Childhood Dreams

Have you ever loved something you have never seen in real life, only photographs? Convinced that if you were to ever see it, you would plunge into depths of joy that engulf your entire being? Scared that if you did see it, you would somehow be disappointed and your dreams crushed? Over the weekend a dream of mine came true and I was profoundly moved by it. I spent the weekend in the English countryside and was transported to my childhood dreams.

I have always wanted to live in the England countryside. I would have a grand, old home with lots of land, magnificent gardens, and tons of animals. I’d spend my days walking through fields and forests, cooking glorious food, with a door always open to family, friends, and strangers. Anyone who had a story to share. I’d have a massive dog and an English husband. As I’ve grown old the dream remains the same, only now there is a pub in town that makes a great Cosmo.

Adam Ant was the first man I ever fell in love with and he was the husband of my childhood dreams. I thought he was the most handsome man in the world and I’d listen to his records endlessly. I thought we’d get married and live happily ever after. I was certain if given the opportunity to meet me, he’d fall instantly and desperately in love. Every minute I spend in England is with the hope I’ll see him, our eyes lock, and our lives entwine as they were always destined to.

I stayed in a magnificent home and as I wondered into each room it took my breath away and required all my strength not to cry. I stood in my sprawling bedroom as the sun was setting, looking out onto the Isle of Wight in the distance, and I was mesmerized. It is not often someone’s dreams come true and I was emotional. I felt as if my beloved English father was looking down on me, thrilled the dream we had spoken of so often had come true. It was magical.

The rooms were romantic and historical. The fireplaces held stories of so many who sat in front of them. There was so much to see one could spend days in each room and constantly discover new treasures. The home was grand and important, yet warm and welcoming. You could feel happiness contained in the walls and while I’m certain a home so old must be haunted, the ghosts were simply happy to have company and enjoyed the merriment. I loved every moment.

On Sunday, pretending that I actually lived there and Adam was on his way home, I went to the pub and raised a glass to my dad, who’s stories of his childhood in England became my dreams. I took lots of pictures with both my camera and my mind’s eye, so I could come back to the exact moment we walked through an enchanted forest with deer running between 2000-year-old trees. It was a spectacular weekend and I am once again dreaming of a life here.

Sidebar: The pub didn’t make a Cosmo, so I requested the drink I invented in my country home. The “Fallen Angel” is now a favorite and I’ve had a couple since the weekend. The drink is fizzy elderflower, a shot of vodka, and a splash of grenadine, over ice. It is sweet and light and the perfect substitution to my believed Cosmo. I’m not sure how easy it will be to find sparkling elderflower in LA, but I will, and Fallen Angels will be a go to beverage for the summer. Try it!

It is quite spectacular to be transported to your childhood at the exact moment you see a vision of your future. This piece of heaven made this angel very happy. Thank you to my lovely hosts for a wonderful time. From the walks, to meeting the animals, to the Yorkshire pudding and blackberry crumble, it was all perfect. I felt lucky to be included in the weekend and look forward to one day being your neighbor. I am looking out for Adam, and keeping the faith.








They never run out of patients

An Iranian Jewish girl was going through chemotherapy treatment — which tends to suppress your appetite — but one day, she got this craving for a lamb stew with carrots. Within an hour, someone was headed to the nearest Persian restaurant to get the dish and bring it to the girl.

Another young patient was in Minnesota for a special medical procedure. She was used to getting challah delivered to her every Friday afternoon while she was in Los Angeles. Again, just like magic, a FedEx package arrived before Shabbat with her favorite challah.

A mother and father decided, at the last minute, that they both wanted to spend the night at the hospital with their young child, who had a serious illness. No problem: a babysitter immediately showed up at their house to take care of their other children, including helping them with homework and serving them dinner.

Where did all this magic come from? Not from the Magic Castle, but from a little Jewish organization called Chai Lifeline.

For many years, because of its highly visible banner on the corner above Pat’s Restaurant, where it rented office space, Chai Lifeline was a fixture in the heart of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

They recently moved to a less visible but larger location a few blocks west, where they can now accommodate their growing list of volunteers. I went by there the other day and met one of these volunteers, a mother of four named Helena Usdan.

Usdan fell in love with Chai Lifeline 18 years ago when she was a counselor at their Camp Simcha back East, and helped open the West Coast office nine years ago. She told me that one the best decisions they made was seven years ago when they brought in executive director Randi Grossman, who had worked for many years at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Grossman runs a cause that’s all schmaltz, but she’s all business. Perfect manners. Perfect tone of voice. Perfect answers. Still, behind the professional demeanor, she’ll choke up at a video of someone Chai Lifeline has helped.

Like little Chana Bogatz, who was born with a rare renal disease and received a kidney transplant before turning 1. When the new kidney began to fail, the doctors told Chana’s parents that she would need another kidney to survive, but the high percentage of antibodies in her system made finding a compatible donor almost impossible. So they needed to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Grossman and her staff had already become an extension of the Bogatz family, so they put on their PR hats, and in partnership with Chana’s parents, helped get three stories over several months onto the evening news about the urgent need for a kidney. By the third, a donor was found, and Chana made it.

But not every story has a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, Grossman had to cancel a breakfast meeting because one of their kids “didn’t make it.”

It doesn’t happen often, she says, but death is not something she’s comfortable talking about. That’s why they never use the word “terminal”; they say “serious” or “life-threatening.” They let God and the doctors worry about things like “terminal.”

Grossman and her group worry about the “life” part — adding joy to the life of the children and doing whatever it takes to ease the lives of their families.

Many of these seriously ill children and their families were present last week at Chai Lifeline’s annual signature event: A community-wide carnival at the Scandia amusement park in Pomona during the Sukkot festival. I was there, but I couldn’t really tell who the seriously ill children were.

I guess when kids are having a ball, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Having a ball is one of Chai Lifeline’s basic services. When I hung out in their office, at one point it felt like being in one of those creative brainstorming sessions in an advertising agency. They’re always bouncing ideas around to come up with creative ways of helping their “patients.”

A young boy with a serious illness was a big football fan. So Grossman, Usdan and the staff made some calls and found someone to donate two Super Bowl tickets, and someone else to sponsor the trip. When the boy found out about the trip, his parents said it was “the first time he smiled since getting his diagnosis.”

Over the years, they’ve used their creativity to develop a slew of different programs, like KidShops (art therapy for patients and siblings), Wish at the Wall (trips to Israel), Chanukah Angels (adopting a child for Chanukah), Seasons of Respite (separate retreats for mothers and fathers of patients), and ChaiLink (individual tutors and Web cam-based connections between classrooms and homebound or hospitalized children).

One of the best things I heard, though, was a lot more mundane: They have a team of professional advocates who help parents navigate the complex bureaucracy of insurance coverage for serious and long-term illnesses. (That comes in handy when you have an insurance company that covers an electric wheelchair but won’t cover the electric wheels.)

I couldn’t leave without asking Grossman what it was like to spend so much of her waking hours dealing with seriously ill children and their families. Isn’t it draining? Isn’t there a burnout point, when it gets just a little too heavy?

“It’s the good news,” she says. “The little moments of joy, the recoveries, the smiles on the kids’ faces, the gratitude of the parents, the generosity of all the volunteers, all those things help.”

I thought of something else that probably helps: The unspoken gratitude any of us would have to be in the position of helping people with a life-threatening illness, rather than being the person needing that help.

When I brought that up, Grossman — all choked up again — just nodded quietly.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

‘Jewels of Elul’ offers candidates’ wisdom

What is the dream of the future president of the United States?

For the answer, check out your e-mail or a pocket-sized, 36-page booklet called “Jewels of Elul IV,” which is subtitled “29 Dreamers and Their Dreams.”

Others include Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, Muslim artist Salman Ahmad, Mars Phoenix project leader Barry Goldstein and philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.

Craig Taubman, spiritual folk rocker, composer and producer, who has written and played the songs of his people for 30 years, conceived the project four years ago.

It started when Taubman was commissioned to write a song for Elul, the 29-day-long month of the Hebrew calendar, during which Jews are to meditate and look within themselves in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Among the first to respond to Taubman’s requests for submissions this year were Obama and McCain.

The month of Elul runs this year from Sept. 1-29 and Craig ‘n Co., the publisher of “Jewels,” would release only excerpts from the various responses.

Obama’s reads, “We must reclaim that basic American Dream for all Americans—the idea that if you work hard, you can support a family; that if you get sick, there will be health care you can afford; that you can retire with the dignity and security you have earned; and that every American can get a world-class education.”

The McCain excerpt reads, “As we look to the future, it is helpful to remind ourselves that there is no problem or challenge we cannot overcome together.”

In a lighter vein is the Dershowitz excerpt, “I almost never dream. On that rare occasion when I do, it’s the typical dream that Freud would be proud of. I fly through the air.”

An unexpectedly somber thought came from Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks: “Dreams aren’t all fluff and pastels. Dreams can hurt. Dreams can make incredible demands on us. And, unlike in animated movies, dreams don’t always come true.”

Taubman, 50, sent out requests to five to 10 potential contributors at a time and then waited to see how many responded and impressed the judges before sending out the next batch.

The only limitation is that the submission be 250 words or less, and Taubman tries to roughly balance the final picks by gender and age.

Costs of the project are underwritten by different foundations. Last year’s edition featured the theme of “Inspirations of Hope and Healing.” It was sponsored by the American Committee for Shaare Zedek and included such contributors as Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Kirk Douglas, Deepak Chopra and Rabbi Harold Kushner.

The upcoming edition is sponsored by the Stefan Adelipour for Life Foundation, in memory of Adelipour, a 22-year old Boston University senior who lost his life in a fire.

Keeping up with the Internet times, Taubman will send out one message a day by request via e-mail, starting Sept. 1 and continuing for the next 28 days, without charge.

Taubman said he gets no payment for the considerable time he puts in on the project, though it doesn’t hurt him in spreading his name and drawing attention to his numerous record albums and countrywide concerts.

“I love doing this,” he said. “It’s my favorite mitzvah.”

Happy birthday to me

Not long ago, a guy I know, a good guy who to all outward appearances seems happy and successful, replied to a birthday e-mail I sent him at work — “go
home and blow out some candles” — with this:

“I’m 40-f—ing-8, give me a break. They tell me that’s close to 50, but I refuse to believe it.” (Only he didn’t leave any letters out of “f—ing.”)

I wrote back: “you’ve got your hair, a flat stomach, and a wife. I’d say life is good.”

To which he replied: “At 20 you won’t settle for less than several million, two best-sellers and a house in Majorca. At 48, what you said sounds really good.”

Expectations are strange things. When we’re kids, and when we’re parents of kids, we have no compunction about shooting for the stars. Every child is encouraged to believe that becoming a Michael Phelps or a Golda Meir, or however your tribe fills in the blank, is within the realm of possibility. B’nai mitzvah speeches and commencement addresses are universally about holding fast to your dreams.

But nevertheless, somewhere along the line we’re supposed to learn that the secret to happiness is adjusting our expectations to reality. Maturity means accepting that failing to get the gold or the Golda isn’t the same thing as failure. The good life is to be found in wanting what you have.

To be sure, the self-help sections of bookstores are filled with inspirational messages and 10-point-plans to the contrary. If only we visualize what we want, if only we believe in ourselves, if only we buy this book, then love and riches, fame and health, six-packs and serenity will be ours, no matter how far along in the life cycle we are.

But by and large, despite those enticing pitches, adulthood turns out to mean acceptance — of how you played the hand you were dealt, of mortality, of beshert — even if it sometimes includes flashes of 40-f—ing-8-like fury at the way the world turns out to work.

I wonder whether that rage would be mitigated if, instead of everyone being brought up to think we could be president, we were raised to believe, as Buddhists are, that desire is the source of suffering. I wonder if the gross domestic product would really shrivel, or the upward mobility of classes would stall, or the amount of art and justice in the world would decline, if we grew up already knowing how things more often than not turn out to be — if we understood early on the unreliability of the meritocracy, and the odds against our dreams, and the huge role in life of dumb luck — if the rough passage signaled in the cry of “40-f—ing-8” were not something kept hidden from children, like the true identity of the tooth fairy, the mutability of beauty, the lifelong wrestling with the meaning of existence that lies ahead of them.

In “The Uses of Enchantment,” child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim explains that the purpose of fairy tales is to give children an arena — a proxy world — in which to come to grips with evil, to come to terms with loss, to train their emotions for the inevitable struggles and disappointments of life. Anyone who has read the cruel original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm will recognize the sense of this. But anyone who knows these stories only from their Disney versions will recognize how diligently we now go out of our way to insulate kids from the disturbing stuff that Bettelheim says is good for them.

Yes, I know that Bambi’s mother is killed, and plenty of other modern classics include scary separations from parents. The murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Lord Voldemort is of course the setup for the series. But (spoiler alert) no one in those seven volumes is forced to reconcile with the whole panoply of less lethal but no-less-soul-crushing disappointments — being downsized, pink-slipped, passed over, left — of which many, maybe most, lives are constructed. We are all broken vessels.

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Charity fulfills dreams of young Israeli cancer patients

The small group inched forward through the dark walkway, clinging to one another. They giggled as they glanced nervously around at the bloody limbs strewn on the floor and thick cobwebs covering the walls. A ghastly creature lunged at them from a dark corner, and the terrified bunch shrieked. They finally made it out of the House of Horrors at Universal Studios, thanks to the guidance of a slightly annoyed teenage employee.

The mixed group of children and adults emerged wearing matching white T-shirts with rainbow-colored graphics, baseball hats and backpacks. They looked like any other organized outing, except that one of the kids was in a wheelchair and another had a plastic brace on his elbow.

Also, all of the nearly two dozen children are battling cancer.

The Larger Than Life group arrived in Los Angeles on Oct. 11 for an all-expenses-paid “West Coast Dream Flight” adventure. The two-week trip from Israel included 22 cancer-stricken Israeli children and 10 supervising adult volunteers — three of whom were medical professionals — on a fantasy-fulfilling itinerary: a helicopter tour of Los Angeles, Cirque du Soleil at the Wynn in Las Vegas, Disneyland, Sea World, Venice Beach, bowling and barbecues with local families.

Larger Than Life, or Gdolim Mehachayim in Hebrew, was founded 10 years ago in Israel by a father whose infant son was diagnosed with cancer. The nonprofit’s mission is to improve the quality of life for children with cancer living in Israel, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity. They embrace hundreds of Jewish, Arab, Druze and Bedouin children and teens in the oncology wards of hospitals across Israel.

Often compared to the U.S.-based Make-A-Wish Foundation, Larger Than Life is actually much broader in scope, explained CEO Lior Shmueli.

“This two-week trip is only the cherry on top of the cream,” he said, sitting outside the Universal Studios Hilton after a long day of haunted houses, 4-D “Shrek” movies and Jurassic Park rides. “It’s not just by making wishes come true that we help these kids. We go deeper than that.”

Gavriel Shapira, an extremely articulate 12-year-old from Mevaseret Zion who bravely led the way through the House of Horrors, begged to go on the stomach-turning Revenge of the Mummy ride twice and eagerly volunteered to participate in a special-effects demonstration.

“I want to be an inventor,” he said as he waited in front of the Terminator 2: 3-D attraction. “I want to design electronics. Maybe robots or weapons.”

Gavri speaks fluent Hebrew and Russian and is impressive in English. He’s clearly a bright kid but modest and subtle about it. He explained the process of turning a penny into a pressed souvenir coin to another kid with pleasure and patience and a complete lack of condescension.

“I spent seven months in the hospital,” Gavri said nonchalantly. He had cancer in his elbow and now wears a plastic brace over it. “Compared to others, that’s not a long time.”

Gavri finished treatment, but many of the children on this Larger Than Life trip still have a tough chemotherapy schedule ahead of them and a few terminally ill children have only several months to live.

Larger Than Life attempts to ease the children’s suffering on a daily basis by building bright new recuperation rooms in hospitals, sending patients on family getaways to Eilat, organizing an annual Purim “Train of Smiles” trip from Haifa to Be’er Sheva and funding medications not covered by Israel’s socialized health care system. For the drained and troubled parents, Larger Than Life offers support groups, financial assistance for parents who have left their jobs to care for their sick children, as well as short pampering vacations for moms.

Independent of the Israeli government, Larger Than Life relies entirely on the good will and generosity of donors in Israel and the United States. A dedicated and passionate group of volunteers run Larger Than Life’s programs and fundraising efforts. All of the directors in Israel are parents of children with cancer, and they use their personal experiences to constantly expand the organization and improve its effectiveness.

Four years ago, L.A. couple Rakefet and Arie Aharon were inspired to throw a fundraising gala for Larger Than Life, after hearing about a friend’s 12-year-old daughter who was battling cancer in Israel. The first event raised $50,000 and became the starting point for Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family.

The fledgling organization so far has drawn most of its financial support from the Israeli community in Los Angeles. Nearly all of the board members are Israeli transplants who have reached out to their own circles of friends for donations, so Larger Than Life has yet to register on the larger American Jewish community’s radar. Izek Shlomoff, chairman of the board, said that reaching the larger Jewish population is crucial, especially since the organization’s next goal is to fill a $1 million annual gap in the money that is needed to provide Israeli children with the medication they need.

“We’re working on a strategy right now, but we certainly need help on that,” Shlomoff said.

Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family says it has succeeded in raising $500,000 annually since its inception. A large chunk of that money is used to bring Israeli children to Los Angeles on the “West Coast Dream Flight.”

The kids are selected each year through recommendations from doctors, interviews with Larger Than Life staff and health assessments determining which children are well enough to withstand the high-energy trip and which children should be given priority based on their diagnosis.

When the children arrived in Los Angeles, they didn’t have the appearance one might expect of cancer patients — bald, pale and fragile — after undergoing chemotherapy. Between rounds of chemotherapy treatments, patients are pumped full of steroids to build up muscle and fat.

“Most of these kids are in between treatments,” said Shmueli, who took over as Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family CEO less than six months ago. “That’s why they have hair and some are a little heavy.”

Back to the future

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Photo slideshow by Rob Eshman

“Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.”

I’m standing on the balcony of a boutique hotel in New York’s Lower East Side, looking down on Orchard Street, having a “Godfather” moment. I am three generations removed from the Eshmans and — no kidding — Peshkins who lived and shopped and ate and shlepped on the very streets below me. But some reason keeps me coming back to this neighborhood on my visits to Manhattan. It feels familiar and foreign, strange and comforting. It is the remnant of the shtetl and the beginnings of the metropolis, the last breath of old Europe and the excitement of America. And on and on.

Back up a second. Did I say I was in a boutique hotel on the Lower East Side?


Three years ago, I was making my regular pilgrimage to Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes and Guss’ Pickles and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, when I came across something that was then rare on Orchard Street: a clean storefront. I peaked inside and saw a man in a fedora directing what appeared to be the mother of all renovations.

Randy Settenbrino greeted me and gave me a tour of his still-aborning dream: The Blue Moon Hotel.

You hear about people like Settenbrino all the time — the kind of guy who gets an idea, like launching a rocket or building an ark or swimming a channel — and then, no matter the odds, the time, the cost, he just does it.

Settenbrino came upon one of the neighborhood’s crumbling tenement buildings a few years back and envisioned a beautiful, upscale hotel.

The place had housed generations of mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants in dark, crowded, bathroom-less conditions from 1895 to 1936. Then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decreed that owners had to meet stricter codes, and the landlord simply closed off the residential floor and rented out the storefront. “The place became a virtual time capsule,” Settenbrino said.

He bought it and set about cleaning out a century of detritus, then renovating every last plaster wall, banister and elevator shaft. He peeled off the fire escape, had a new cornice built, added three stories and gutted every thing else. He named it The Blue Moon Hotel, after a resort his family had once owned on Coney Island.

An artist by avocation, he used much of the objets trouvées in the basement to decorate. The walls are lined with collages made from old magazines and colorful table cards. The lobby is tastefully done in period furniture — a pre-World War I Coca-Cola vending machine and an 1898 soapstone sink. The front desk is made from leftover spindles and banisters.

Among the basement treasures: a tourist map of New York City, circa 1928, which Settenbrino framed and displayed. “It’s like the building was begging to be a hotel,” he said.

I asked him how much he spent on his dream. “It cost me five years of my life,” he said. “I started three kids and three bank loans ago.”

The result is a spotless five-story, 22-room hotel in which, as Settenbrino dreamed, guests can enjoy the flavor of the Lower East Side in style. March rates range from $250 (weekdays)/$280 (weekends) for a 320-square-foot room to $549 (weekdays)/$599 (weekends) for a luxury 700-square-foot suite. Breakfast is served in the light-filled lobby — coffee, fresh local bialys and rugalach. Still to come is a kosher restaurant in the lobby, which Settenbrino, who is Orthodox, points out — with some irony — is much needed in the once-Jewish neighborhood.

Each room or suite bears the name of a well-known neighborhood alumnus: there’s the Al Jolson suite, the Sophie Tucker room, etc. We stayed in the Molly Picon suite. The bathrooms have whirlpool tubs, chic white tile and chrome fittings, while the suites themselves feature two large separate rooms, a flat-screen TV –something I think the Peshkins did without — and a 16-foot balcony from where I could look down on the ghosts of Orchard Street.

“Every Jew in the world had an ancestor in the Lower East Side,” Settenbrino told me. “Everybody wants to know where their zayde or tante or bubbie lived. It’s like going 100 years back in time.”Except that it’s not.

Two of the families at breakfast one morning were non-Jewish tourists who found the hotel through Google. They weren’t suffering, like me, from an advanced case of nostalgia. Both said they liked the Blue Moon’s “European feel” and hip location.

That’s right, hip.

In the time it took Settenbrino to realize The Blue Moon Hotel, the Lower East Side has come alive.

We used it as a base to explore the old synagogues, the Tenement Museum just across the street and Chinatown and Little Italy within walking distance.

But after decades of crime and neglect, Orchard Street and the immediate environs have been discovered by Manhattan’s gentrifying vanguard of artists, foodies and clubsters. Just down from The Blue Moon is The Orchard, where the acclaimed (non-kosher) entrees start at around $30. There’s the open-late Cafe Chambon, Clinton Street Baking Co., Falai Panetteria, Internet cafés and — my favorite — Il Laboratorio di Gelato, a boutique ice cream store just across from the boutique Blue Moon Hotel.

Visitors nostalgic for the old neighborhood can still find deals at Friedman’s Hosiery and other now-disappearing shmata outlets. We still had a pickle from the barrels at Guss’ and still caught a whiff from Katz’s Famous Delicatessen.

But on the Lower East Side, thanks to The Blue Moon Hotel and its new neighbors, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

And I, for one, am not complaining.

To view a slideshow from this article go to:

A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move

The unforgettable superheroes of comic strips became the stuff of endless Hollywood big-budget sequels. But more often than not, they began in the fevered imaginations of struggling young Jewish guys, whose wildest dreams could be hemmed in only by four panels and black ink.

“In June 1938, Superman appeared,” Michael Chabon writes in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” “He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the power of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.”

It’s not an insurmountable leap from those days to these, from the pioneers like “Superman’s” Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel to masters like Art Spiegelman, to the talented Jewish comic strip artists of today.

In that spirit, we premiere this week, “Schmooze or Lose,” our first, weekly serialized comic strip. Read more about the creators, writer Jake Novak and illustrator Michael Ciccotello at, and follow the further adventures of their very L.A. Jewish characters in this space each week.


Perfectly Imperfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac

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Notable Jewish Pisces:
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Notable Jewish Leo:
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Notable Jewish Virgo:
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Notable Jewish Libra:
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Notable Jewish Scorpio:
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Notable Jewish Sagittarius:
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Notable Jewish Capricorn:
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Dousing Dreams

Your child comes home and says she wants to be a doctor someday. Your spouse or serious beau tells you he or she dreams of being something greater. And you douse the dream with a comment: “You aren’t smart enough,” “You don’t have the skills needed to do that” or “No one will take you seriously.”

Or that same person, rather than dreaming of embarking on a career or changing one, dreams of intensifying her relationship with God or his Jewish religious practice, from lighting Shabbat candles to going to shul more regularly.

Again, the aspiration for something greater than mediocrity is doused: “But you are not really a religious person,” “You travel on Shabbat” or “Stop being a hypocrite, and just go to the beach on Saturday with the family.”

So much of life consists of dreams and hopes, aspirations for something greater that get stanched and vanquished by those close by. They might be family or well-intentioned friends. They think they know you and what’s best for you.

And, as you dream of sailing the stars in the skies, they remind you that you have never done it before, that no one in your family has done it before and that you should just stay home, crack open a beer or call some old friends.

In Ha’azinu, Moses delivers an epic poem to the Jewish people on the eve of his passing. He begins with the words: “Listen, O Heaven, and I will speak. And hear [from] me, O Earth, the utterances of my lips” (Deuteronomy 32:1).

On their surface, the words are not unusual in their repetition. Ancient Mideast poetry consisted of reciting phrases in couplets of symmetry and repetition. Archaeologists have found ancient Ugaritic poetry, for example, written in the same way.

But there is one nuance in that opening verse that stands out profoundly, despite its subtlety. “Listen — Heaven. Hear me — Earth.” The nuance is underscored by the prophecy of Isaiah that we read on the Shabbat leading into Tisha B’Av, where he tells the Jewish nation: “Hear [me], O Heaven, and listen [to me], O Earth” (Isaiah 1:2). Interesting difference: “Listen — Earth. Hear me — Heaven.”

A person asks someone else to “listen,” when the second person is close by. A person asks whether someone can “hear” him when he is separated by some distance. “Can you hear me back there?” “Moses, would you please listen more carefully?” We instinctively know when to use the words, having learned our language well. It is the same in Hebrew.

Moses was at the end of a lofty life and career spent in extraordinary communion with God. No one ever saw God as Moses did, and there never again has arisen a prophet among us of the elevated level that Moses possessed. So when Moses spoke to the heavens, he asked them to listen. They were proximate. And, as his moments in this world slowly ticked to the end, he reflected his growing distance by asking the earth to “hear” him, too.

By contrast, the prophet Isaiah was one of us, a more regular person, albeit of extraordinary holiness and sanctity, meriting his choice for the historic roles that God demanded of him in prophecy. But, despite that saintliness, when Isaiah addressed the earth, he asked it to “listen.” He asked the heavens to “hear” him.

Moses and Isaiah used words that reflected in the most natural way how they saw themselves. Moses saw himself, in all modesty, as closer to heaven; Isaiah to earth. As they saw themselves, they used the verbs that matter-of-factly conveyed that perception.

The way we see ourselves can affect how we speak, how we think, how we act. If we see ourselves as holier, we often move in that direction. Not always. No, not always. But we have a chance to grow to something greater.

When people around us douse those perceptions, particularly when the self-vision emanates not from hubris but from a humble dream to be greater, to grow and to take on something never tried before, those “well-wishers” are doing no service of friendship. They are dousing dreams.

It takes a great deal to dream. It takes even more to actualize dreams when so many friends and family are on hand to remind us that our dreams are foolish, hypocritical, ridiculous. Yes, we need a foot in reality. But it also is OK to dream and to strive for something greater. To set sail for the stars in the sky. If only they can hear us.

Or listen.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.


Where India Meets Neil Simon

Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit


Time to Go Home


When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.


A Portion of Parshat Mikketz

Do you remember your dreams? In both last week’s and this week’s parshot, dreams play a big part in the story. First, Joseph dreams that the sun, the moon and 11 stars are bowing down to him. His 11 brothers get very angry with him. They say, “Is that what you think? That we are going to bow down to you?”

In Mikketz, Pharoah dreams, too, first about cows, and then about stalks of grain. After Joseph interprets the dreams for Pharoah, he is freed from prison and soon becomes the grand vizier of Egypt. His brothers come down to Egypt looking for food, and they end up bowing down to him. Finally, the dreams that Joseph had 20 years before came true.

Some people keep a “dream journal” near their beds, so that they can write their dreams down as soon as they get up, before they forget them. You might want to try this, too. You never know what you might learn about yourself from your dreams.

Nighttime Devotion

“Entering the Temple of Dreams: Jewish Prayers, Movements and Meditations for the End of the Day” by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld. (Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95)

Jews have a long history of publishing various types of devotional literature. Historically, just as men and women lived in different religious circles, so too was devotional literature generally, but not exclusively, targeted to one gender.

During the past few years, an effort has been made to retrieve women’s devotional literature and present it to a contemporary Jewish world. Works like the late Norman Tarnor’s “A Book of Jewish Women’s Prayers” and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s “Out of the Depths I Call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman” offer some of the most moving and powerful of the women’s prayer traditions, called techinot. Traditionalist Jewish publishers, such as Artscroll, have catalogues full of devotional novella, short stories, and tales recounting inspirational deeds and lives.

Frankiel and Greenfeld surely did not mean to write a women’s devotional, as such, but they seem to have caught the spirit of that form of literature.

Women’s devotional literature occupied a distinct and important area in Jewish life. In traditional society, women were more or less locked out of both the intellectual traditions of the beit midrash and the communal prayer traditions of the beit tefilah. But Jewish women even then were not passive, not content to let their intellectual and spiritual juices just quietly simmer away. Instead, through devotional literature, private prayer, home ritual and the like, they created for themselves an important and vibrant arena.

Hence women, and men writing for a women’s market, developed a devotional literature for the relatively uneducated. These women certainly knew Jewish ritual and prayer, but not in depth and not through the intensive study that the traditional Jewish world would have most boys aspire to. So a literature grew that finds an echo in Frankiel’s and Greenfeld’s book.

“Entering the Temple of Dreams” has a melange of purposes: part exegesis; part introductory mysticism; part meditation technique; part self-guide in the conduct of home liturgy, with a dash of New Age technique; Chassidic-style storytelling; and religious apologetics.

One senses two hands at work in this project, with perhaps different agendas. Frankiel, an academic, writer and active teacher in the Los Angeles Orthodox community, seems to provide the traditionalist approach. Greenfeld, apparently the model for the movement choreographed to the five-part bedtime prayers, is a cantorial soloist (and obviously not Orthodox). A point of unity seems to be a shared sense of mystical experience, a concern with dreams as a portal to mystical experience, and a common quest to find a woman’s religious voice as part of Jewish life. It is gratifying to see such collaborations across denominational lines.

In the first chapter, a conceptual framework is given, with a brief outline of how Jewish sources have viewed sleep, dreams and the like. Unfortunately, it is also the most confusing chapter, blending apologetics with citations from scientific sleep research. Sometimes the notes are more illuminating than the text. At other times, they make blanket statements without citing any source at all.

But this is not an academic or even a scholarly book. It is an attempt to reintroduce a powerful prayer ritual to an audience of spiritual seekers. As such, it draws from those components of Jewish religious life that seem to have the greatest resonance these days: mysticism and kabbalah.

For their endeavor to bring to a wider, generally uninformed Jewish population the great wonders and beauties of Jewish religious life and ritual, Frankiel and Greenfeld deserve accolades. Particularly strong are the chapter-by-chapter exegeses of the bedtime prayers: while perhaps drawing a bit too heavily from Zohar, their short, well-written and moving explanations of these five different prayers are a good introduction to the structure and sense of Jewish prayer from a Chassidic-kabbalistic perspective.

The Hebrew typesetting, translations and transliterations of the five prayers are very well done. As such, this would be an easy book to keep by the bedside precisely for what it teaches: not only how to say the bedtime “Sh’ma” but why it is not just for kids but for all of us, as we wander off into our nighttime lives of dreams, angels and wistfulness.

The book is not without its problems. The technique and psychological material reads like so many of the other free-ranging meditation, mystical, spiritualistic, New Age books that populate the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. This is a good book to read in bits and pieces, and somewhat selectively. Some of it works, but not all. Perhaps a dose of Jewish rationality, so speak, would have helped focus the book a bit better. Nevertheless, for what it does offer, Frankiel and Greenfeld give us a book that can be turned to repeatedly — in fact, nightly.

A Room of Their Own

Sarra Levine and Rochelle Robins began sharing their dreams threeyears ago, during a long car ride from the Michigan Women’s MusicFestival to Philadelphia.

“I always knew I wanted to start a politically minded organizationthat was Jewish and focused on women,” Robins says. “I also wanted tocreate the school I sought but couldn’t find.”

Levine and Robins spent the next three years raising funds andrecruiting faculty and students, all in preparation for themuch-anticipated opening of their Bat Kol program — a six-week-longbeit midrash — in Jerusalem this summer.

“We need a place where people can study Jewish texts from afeminist perspective because issues of gender are at the forefront ofwhat society is dealing with now, and if we don’t recognize that inJudaism, we’ll be cutting out half of the Jewish community,” saysRobins.

Levine grew up in a traditional Jewish home, keeping kosher andattending a “Conservadox” synagogue on Shabbat. Ten years ago,Levine, then 23, was living at the Women’s Peace Camp at Seneca,N.Y., site of the world’s second-largest nuclear storage depot. AtSeneca, says Levine, “I was exposed to a lot of leftistanti-Semitism. So I started wearing a kippah.” She kept it on whenshe went back to Ithaca, N.Y., where she had been living.

“Women would come up to me and say, ‘I was Jewish once,’ or ‘Ididn’t know a woman could wear a kippah,’ and I started understandingjust how many alienated Jewish women there were out there. Most hadleft Judaism because they felt there was no room there for them. So Idecided I wanted to create a space for those women, where they couldbe Jews and feminists at the same time.”

Levine’s next step was to go to rabbinical school, where she wouldmeet rabbinical student Rochelle Robins, the daughter of a Reformrabbi from San Jose, Calif. It wasn’t long before they discovered theshared dream of a special room for women.

Among the 15 women studying in the beit midrash are three who holdlaw degrees, three with doctorates and one with an MBA. And they’rehaving the time of their lives.

“It is rich to be here,” says Dr. Marcy Epstein, a lecturer inwomen’s studies and English literature at the University of Michigan.Epstein grew up in Deal, N.J., at a time when girls were justbeginning to be allowed to read haftarahs in synagogue. “I didn’tlearn these wonderful things that might have enriched my life,” shesays. “[At Bat Kol], I don’t have to divide myself as a Jew and as awomen.”

Levine and Robins assembled an array of notable women instructors,including Dr. Rachel Adler; Dr. Susannah Heschel; Dr. Debbie Weisman,head of Jerusalem’s Kerem Institute, where the beit midrash ishoused; Rabbi Einat Ramon, the first Israeli woman to have beenordained as a rabbi; and Leah Shakdiel, the first woman to sit on areligious council. The days are divided into classes taught by theteachers on particular texts, chevruta study, more classes,expressive-arts workshops and volunteering in social-changeorganizations.

“Part of a feminist framework is to give at least as much as wetake,” says Robins. “We felt it was important for our students tolearn about organizations in Israel working for social change.”

Shatil, the technical-support arm of the New Israel Fund, helpedBat Kol with the placements.

Robins and Levine are young, earnest and committed; they alsolaugh a lot. Part of their project involves exploring just what itmeans to study Torah as feminists. One difference is that the womentend to explore together rather than argue — the same differencesthat researchers have found when they study the way men and womenconverse.

“This is my life’s dream,” says Shakdiel, who is teaching Talmudduring the program’s fourth week. “There’s been a flowering ofwomen’s Torah study; it’s become the norm, and that in itself makesme happy. What’s special here is that there is a feministperspective, which is rare but important. And every evening, there isan attempt to integrate what was learned through the arts. It’s veryspecial.”

The program focused on feminist theology during the first week,sexuality during the second, social action during the third, and landand nationality during the fourth.

The atmosphere at the beit midrash is serious and intense. “Atother batei midrash, you can sometimes walk in and hear peopletalking about the news or their lives,” says Levine. “Here, we can’teven convince them to take a coffee break.”

The women seem intent on learning rather than arguing. During theweek on land and nationality, not much “feminist anger” is apparent.But Levine points out that it hasn’t been that way all along. “Whenwe were studying Talmudic texts on rape, one woman walked out inanger.

“What’s going on in this room is a struggle. We have a loverrelationship with the text. We get really furious at it sometimes,and we also recognize its beauty.”

Says Dr. Debbie Weisman: “Usually, people who are veryknowledgeable of Jewish texts don’t have a feminist outlook, and,usually, feminists don’t have much knowledge of Jewish texts. If youcan bring the two together, then something creative and interestingfor the Jewish people can happen.”

Rabbi Danny Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of JewishStudies, in which men and women study together, welcomes the idea ofa feminist beit midrash. “I think this is a fine, legitimate thing todo,” he says. “But as a beit midrash with a particular focus, theywill face several challenges: One, making sure the creativity goeshand in hand with deep scholarship; two, they will face the samechallenge that male batei midrash face — that is, the limitations ofhaving only one gender. And, three, an ideological beit midrash,whether it’s Shas or National Religious, results in a certainconformity. Torah study should explode ideology and conformity.

“But I wish them lots of luck. I give them a bracha.”