Yom Kippur Dilemma

Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Breaking the Media Monopoly

Jews aren’t the only Angelenos dissatisfied with the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, for the first time in a generation, that dissatisfaction may actually produce something akin to competition for the most dominant newspaper west of Chicago.

Today speculation centers on the efforts of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to start a new weekly or daily newspaper to compete with the gray lady of Spring Street. Like other Angelenos, the Jewish community should look forward to such efforts, if nothing else to provide an alternative to the conventional, liberal-media spin that dominates not only the Times, but virtually all the major national newspapers.

It may seem odd that Jews, supposed masters of the liberal media, might want to break with institutions where, in many cases, they have played prominent roles for generations. Although never under Jewish ownership, the Times’ has long had many prominent Jewish editors and writers.

Yet as historian Fred Siegel has pointed out, recent trends in large-scale newspapers, including The New York Times, have propelled a major rift between these institutions and Jews — particularly on issues involving Israel. Several factors are critical to this process, notably the growth of "Third Worldist" ideology among reporters, detachment of editors and writers from the concerns of their core middle-class readers and the sheer complexity of news itself.

In the post-Sept. 11 reality, particularly since the recent events in Israel, these factors have come to create — for the first time — a well-founded impression that much, if not most, of the news media is actually hostile to both the Jewish state and our community’s interests. As adept consumers of information, Siegel asserts, Jews have been perhaps among the most likely to start seeking out new media sources that they feel more accurately reflects reality.

"Jews are adept at going on the Net or to cable to find things they feel more comfortable with," Siegel suggests. "They are not likely to stand pat with something they feel is hostile to them."

In New York, this dissatisfaction, particularly among moderate and conservative readers, has led to a plethora of new alternative publications, including the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, the New York Observer and, most recently, the daily Sun. Many of those involved with these publications, including Sun Editor Seth Lipsky, formerly of the Jewish Forward, are prominent, self-identified Jews.

Can a Sun-like publication rise in Los Angeles? To some extent, conditions for such a venture are promising. Over the past few decades, the Times, once a supreme booster of Los Angeles’ growth, has become widely perceived as a negative force, particularly in business circles. Under the guidance of Southern liberal Editor Shelby Coffey, the paper became nationally renown as one of the more politically correct publications in the nation.

In the dark days of the early 1990s the Times’ increasingly reflexive pro-Third World, racially obsessed and often almost hysterically pro-labor politics colored its coverage of local events. A generally "progressive" tilt became so entrenched as to not even be noticeable to editors and reporters themselves. The paper’s perceived tilt against Israel may have its roots in these attitudes, as leftist opinion has turned against the Jewish state.

Since the recent takeover of the Times by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., the political bias seems to have somewhat eased, and at least a patina of professionalism has made something of a welcome comeback. Yet, the paper all too often seems still inhabited by the spirit of Coffeyism — pandering to various constituencies made up of presumed "victims" of color, while often seemingly contemptuous of the values of middle-class suburbanites, who make up the bulk of the readers.

Added to this problem are those brought on by having a great newspaper now owned by out-of-state interests and run by editors with often little firsthand knowledge of the admittedly complex, often difficult to fathom, megalopolis of Los Angeles. This inexperience, a lack of sechel, if you will, not any deep-seated anti-Semitism, is what likely accounted for such mistakes as not covering the massive Woodley Park pro-Israel rally last month.

Riordan and his supporters hope these factors — a perception of insensitivity to local interests, excessive negativity and alienation of middle-class, middle-age readers — can create the basis for a new newspaper. Yet sources close to Riordan suggest that the former mayor is far from sure what tack he wants to take. Some worry openly that the amateurishness that characterized the mayor’s recent disastrous gubernatorial run will now spill into this venture.

Top Riordan advisers on the project, who include several close personal associates, feel that a sophisticated weekly, a la The New York Observer, would make the most sense. This publication would appeal to many of those who are prime targets of advertisers — notably affluent Westsiders and Valley residents. These are readers who can get their national news from the Internet, The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal but are looking for incisive local coverage of politics, culture and business. Jews would constitute a large, perhaps even a majority, of the audience for such an effort.

The case for weeklies rests on the success of several such publications in Los Angeles already. Although not known as a great print-media mecca, several weeklies — from the leftist LA Weekly and its rival New Times, to the snappy Downtown News and the nuts-and-bolts oriented L.A. Business Journal — all thrive in this market. Much of the best reporting about Los Angeles politics, where the Times reporting is often weak and unfocused, comes from writers like Marc Haefele of the Weekly and the acerbic Jill Stewart at New Times.

Economics suggest that a weekly, at very least, loses less money than a daily. A general-interest weekly that serves the more affluent and older reader — the LA Weekly and New Times are clearly for the under-35 crowd — conceivably could find a profitable market niche, Riordan’s more business-oriented advisers contend.

But another, perhaps more exciting and risky alternative lies with following something closer to the Sun model. Matt Welch, the 30-something publisher of the lively LA Examiner Web site, (www.laexaminer.com), has been urging Riordan in this direction. He sees a daily tabloid that covers Los Angeles with passion and interest — in contrast to the perceived indifference of the Times — as having far more relevance than a weekly publication that, in his words, "appeals to 25,000 rich people on the Westside."

Welch may well be right, and his zeal for a Los Angeles publication that appeals to local pride and interests reflects an increasingly strong local identity among a new generation of post-riot writers and journalists. But it still may boil down to a matter of dollars and cents. And since it’s largely Riordan’s pocket change that is at issue, what happens next is largely up to him.

As a community that loves Los Angeles, and intends to stay, we can only wish Riordan, Welch and their compatriots well as they look to create an alternative that all Angelenos deserve. So, too, should my sometimes-journalistic colleagues at the Times, for whom a strong, intelligent competitor would provide the most salutatory of medicines.