner said. “It isn’t very often that somebody comes from the outside and has the eye for what is the core of the society and can make [it into] a narrative that then is accepted by the whole.”

But that’s the classic Jewish story, isn’t it? The tale of the outsider struggling to get in; the plight of the few overcoming the powerful. And it’s biblical: Joseph’s rise to prominence in Egypt is an apt parallel for what Hollywood meant to American Jews. Hollywood turned the Joseph story into the quintessential American tale; after all, who is more “American” than Joseph — that rugged individualist who is cast out, friendless and penniless, but who emerges the Grand Vizier of Egypt? It is the American dream co-opted by Jewish legacy.

But as much as Hollywood’s founders tried to hide their identities, they couldn’t escape the contents of their kishkas. So they simply refashioned the Jewish story as an American one.

“It is not only that immigrants came here and made movies,” Hanak-Lettner said. “It’s that these films were made for immigrants and taught them how to behave in America.”

Hollywood’s first sex symbol — the original femme fatale — was Theodosia Goodman, or Theda Bara. She was born in Ohio to a tailor and his Swiss wife, but Hollywood sold her as an exotic Arab princess: the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor.

All of which is a faint echo of the truth. But it was the only way for Jews to go from the gas chambers of Europe to the golf course at Hillcrest.

From his non-Jewish, European vantage point, Hanak-Lettner marvels at the existence of a Hillcrest. “Do you have the feeling … do you feel somehow European in this place?” It would be deliciously ironic if Hillcrest’s Jewish founders re-created European opulence to assert their new power. “[Hillcrest] is really a story of Jews gaining place here in Los Angeles, you know, getting more important.”

There is something undeniably tribal — and paradoxical — about Hillcrest, which was founded, and populated mostly by Hollywood Jews, in the 1920s, when no other social clubs in Los Angeles permitted Jewish membership. Today it requires prestige to “belong” — the outsiders become insiders.

“Hollywood helped Jews find a place in America, and it is a very special cultural life that Jews gave to Hollywood and to Los Angeles: Just look at the historic sight of Wilshire Boulevard Temple with the murals inside. Nobody else in the world, even in a Reform synagogue, has murals like that. There you feel [a sense of] some sort of kingdom that was once here.”

It was Warner Bros. chieftain Jack Warner who commissioned the biblically inspired murals in 1929, and they are emblamatic of Hollywood’s importance to the Jewish community, a reminder that the Kingdom of Hollywood was a Jewish response to the modern world.

“A guy once said to me — a musician working in TV — ‘It would be interesting to work in Hollywood, but you have to be a Jew.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe that, because I know other musicians in Hollywood who aren’t Jewish; you just have to face [the fact that] they invented it!’ ” Hanak-Lettner said.

From his perch in a chandelier-bedecked dining room overlooking Hillcrest’s magnificently manicured golf course, he concluded, “I don’t feel bad if lots of producing people are Jewish here. I mean, they came here and did all this, so why should it be different after 100 years?”