Should we ‘roll the dice’ on untested Obama?


The pretentiously messianic Sen. Barack Obama would be comical, except many people vote apparently not for president but for debate team captain. While partisans argue unconditionally for Obama or Sen. John McCain, both candidates are, as in any election, flawed. It isincreasingly unlikely the imperfect McCain will win, but he should. And he still could.

There has been a liquidity crisis, which means the dysfunctional credit markets collapsed temporarily, not forever. When people lack confidence in economic calculation, the economy paralyzes. Meanwhile, the Iraq War has improved, so General Obama’s opposition to the surge is discredited, another reason he neatly changes the subject.

Stocks were sold as if the world is coming to an end. The media encouraged fear of an economic Armageddon, consequently, a political panic ensued. The schizophrenic McCain campaign — Obama is wonderful, no, risky — has been slow to adapt. People do not understand what has caused the economic mess. They want change. This inescapable synergy tilts toward Obama, who is mindlessly applauded when he boasts he was for change first, as if he defined a profile in courage.

The common misconception fed by the infatuated media is: Wholesale deregulation by the Bush administration is the culprit. In reality, most Democrats and some Republicans share a long history of irresponsibility. The machinations are largely creatures nurtured in government test tubes, broken, the virus highly contagious. History is thus: Government intervention, per Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, actually exacerbates instability.

Without the collusion, if not the encouragement of the feds, these mortgages would not have been given to poor credit risks — unknown income, no down payment. But the federal government, via its quasi-governmental agencies known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, subsidized the loans, assumed the risk. Fannie and Freddie should never have been created. President Bill Clinton expanded their charter.

A few years later, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said we should not ” fix something that wasn’t broke.” She praised “the outstanding leadership” of Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines, who subsequently left in disgrace but with $90 million of bonuses after an accounting scandal.

Obama is the largest recipient ever of campaign money from Fannie/Freddie, which generously supported mainly Democratic Fannie and Freddie defenders like Senate Finance Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and his House Financial Affairs Committee counterpart, Barney Frank. Frank resisted reform: “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.”

Do we now similarly “roll the dice” on the untested Obama? We do not know much about Obama. He portrays his community organizing as altruistic. In fact, he parlayed those community contacts into a political base.

Ambition is not bad. Own up to it. More to the point, Obama affiliated with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church not because of its spirituality but because of its politics.

I cannot say Obama hates America or Jews, but Wright, in my opinion, hates both. That someone as bright and curious as Obama could attend Wright’s church for so many years, where his sermons were available on tape, and not know what Wright was/is about is implausible.

Obama used Wright and his church for political volunteers, voter registration and turnout then this year opportunistically discarded him. Obama succeeded as a go-along, get-along Chicago machine politician, not as an anti-establishment reformist.

Voters confuse Obama stagecraft with vision. He is articulate and confident but also glib and cocky. This is not a humble man who knows what he doesn’t know. This is someone who earlier this year dismissed Iran as a threat because it, unlike the former Soviet Union, is “a small country.”

The Soviets, precisely as a major power, acted rationally; the doctrine of mutually assured destruction deterred nuclear war. Iran has no such inhibitions, professor Obama: Such small rogue nations are temperamentally capable of a nuclear first strike.

Readers of this newspaper are interested in Israel. We know McCain is absolutely solid. Obama is, at best, evolving. For example, immediately after his American Israel Public Affairs Committee speech endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Obama abruptly reversed himself.

If Israel were under attack and its prime minister called the White House at the proverbial 3 a.m., who would you want at the other end of the line? If you’re for Obama for other reasons, that’s fine. But don’t say it’s because of his position on Israel.

Many voters see Obama as an agent of change, when he, in fact, is an ideologue — most left voting record in the Senate. In a centrist nation, the favored Obama is much, much farther to the left than the struggling McCain is somewhat to the right.

On the economy, maverick McCain would be more likely to take on the establishment. McCain had warned more than two years ago, “American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system and the economy as a whole.” As even the liberal Washington Post editorialized, Obama was AWOL.

Obama had an undistinguished record as a part-time member of the Illinois Senate, where he often voted simply “present.” Then in his brief two years in the U.S. Senate, he has never taken on his party’s leadership. Unlike McCain, Obama does win the congeniality award not because he worked in a bipartisan way but because he never made waves.

The unqualified Obama communicates well; the qualified McCain communicates poorly, and communicating is a qualification. But when the American economy requires seismic change to compete in the global economy, who will adapt? McCain — long pro-change record — or Obama — short anti-change record?

Who would be more likely to embrace a Smoot-Hawley Tariff associated with the Great Depression — protectionist Obama or free-trader McCain? An economic corollary: If you think education reform is essential, do you want McCain, who champions innovation and supports school choice, or Obama, who is beholden to the teachers union and opposes school choice?

Obama has not run anything, met a payroll or served in the military. No Obama legislation or even bipartisanship. Admittedly contentious, McCain has challenged his party’s leadership, even worked collaboratively with opposing Democrats who, until recently, praised him.

For the economy, the present cure could be worse than the disease, unless down the line we get the government out of the banking business. McCain can do that. He believes in limited government, low taxation, economic opportunity and growth.

Obviously, we can’t bet the farm on Obama.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.

McCain for America — and Israel


As a patriotic Jewish American, I care deeply about Israel’s wellbeing and security, as well as that of our own country. In having to choose between the two presidential candidates, I find myself looking closely at their statements, record of accomplishments and the people

who advise them now and those they were influenced by in the past. I do this with America’s future foremost in mind and what we could expect their policies would mean to Israel going forward. This measuring rod is critically important in the face of the unprecedented national security challenges that we will face in the next few years.

Today, the choice for the pro-Israel community is clear — Sen. John McCain is the one. I regret that my choice is not shared by more of my co-religionists, but I believe that too many fail to appreciate the growing menace of Islamic extremism to the United States and Israel, voting Democratic more out of habit than self-interest or deep conviction.

I realize that for many Jewish Americans, Israel’s and America’s safety and security appear to be a lower priority than certain social issues, such as preserving abortion rights. I’ve heard this expressed often by those who sincerely feel that the next president’s Supreme Court appointments are more crucial than how a president will face up to the jihadist threat to Israel and the United States. If McCain had made the abortion issue a defining one of his public life, then this concern might have some validity. But this is not the case. Instead, McCain has focused his energies on issues pertaining to our national security and understands how to deal with the threat to America and free peoples around the world.

Sen. Barack Obama might be the choice of those Jewish Americans who have an “it’s all Israel’s fault” mentality and who feel anti-Semitism today is the result of Israel’s own actions. But for Jews who are troubled by the moral equivalence argument sustained by our State Department and some mainstream media like The New York Times, it is time to review a predilection to support Obama because he is a Democrat and seriously consider voting for McCain.

In my years in Washington going back to my first job in the JFK administration, I have worked for a liberal Democratic congressman and a liberal Democratic Senator. But I am much more closely aligned today with the diminishing number of Democrats who are considered centrists of the Joe Lieberman-Henry “Scoop” Jackson variety. The loudest voices now in the Democratic Party belong to the Michael Moores, Dennis Kuciniches and the moveon.org progressive types who are enamored with Obama.

When Lieberman, now an independent Democrat, endorsed McCain for president, he said, “I have worked with Sen. McCain on just about every national security issue over the past 20 years…. I have seen Sen. McCain time and time again rise above the negativism and pettiness of our politics to get things done for the country he loves so much.”

This resonates with me and contrasts starkly with the shallow background and thin resume of McCain’s opponent. Obama’s boosters credit him with transcending race and by extrapolation, everything else, including divisions of region, class, party, generation and ideology. But his very lean record in the Senate to date indicates none of this. Aside from winning elections and writing two books about himself, what accomplishments can he point to?

Comparisons between Obama and the young and charismatic John F. Kennedy also come up short. Actually, it is McCain, not Obama, who, like Kennedy, was commissioned as a naval officer, awarded the Purple Heart and decorated for helping his comrades. And McCain, much like JFK, has pledged to fight for freedom around the world and not to retreat from our enemies. This is certainly what we need today, more than meaningless slogans like “change we can believe in” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Many in Congress have excellent Israel-related voting records. Obama, in his very brief career, is among them. But some of these same legislators also appear reluctant to confront the growing menace of Islamofacism and the threat it presents to America’s vital interests in the Middle East and to Israel’s survival. Only one presidential candidate repeatedly states that “the transcendent challenge we face today is the menace of Islamic extremism.” McCain asserts this to all kinds of audiences and at all times. McCain offers a clear choice to voters on Nov. 4, as he acknowledged the grim reality of today’s world.

One can respect Obama for his ambition, his meteoric rise and his rhetorical skills. But his equivocation on issues like Jerusalem, public campaign financing and the success of the surge in Iraq are disturbing, as is his approach to dealing with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When not scripted, he has spoken of the “legitimate grievances” of Hezbollah and Hamas. Also worrisome is his ultraliberal voting record in the short time he has served in the U.S. Senate. He has been ranked as having the “most liberal” voting record in the entire U.S. Senate — a record that does not fit with one who claims to be a “unifier.” A unifier might be expected to come from the middle of a party, the place that gave us the constructive and bipartisan Senate “Gang of 14,” which forged a compromise on judicial appointments. Obama was nowhere to be seen in that group. And it is McCain, not Obama, who has pledged to appoint members of both parties to his presidential Cabinet.

Another primary concern is Obama’s meager national security record. Instead of arriving at well-established positions through years of intensive deliberation and consideration, he will have to rely more heavily on a group of advisers — some 300 by his own count. Given both the backgrounds of several of the more permanent people who have counseled him to date and the endorsements he has received from an infamous list of Israel bashers, this is surely not a promising sign. One speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee cannot make up for off-the-cuff remarks that paint an entirely different picture.

If one believes we live in a very dangerous world with unprecedented challenges, the choice before the American people and the Jewish community should be an easy one. On that fabled “day one,” Iran, Iraq, Russia, North Korea, Afghanistan, China, global terrorism, Middle East oil and, almost incidentally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be at the top of the new president’s agenda. Given the two candidates’ records, experience and core values, the choice for the pro-Israel community and the American people should not be a difficult one. McCain for president.

Morris J. Amitay, a Washington, D.C., attorney, is a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and founder of the pro-Israel Washington PAC (www.washingtonpac.com).

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.

Life lessons from the trenches of cancer survival


On my neck there’s a large, upside-down L-shaped scar. One leg of the L runs from my right shoulder blade upward to just below my right ear; the other leg takes a 90-degree turn, following the jaw line to my chin. The right side of my neck — the inside of the L — looks as if it’s had glands, cartilage and muscle scooped out, leaving a tough, bumpy, uneven cavity. After the surgery, a friend joked that I should put Silly Putty on my neck.

No Silly Putty, no cosmetic surgery. My neck has remained exactly as it was after the operation. It’s a souvenir of squamous cell carcinoma — cancer — which started in the right tonsil and metastasized to the lymph nodes, diagnosed and treated 15 years ago.

The day I was told that I had throat cancer, I was furious. There was no logic to it. I’d never smoked, didn’t drink, hadn’t eaten red meat in more than 25 years. So why me?

There was only one way to deal with my fury. I went out and had a real hot dog with sauerkraut. Much better than those meat-free — and taste-free — soy dogs I’d eaten for so long. With each bite, I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist: There! Take that!

In fact, it’s that semidefiant attitude that helped me get through the punishing treatment: massive amounts of throat radiation followed by a radical neck dissection.

Bernie Siegel — the oncologist whose tapes I’d listen to in the car while going back and forth to the hospital — says that one should be a “good-bad patient”: question everything and demand honesty and clear explanations from health-care professionals.

But, Siegel stresses, once you decide on a treatment, stick with it.

Here’s something that helped me: Although I was optimistic, I didn’t see treatment as an attempt to “beat” cancer. Right from the beginning I thought of cancer as my teacher, an experience I was going to learn from.

What did I learn? For one thing, when you accept help from others — which was hard for me — it not only makes you feel better, it also makes the person helping you feel better. When I started treatment, my older son, Rafi, was just finishing his freshman year at an Ivy League school. He took a year off to help me. He didn’t think of it this way at the time, but when he looks back on it now, he says that he cherishes that year.

After I was diagnosed, I was called and visited by many well-meaning people who suggested alternative treatments: from special diets to fasting to massive doses of vitamins. I listened politely and then plunged full bore into the most up-to-date medical treatment available. Oh, I used some unconventional techniques to complement treatment, but not as a substitute for Western medicine.

While going through radiation treatment, I meditated every day. This involved breath control and visualization until I’d reach a state of self-hypnosis. While in a trance, I’d imagine a kind of Pac-Man figure entering my body and eating my cancer cells.

Did it help? Who knows? It felt good, and that’s what counts. Meditation — or prayer or yoga — certainly can’t hurt, so long as it’s not used in place of standard treatment.

While you’re going through treatment, be easy on yourself. If you want to be alone, then be alone. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, then don’t. Recognize your limits, and don’t let anyone talk you out of them. If, however, you want to interact with family and friends, then by all means do so. And when you’re tired, kick them out. Be strict about this.

The medical facility where I received treatment is one of the most prestigious in the world, but some staff members had a lousy bedside manner. One resident — I thought of him as Dr. Worst-Case-Scenario — would always give me his gloomiest predictions.

I never let it affect me. The way I look at it, the job of any medical facility is to provide the most skilled, cutting-edge treatment, and that’s it. But that’s more than enough. If you need happy talk and hand-holding, that’s what family and friends are for.

How can you find the right medical center for you? Ask others in your area who have gone through similar treatment. Talk to your family physician. Consult magazines that rate hospitals and treatment centers. One source is the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report that lists each medical specialty and ranks facilities throughout the country. You can access last year’s rankings via its Web site or at your local library.

Some years back, Norman Cousins wrote about the healing power of laughter. It worked for me. Forget subtle humor. You want the fall-on-the-floor-bust-a-gut-roaring kind: early Woody Allen movies or Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. There are times, though, when other types of movies work, too. During the worst moment of treatment, my pain was eased by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the dance floor.

Make no mistake: Cancer — and its treatment — can be horrendous. I wasn’t able to eat, I had no energy. Every day I was faced with my own mortality. But that helped me put priorities in place: seize the day and all that.

Once I recuperated from treatment, I made my own bucket list. After having lived what I felt had been a self-indulgent life, I was now determined to try something different. So I worked for the Shoah Foundation, which assures that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies become a permanent record.

I joined groups that explore life; reconnected with friends and family; published many articles — and a book — on topics close to my heart; volunteered as a writing coach for inner-city kids. And I’ve been a mentor for others going through cancer treatment, sharing what I learned, trying to make a difficult journey a little easier.

Nowadays when I look at my neck — at the scar, bumps and cavities — I feel nothing but gratitude: It’s a reminder of the treatment that saved my life.

And it’s a reminder that having gotten cancer in the first place also saved my life.

Analysis: Sarah Palin . . . and the Jews


When Sen. John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate today, the Jewish political blogosphere — as loud and fast and opinionated as (for lack of a better word) the Gentile Web — came to a screeching halt.

After all, you can fight about John McCain, and Barack Obama, and Joe Biden . . .but Sarah Palin?

It took an Internet eternity for Jewish Republicans to come out swinging for Sarah, an just as long for Jewish Democrats to hit back.

“Homerun!” Larry Greenfield, the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote me via e-mail five hours after McCain’s announcement. “Governor Palin has a very close relationship with the Jewish community of Alaska, with Chabad (Rabbi Greenberg) and with AIPAC. She is close to the Frozen Chosen!”

Seconds later came a blast from Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) claiming Palin endorsed Pat Buchanan’s presidential run in 2000: “John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans.”

Oh, now it’s getting good.

When Sen. Barack Obama picked Sen. Joe Biden last week, the Democrats had nothing but praise for the long term senator, citing positive comments from AIPAC and decades of foreign policy experience. And Jewish e-mail boxes filled with Biden’s now familiar quote: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I’m a Zionist.”

Then Republican Jews struck.

An e-mail quickly circulated linking to an article on a right-leaning web site claiming Biden was in the pocket of the Iranian mullahs. As for AIPAC’s kind words about Biden? “AIPAC has to say nice things,” a Republican activist told me. “They have to be bi-partisan.” And that pro-Zionist quote? Pretty words, just like his boss, Obama.

The Dems responded with a further defense of Biden’s record. If you could call Biden’s support for Israel into question, said the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council Ira Forman, then you could call Golda Meir’s loyalty to Israel in question.

The Veep debate among Jews is important because there are many Jewish voters who are still a bit leery about Obama. Jews traditionally vote Democratic (upwards of 75 percent voted for John Kerry in 2004 — and we didn’t even really like him). A growing number of Jews have found a home in the Republican party, and are fairly candidate-proof — they vote red no matter what.

A significant number of Jewish voters, however, will change their vote depending on which candidate they perceive as “better for Israel.” These voters believe that Israel is facing immediate existential threats from Palestinian terror, from a near-nuclear Iran, and from over-eager politicians forcing it to make dangerous territorial concessions for the sake of elusive peace. These voters — call them “Israel Firsters” — see their one vote as crucial to preventing another Holocaust, and theirs are the votes that Jewish Dems and Jewish Republicans are fighting over.

Obama and Israel is the battleground issue for Jewish voters in the 2008 election — these are the Jewish votes up for grabs in this race. If Republicans can paint Obama as a Muslim or Muslim sympathizer, as an appeaser to Iran, as inexperienced on foreign policy, as insufficiently caring about Israel in his kishkes — the Yiddish word for guts — then they can peel off Jewish votes.

This strategy won’t matter in heavily pro-Democratic states like California and New York, but it can matter in swing states like Ohio and Florida. And it matters elsewhere in the race: Jews give money, Jews get involved, Jews shape opinion far out of proportion to their numbers. (Yes, there are only six of us in the entire country. Amazing what controlling the media will get you!)

Enter Sarah.

If McCain had picked Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge or — cue the bar mitzvah band — Joe Lieberman, he would have unquestionably swept up the Israel Firsters. These men have track records and gravitas when it comes to Israel and foreign policy. (This debate among Jews and Israel reflects the larger foreign policy concerns about Obama that Republicans are making the centerpiece of their opposition. Many conflicts in Jewish life mirror conflicts in the larger culture — that’s Anthropology 101).

But he chose Sarah Palin: former mayor of a small Alaska town, governor of Alaska, devout Christian.

For Jews who are not necessarily Israel Firsters, she carries some positives and negatives. Positives: she is a crusader for good government and a fiscal conservative. She is smart and successful and patriotic. Jews like all these things.

“As governor of Alaska, Palin has enjoyed a strong working relationship with Alaska’s Jewish community. She has demonstrated sensitivity to the concerns of the community and has been accessible and responsive,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks.

Negatives: She is anti-abortion.

Jews are among the largest pro-choice constituency in the country. She has, according to one web site, supported the idea of teaching Creationism and evolution in public schools. “‘Teach both,” she was quoted as saying on a local TV station. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.'”

Dependence on foreign oil is a major issue for American Jews, since a lot of that oil comes from regimes that hate Israel and support terror.

Republican Jews are emphasizing Palin’s desire to drill Alaskan oil and develop domestic oil resources as away to decrease our dependence.

“Palin has been a leader on the critical issue of energy independence and lessening our need to buy oil from nations not sharing American and Israel’s foreign policy,” Brooks said in his statement.

But Jews are also pro-environment, and have jumped on the alternative energy (hybrid) bandwagon in a big way. Obama’s convention speech calling for a 10 year campaign to switch to alternative sources of energy may carry deeper resonance.

For the Israel Firsters, Palin may be a problem. Palin has no foreign policy experience. No Israel experience. Her AIPAC rating? When you enter her name on the AIPAC home page, you get this:

Your search - palin - did not match any documents.
No pages were found containing "palin".

The RJC’s Greenfield says her AIPAC relationships are great, but confined to Alaska. And Republicans are now marshalling a great comeback to the charge that Palin once supported Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan is anathema to the Jews. He is someone who has blamed Israel and American Jews for directing American foreign policy against American interests. He has spoken kindly of Adolph Hitler — who is not popular with Jews — and, well, this is going to be interesting.

Sarah Palin might cause the Israel Firsters, who seemed to be pretty much done with Obama, to take a second look.


Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and JewishJournal.com.




Sarah Heath (Palin), sportscaster

Dems use speeches to hit GOP on Israel


DENVER (JTA)—President Bush and John McCain backed policies that have endangered Israel, Democrats argued during their convention speeches Wednesday night.

In a night dedicated largely to foreign policy and national security issues, several speakers at the Pepsi Center argued that Israel’s enemies have been emboldened by Republican mishaps. The strategy reflected an increased willingness of Democrats to go on the attack against the Bush administration over Israel, after years of simply insisting both sides of the aisle were equally supportive of the Jewish state.

Alan Solomont, a top fund raiser for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) this time around, told JTA that four years ago it was the “belief of the Kerry campaign that [Israel] was not a point of differentiation therefore the campaign did focus on other issues.”

Not this year. Among those who used their speeches to hammer home the new talking points were:

* Kerry: “George Bush, with John McCain at his side, promised to spread freedom but delivered the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. They misread the threat and misled the country. Instead of freedom, it’s Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and dictators everywhere that are on the march. North Korea has more bombs, and Iran is defiantly chasing one.”

* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): “Under George Bush, the Middle East has become more troubled. That hurts America and endangers our ally, Israel, which has been forced to confront a resurgent Hamas, an emboldened Hezbollah and an Iran determined to get nuclear weapons. That is not the change we need.”

* Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.): “We entered into an unnecessary war and remain bogged down in Iraq as Afghanistan backslides and the architects of Sept. 11 remain free. On Bush and McCain’s watch, we have witnessed the growing influence of a belligerent Iran that has destabilized the Middle East and threatens our ally, Israel.”

During their respective speeches, President Clinton and Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), focused on the harm done by what they described as the Bush administration’s failure to utilize diplomacy.

Clinton argued that America’s “position in the world has been weakened by,” among other things, a failure to consistently use the power of diplomacy, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Center and Eastern Europe.” As for Biden, he pointed to Iran as a hot spot where the United States has failed diplomatically.

“Should we trust John McCain’s judgment when he rejected talking with Iran and then asked: What is there to talk about? Or Barack Obama, who said we must talk and make it clear to Iran that its conduct must change,” Biden said. “Now, after seven years of denial, even the Bush administration recognizes that we should talk to Iran, because that’s the best way to advance our security. Again, John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right.”

Obama drew criticism from his onetime primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and from Republicans for his statement last year that he would be willing to meet with the president of Iran; he and Biden were two of just two dozen senators to oppose an amendment urging the declaration of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has since said that he supported the Bush administration’s ultimate decision to take such a step, but objected to the amendment out of fear that the Bush administration would unduly treat it as an approval for attacking Iran. In general, the Obama campaign has argued that its ticket would adopt a tougher and smarter approach to isolating Iran in an effort to short circuit its nuclear pursuits.

Republicans, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani earlier this week, have been painting Obama as naive and undependable when it comes to safeguarding Israel. And, in recent days, they have also attempted to challenge Biden’s pro-Israel bona fides. The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement Wednesday citing a 1982 clash that Biden had with Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, in which the Delaware senator criticized Israeli settlement expansion and reportedly raised the possibility of cutting U.S. aid to Israel over the issue. In addition, the RJC cited several pro-Israel congressional letters and resolution that Biden did not sign on to.

Biden, who has worked closely with Israel and Jewish groups on many issues, was praised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee upon being tapped by Obama.

During his speech, Wexler—who boasts of being the first Jewish congressman to back Obama’s presidential bid—described the nominee as a staunch supporter of Israel.

“In his heart, in his gut, Barack Obama stands with Israel,” Wexler said, adding that the candidate “understands the threats Israel faces from Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. And as President, Barack Obama will strongly support Israel’s right and capability to defend itself, and finally make progress toward the goal of a two-state solution that preserves Israel’s security as a Jewish state.”

Are school trips worth the cost?


  • Sixth-Grade Trip to Catalina: $400
  • Senior Trip to Poland and Israel: $4,000
  • Educational Value: Priceless

Milken Community High School 11th-grader Rebecca Suchov considers her elementary and middle school trips to Colorado, Arizona and Washington, D.C., — and any number of local weekend retreats — as some of her most formative experiences, so she expected a lot from her four months in Israel with Milken last spring. But she never anticipated just how lasting the impact would be.

“Before I left, my mom told me I’d come back changed, more mature, and I thought ‘OK, whatever.’ But I never felt so much more grown up, or so much more alive, like I know what is going on with the world. I feel like a completely different person,” said Suchov, who was one of 40 10th-graders to participate in Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship in the program’s inaugural year last spring.

That response is just what educators are looking for when they offer students out-of-classroom experiences to augment what they learn from lectures, projects and textbooks. Those trips — ranging from a few nights of local camping to pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to overseas travel — have become part of the curriculum at most Jewish schools and at other independent schools.

“Families are going to Jewish day schools because they can get these kinds of experiences,” said Larry Kligman, middle school director of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “There is no question that the kids are more confident, that they have a stronger Jewish identity and that the classroom experience is more beneficial for them because they have these trips, these journeys and adventures.”

But the trips also pose challenges to schools and families. Schools often subsidize the trips and offer assistance to families who can’t pay, but for parents already struggling to pay day school tuition — ironically, cutting their own travel budgets, among other areas — trips bring added pressure, especially with everyone-else-is-going guilt from kids. And administrators concede that some families opt out of the trips because of cost — anywhere from $100 for a Shabbaton to thousands for an Israel trip — widening the economic divide already present in schools.

Other trips are selective, bringing only a small group, leaving others behind and perhaps resentful. Some parents also complain that the educational content on some of these trips is minimal.

“The bottom line that we have to be asking ourselves is: Does it fit into our curriculum? Is it something the family could do on their own or something the school can uniquely provide? And is it something we can offer at a reasonable cost? And that — the reasonable cost — that has become an issue, as far as I’m concerned,” said Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Academy in West Hills. “I want to make sure we are not falling into this trap of taking trips because everyone else is doing it.”

Gereboff said she and her staff are opening up a conversation about exploring less costly, more local alternatives to the Washington, D.C., or New York trips her middle schoolers take.

Kadima and the newly merged Kadima-Heschel West Middle School won’t be doing away with the trips, she emphasized. Like most educators, Gereboff sees great value in kids learning in a hands-on, natural context, and in building bonds with each other and with staff in a way that doesn’t happen in the school building.

“Is it a luxury? Absolutely. But given the range of luxuries these kids are exposed to, I think it’s a good one,” said Madeline Levine, a Marin County psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege” (HarperCollins, 2006). “Even though it does require financial scraping for most of us parents, I think it is a better place to spend our money than on more hors d’oeuvres at the bar mitzvah. Most parents and kids spend resources on stuff — material goods — and I like the notion of spending money on an experience that is enriching in some way.”

In fact, taking kids out of a homogeneous middle-class environment can be good for suburban kids, says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner, 2001).

“I think our students in L.A. are a little bit bubble-wrapped, and so these trips give them an opportunity to wet their feet in life a little more,” Mogel said. “My experience in talking to kids is that they love these things, and one of the reasons they do is because they are kind of nature- and culture-deprived.”

Lina Suchov, Rebecca’s mom, says she jumped at the chance to have Rebecca go on Tiferet, which included intensive classroom study, interaction with Israeli teens and their families, and trips all over Israel. Having seen her three children — now 16, 17 and 20 — go on school trips through Milken and Heschel, Suchov is sold on their value.

“All the trips were a culmination of their studies, so it made a lot of sense to put into practice the concepts they had learned,” Suchov said. “I really believe in experiential learning — they come away with a good sense of purpose of the trip and how it applies to their studies, they make new friends, they see their teachers in a casual environment, and they get used to the idea of separating from their parents,” she said.

Most schools start trips in fifth or sixth grade, with local adventures that involve camping or a science component and usually cost in the range of $200-$500.

Kadima sends its fifth-graders on a science-oriented trip, such as Astrocamp. Seventh-graders in the newly merged middle school will take a social studies trip to New York — a change from Kadima’s usual Catalina camping trip. Students will get that outdoor experience, including challenging hikes and a few days in tents, on a sixth-grade science adventure in Washington state.

“We want them to try things they never thought they could do and come out of it feeling empowered,” Gereboff said.

A group of Kadima-Heschel West middle schoolers visit a sister school in Israel every year. Eighth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and spend months before the trip researching the sites they visit so they can serve as tour guides for their peers.

Gereboff said that trip will be on the table as the school explores whether kids might get the same benefit from a trip in the American Southwest, for example.

That would be a tough trend to buck, since eighth-grade trips to Washington or Israel have became standard in most Jewish day schools.

Heschel, in Northridge, used to offer eighth-graders the opportunity to go to both Washington and Israel, on an exchange program with a sister school in Tel Aviv. For kids who opted for both, that meant missing three or four weeks of school and paying $5,000.

So in the last few years the school has beefed up the East Coast trip with stops in New York and Philadelphia, and asked eighth-graders to choose between Israel and East Coast — an approach that so far has been successful, according to middle school principal Kligman.

At Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, eighth-graders traditionally go to Israel at the end of the year. Last year, parents had to pay only $600 for the trip, because of a fundraising concert and other efforts.

At some schools, the kids do much of the fundraising on their own.

“It teaches the kids honesty and responsibility,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, where eighth-graders raise money for their Washington, D.C., trip by selling challah and flowers at carpool line every Friday, running a snack bar after school, and countless other small fundraisers. A percentage of the money they raise goes to charitable causes.

Even with the fundraising, eighth-grade parents are usually left with a bill of more than $1,000 at Hillel, and up to $2,500 at other schools. Some kids contribute their own babysitting money or savings, and schools often offer payment plans and scholarships where necessary. Others roll the price of the trip into tuition. Occasionally, a few administrators admit, kids end up not going because it costs too much.

The stakes are even greater in high school.

Shalhevet’s senior trip to Poland and Israel costs $4,000, with aid available. New Community Jewish High School takes kids to Israel.

YULA tries to achieve the bonding and memory building at a lower cost. Last year, the senior boys went river rafting on the American River and visited San Francisco. The boys earned money for the trip by building sukkahs and running the student store. To cover the rest, the kids contributed $100 for the trip — a sum administrators felt the boys could earn themselves without having to tap into already taxed parental funds.

Milken Community High School holds trips for every grade, and often specific language, science or social studies classes take other trips. In addition to weekend Shabbatons, freshman go to Yuma, Ariz., and other grades go on rafting trips, exchange programs with schools in Tel Aviv or Mexico City, or social justice trips, such as to post-Katrina Mississippi. For the past few years in April, a growing number of seniors have been traveling to Israel and Poland with thousands of other teens from around the world to take part in the annual March of the Living.

“We see this as an exciting, engaging and educationally fruitful way to get our students into their Jewish identity and Jewish learning, and to bring the outside world into relationship with their Jewish identity,” said David Lewis, dean of student life at Milken. “This gets the kids off the hill in Bel Air and gets them into the real world.”

For kids who don’t like to or can’t travel, local options are usually available.

Mogel, who next year will publish her book about teenagers, “The Blessing of a B-” (Scribner), says that a graceful way out is important for kids who are not developmentally ready to take on a big camping trip or the commotion of an Israel trip.

“Our new philosophy of education is ‘the more, the earlier, the better,'” she said. “Better to think about readiness. For many students, these school trips provide a vista broader than their usual haunts, exciting opportunities and lifelong memories — but so can less-glittering adventures.”

Is everyone weird?


After three months of a hopeful re-entry into dating life — Internet, setups, chance meetings — I had to hang it up. It had started out just fine. Possibilities were popping up
with flash-frame, Internet-inspired regularity and, suddenly, my 40s had seemed inspired by the twinkling of new romance opportunities.


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There was the crazy writer and father of two who adored his sons, the straight-but-cute doctor who loved his work, the music producer who was quirky, brilliant and charming, and the extreme sports guy who pursued like a prince.

But just 12 weeks after starting down these promising paths, I had crawled back into the wallflower-solitude of my I’m-not-dating-anymore closet.

What sent me into high-security hiding was not the effort of dating.

I actually like that part. (Though, God knows, Internet dating can be a black hole of a cottage industry that consumes hours, the way “The Blob” consumed whole towns.) Time vortex noted, I still enjoy the newness of trying on new energies and the grace-filled possibilities inherent in dating new men.

But the problem is — truly from my heart I have to say this — everybody’s weird. Everyone seems to have issues. And not just little issues, either.

And though I suppose we’re all weird or skewed or tweaked or somewhat bent in some way or other — especially after 40 — it’s still not a wise dating strategy to mistake those fabulously flowing bright-red-flags for a welcome parade.

So when the 40-ish, cha-cha-cha writer introduced me to his son, told me he was “playing for keeps,” then casually mentioned that he was already sleeping with a woman in San Francisco, I felt it best to run for the hills.

When the cute-but-straight-looking doctor (Dr. Drag-His-Feet, my girlfriends dubbed him) picked me up in his Ferrari, told me for the ninth unsolicited time that he wasn’t gay and announced that he was looking for a woman who looked like Kate Beckinsale, I felt it best to stop going to the hardware store for milk. The boy didn’t have the goods.

When the music producer, the extreme sports guy, the guy from my friend’s softball game and the date who said he was 5- foot-10 but was really 5-foot-5 each in turn revealed what was weird enough to read “STOP! WARNING!” — I just lost my will to work at this, threw in the towel and gave up.

I’m not saying (and how dull to take such a stance at this point, anyway?) that every man in L.A. is weird. I could certainly make a case for royally weird and skewed women in this town, too. But what happens when I’m drawing one slightly awry (all right, bent) experience after the other? Is it me? Is it them? Is it just that one has to sift through a lot of dross to get to the one gleaming, precious stone?

I’d love to say that this is an L.A. thing. But who cares? This is where I live. I’m not one to denigrate my town (which I like for the most part), nor one to take the God-looking-down stance of “Yes, my child, there’s partnering available for everyone — but not for you fools that try to date in L.A.”

But here’s the rub: If I’m drawing man after man with twisted little “isms,” I have to stop and ask myself why I keep attracting them. Damn them, but all of those seminar-inspired relationship books have actually made some impact on my psyche, and that well-themed what-you’re-drawing-is-a-reflection-of-where-you’re-at idea is totally haunting me.

So in the midst of the dating pool, I’ve had to step out, dry off, re-evaluate what I’m looking for, where I might find that and take a long, hard look at the messages I’m putting out.

It’s my opinion that none of us who are single at 40 are rocket scientists at love (or we wouldn’t be so uncomfortably solitary in the first place), so drawing the weird requires a little seaside introspection, a new charting of the waves and a definite refocusing of the ship’s trajectory.

My ex-husband, when asked, will say that the reason he doesn’t date is “everybody’s got so much baggage that I just can’t take it.” And though that may be a middle-age, 21st-century realism that probably includes all of us, I still believe in love after 40.

My wise girlfriend likes to say, “We late bloomers get to have happy endings, too.”

So as I prepare to check my own baggage on the shore and dive into the deep seas one more time, I pray for the courage (in a world of imminent land mines) to avoid the weird, and to believe that possibly in the process, I can find peace and happiness in the arms of the true, the solid, the faith-filled and the devoted.

May my late-bloomer happy-ending find me — and find me soon.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and her folk-pop CD, “I Burn,” is online at www.cdbaby.com.

N.Y. or L.A. — which is better for dating?


In my now perhaps exceedingly long life as a single woman, I’ve lived in both New York and Los Angeles.

When people ask me which city is better when it comes to
dating, I can only answer by citing a famous scene from the horror classic, “When a Stranger Calls.”

The babysitter is getting threatening calls in a pre-Caller ID world. The police trace the calls and inform her in one chilling sentence: “It’s coming from inside the house.”

And so it is with dating.

That one scene scared me out of seeing horror movies or babysitting for the rest of my life. On the upside, it gives me some shorthand for my philosophy on this whole topic. If you are one of those people kvetching about the atrocious singles scene here in Los Angeles or wherever you happen to live, you may want to trace the call. Could it really be that an entire city is filled with flakes, players, gold-diggers, idiots, bimbos and trolls? Is it possible that there truly isn’t one single prospective mate in your age range without a mental disorder? More likely, the call is coming from inside the house.
It isn’t the city. It’s you. Bitter, intolerant and hopeless don’t play anywhere. If they did, my 20s would have been a lot more fun. I know it can be painful to be single, and I’m not blaming the victim — I’m blaming the victim mentality.

In my experience, who you are and how you see the world have much more to do with relationship success than your zip code.
Folks will disagree with me, they will get passionate about the lack of a “walking culture” here, the surfeit of plastic people with no spiritual core. Over there, over here, everyone has strong opinions on the subject. Having been single in Los Angeles, in San Francisco (where I grew up and lived until age 23) and in New York, I tell you it makes no difference. No difference at all.

At the risk of sounding like a refugee from a self-realization seminar, if you think you won’t find a man, you won’t. If you’ve decided all of the women here are stuck-up or beaten down, that’s what you’ll find. (Of course, there is the Kentucky Exception. My brother was transferred there for work and wound up dating all six girls on JDate before he was finished unpacking. Personality matters. But so does population.)

Here’s a story. I was living in New York working on a television news show. My friend fixed me up with her brother. We went out a couple of times before he stopped calling. Obviously, I wondered what I had done wrong, or why he had apparently fallen off the Staten Island Ferry. Luckily, I didn’t have to guess, because I had good intel from the sister.

Turns out, the guy had recently put on about 30 pounds and was sensitive about his appearance. He mentioned to me, as we were sitting at dinner, that he didn’t mind his recent weight gain. He patted his belly, if I recall, in a jovial sort of way.
“Really? That doesn’t bother you?” I asked, apparently with some disdain I hardly recall.

I don’t mind a big guy, so it never dawned on me that he was offended, which, according to his sister, he most certainly was. If you want a guy to lose your number, lose your decorum and hurt his ego. Just a little something I’ve learned along the way.

Here’s my point. I was insensitive and had a big mouth, qualities I unfortunately don’t save for when I land at JFK.
A couple of weeks later, I had another blind date. He showed up, a tall man with nice manners in a camel-hair coat, and I thought: “Great, count me in.” Until the third date, when the conversational well ran bone dry and I started mentally rehearsing my news segment for the next day while counting the dots on the wallpaper of a pizzeria on the Upper East Side.

I decided to give him another chance. Turns out, he was just nervous and quiet and Southern. We ended up dating two and a half years and are still close friends to this day. Listen, I may have my faults (see above rude comment that probably sent a man careening toward a bucket of cheese fries) but I’m also pretty open-minded. I give a guy a chance. I do that wherever I live. The ups and downs in my dating career have everything to do with my assets and foibles and nothing to do with the locale.

Just to show off some range, I’m going to go from a 1979 horror film to the golden age of Spanish Jewry. According to the philosopher and poet Moses ibn Ezra, “From your opinion of others, we know the opinion of you.”

Or like my dad says, “You spot it, you got it.” The horror movie, the philosopher, my pops, they’re all saying the same thing.

This is pretty good news when you think about it. Wherever you live right now can be the best place for meeting people in the world. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. You just change the outgoing message, and wait for the phone to ring.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

BR>
But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

Full circle


My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn’t. A hamster is the biggest pet I’ve gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn’t even know
it was there except for one thing — it’s nocturnal.

All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I marched into my daughter’s room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.

I granted a stay of execution.

For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression “running in circles” to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.

Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.

On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.

What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt”l), “The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God.”
Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.

The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.

When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.

There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.

The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.

The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.

And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.

Only the etrog is “perfect,” but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn’t even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.

The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept — that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.

We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.

We don’t “commemorate” the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.

Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev


Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs


Kathryn Gaskin’s blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old’s obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

“I wanted to be a coach because I like sports,” said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

“I feel good because I’m helping other people,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time’s intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

“The coaches are truly responsible — with the knowledge that adults are there to support them — for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish,” said executive director Peter Straus. “We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete.”

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

“The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games,” said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. “It’s the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other.”

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus’ summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings’ participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. “I’m here for him, and he listens to me,” said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus’ summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that’s not possible, Straus is optimistic.

“With the focus being on sports and the kids you’re helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly,” he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg’s daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

“She loves it,” said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. “She’s had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her.”

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena’s self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. “I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can’t do,” said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

“I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up,” said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

The Key Is Rejoicing


A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

The Bittersweet Meaning of Mud


Mud

I had been waiting seven years, and my machon summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai was finally here. It would be different from every other summer, because we would finally be the oldest group, and camp domination would be ours. I knew it would be bittersweet, and I looked forward to making every moment of this incredible summer count.

Natalie KatzThere is one program in particular that embodies all of the emotionalism and meaning of machon summer: Tza’adah. Tza’adah is a five-day, four-night overnight trip that takes campers far from the boundaries of camp and into the nature of Northern California, where we bond with friends, while experiencing the outdoors. I was a little skeptical about not showering for five days, but before I knew it, the day finally came — we were ready to embark on a wild adventure.
We drove for what felt like a lifetime to Big Sur in Northern California. The next morning, we had our first day — and only day — in Big Sur. The morning started with a bowl of Rice Krispies and some scrambled eggs. Following breakfast, we were given the choice between a hard, medium or easy hike.

Assuming the hard hike was going to be well, hard, I set off with the rest of the adventurous campers on the hard hike. We trekked all the way up a beautiful cliff overlooking the ocean, singing songs to pass then time and admiring the scenery.

We walked along the beach and came to an astounding discovery. Earlier that day, a beached whale had died and was now lying on the sand. Staring with amazement at the gargantuan creature, we developed one of the verses of our machon song, “This Tza’adah of Mine,” sung to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Later that evening, after arriving at Lake Casitas, our campsite for the next three nights, we sat around the bonfire and sang cliched camp songs, aided by packets of the best songs hand selected by our wonderful counselors. We could all sing along and learn the words. I will keep the songbook forever as a memento of this journey.

The next day, we took a bus to a beautiful beach. As my two friends and I were walking along the shore, we found a rock shaped like a heart. We took it with us, promising to start a new tradition of passing the rock, along with a letter, among us so we can keep in touch after camp.

The last day, we were given a choice between kayaking, rock-climbing and mountain-biking. I chose kayaking.

The group leader gave us the task of fitting as many people in one kayak as possible without it tipping over. This may not seem to be difficult, but it was unbelievably hilarious and so hard! Try to imagine people laughing hysterically while squeezing their way onto a little kayak. Meanwhile, it’s sinking, and we’re desperately trying not to tip it over.

I was sitting near the front, and after the ninth or 10th person climbed on, the kayak flipped over. Everyone fell in the water — and to top off a perfect day, the water was the perfect temperature.

Then we had one last task: To stand up straight on the kayak and paddle it like a gondola in Venice. I succeeded after falling in a couple of times!
Tza’adah had finally come to a close, but we were not going to finish without a huge hurrah. As is tradition at Camp Ramah, the machon campers run into the chadar ochel, the dining hall, at the end of lunch, giving mud hugs to friends and family. On our last day, we trudged eight miles back to camp from Lake Casitas, singing, laughing and stopping for POWERade along the way, a necessity in the sweltering heat.

We finally got to camp, jumped in the mud pit and got ready to run into the chadar. I will especially remember being the first to do a belly flop in the mud.

Once everyone was finished getting muddy, we formed platoons and began to march to the chadar. The platoons lined up at different entrances. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins.

The counselors yelled, “Charge!” and we sprinted for the doors. It was complete pandemonium inside. I ran around yelling, cheering and giving mud hugs to all my friends, making sure to squeeze extra tight to ensure they were truly covered in mud.

Looking back
is so hard, because I know I will never again have the chance to run through the dinning hall covered in mud. Tza’adah defined my camp experience, and I know that even though I will never be a camper again, the memories I created this summer will last forever.

Natalie Katz, a 10th-grader from Manhattan Beach, has attended Camp Ramah for seven years.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the Ocotber issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

The IDF and Civilians: A Personal Account


To all those who feel that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers have no regard for civilians, and that they “do what they need to do” without regard for potential
civilian casualties, I offer no opinions on this matter.

Instead, I offer this personal experience for your consideration.

It was July 12, 1984, my first day on the Ketziot basic training base, my new “home” as an IDF soldier in the Givati Infantry Brigade. One by one, we were issued what was then the standard IDF infantry weapon, the Israeli-made Galil rifle. Here we were, 18-year-old kids who barely knew anything about life, suddenly holding in our hands a weapon that had the potential to save lives or to take lives.

Upon receiving these weapons, we were gathered into a large mess hall, where an officer was waiting to address us. We expected a lesson on the mechanics of the Galil rifle. Instead, the officer had come to speak to us about Tohar Ha-Neshek — the “Purity of the Weapon.”

He spoke at length about the moral use of the weapon vs. the immoral use of the weapon, and of the responsibility we had to uphold the value of Tohar Ha-Neshek no matter what the circumstances. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I am not a particularly religious person, but remember that to uphold the purity of your weapon is a Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God’s name), and to violate it is a Chilul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name).”

Six months later, my unit found itself in Southern Lebanon, fighting the same Hezbollah that the IDF fights today. The Galil that we were issued six months earlier had unfortunately gotten its fair share of real-life wear and tear, but it was not until Feb. 5, 1985, that we learned a real-life lesson in “Purity of the Weapon.”

Late in the afternoon that day, as our convoy was leaving our post in Borj el Jimali (two miles east of Tyre), a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove his car straight into our convoy, triggering a massive explosion in our faces. We responded like we were taught — jump out of the vehicle, take cover and return fire. In typical Hezbollah fashion, they carried out this attack in an area filled with civilians, which means that we were faced with the awful prospect of firing into the homes of civilian men, women and children caught in the crossfire.

After our initial barrage of fire, our officer instructed us to regroup into small teams that would enter buildings to search for any terrorists cooperating with the suicide bomber. His instructions still ring clearly in my ear, and took me back to the lecture I heard about “Purity of Weapons” just six months earlier: “This area is filled with civilians, and there is no need to injure or kill them. In our search for terrorists, please try to minimize any civilian casualties.”

These instructions came from an officer who, just a few minutes earlier, had 100 kilos of dynamite explode into his face and that of his troops, yet he was still able to keep a clear mind and remember that the IDF was in Lebanon to fight Hezbollah terrorists, not Lebanese civilians.

It was true then, and it is still true today.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

(Rob Eshman’s column will return next week.)

Summer Tours to Israel Rerouted, But Not By Much


Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel’s northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY’s base in Jerusalem.

That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.

“All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation,” said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. “We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe.”

So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides’ grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.

Few Kids Have Returned Home

Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY’s Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.

The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b’Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.

Administrators worried about heightening participants’ anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.

Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.

“Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it’s an hour-by-hour reevaluation,” said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.

IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries

Israel Experience adjusts the groups’ schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience — and most do — is tracked by GPS.

“They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move,” said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.

Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.

Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.

Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.

“We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region,” she said.

— JGF

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

Sderot Attack Interrupts Villaraigosa’s Call


On Thursday, July 6, at 9 a.m., Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of Israel, was interrupted twice in attempts to place a call to Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot.

Palestinian terrorists have been attacking the city almost daily with Kassam rockets in recent weeks. Moyal had to interrupt both calls because of rocket attacks.

Villaraigosa wanted to reach out to the people of the Jewish state, and he chose Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has a population of 20,000, after conferring with local Jewish leaders. On hand for the pre-planned call were City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.

The conversation barely got beyond the introductions.

Just as Villaraigosa began to move to substantive matters, Moyal interrupted, saying: “I’m sorry. We’re going to have to have this conversation some other time. We’ve just been attacked by seven Kassam rockets,” he said over speaker phone.

Five to 10 minutes later, Consul General Danoch called Moyal a second time and reached him on his cell phone. Just as Danoch was about to push the speaker phone button, Moyal again cut the conversation short because of another barrage of rockets.

“This experience shook all of us to our core,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “I have tremendous respect for Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot, who live their lives in the shadow of terror. It makes you grateful for the peace and safety that we have here in Los Angeles.”

The attempt by the mayor of America’s second-largest city to reach out to the people of a nation he so admires became a lesson in the explosiveness and unpredictability of the Middle East.

Weiss said that the immediacy of the circumstances behind the termination of Villaraigosa’s call with Sderot’s mayor “really brought home the suddenness of terrorism.” Weiss represents Los Angeles’ Fifth Council District, which includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The Kassam attacks also underscore the escalation of Palestinian attacks on Sderot and elsewhere in the region, and the dangers these attacks represent to Israeli citizens, Fishel said.

“Most folks here in Los Angeles don’t necessarily understand Israel’s geography and how close Sderot is to [Gaza] and the attacks’ impact on the normalcy of the lives of men, women and children,” Fishel said.

Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year. The targets have recently included schools during school hours, Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, causing Sderot’s student population to drop by more than 15 percent over the past year.

In response to news of the call, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter said that Villaraigosa has every right to call city officials around the world to express his solidarity with them, especially when they face the consequences of war and natural disasters. But given that the mayor has called Israeli civic leaders, he has an obligation to call Palestinians, Ayloush said.

“When it comes to the Middle East, it is important to remember that there are two sides who are suffering due to this conflict,” Ayloush said. “But there is one side that’s suffering even more: that is the Palestinians, because of the occupation.”

To date, Villaraigosa has not yet called any Palestinian officials but hasn’t ruled out doing so in the future, spokesman Ben Golombek said.

Los Angeles’ mayor has twice visited Israel and hopes to make another trip there again soon.

The Making of a Jewish Teen


Community
by Lauren Schein, Tribe Contributor

I am a stubborn person. I get it from my dad. I also get many of my beliefs from my dad, who disregards all religion as not only mostly useless, but harmful.

I also have influences from my grandparents, who are big players in their temple. They insist on carrying on the Jewish traditions. My mom pushes the idea of Jewish community and how good it feels to be part of something larger.

Among all of these influences, my dad’s beliefs seemed most believable to me. I had seen evidence of the problems that religion had caused in the world and was ready and willing to go without. I didn’t see the point of being a part of anything bigger if it could invoke wars.

That is, until I had some chicken.

Chicken, you ask? Why is chicken symbolic of my joining of the Jewish community? The answer begins with the Religious Action Center trip to Washington, D.C. in February 2006.

I had not wanted to go along in the first place, but had been convinced. I walked into the situation firmly believing that there was no fun or learning to be had, and was ready to be stubborn enough to stick to that belief.

My mind was quickly changed the moment I walked into a large dining hall full of laughing, happy people who were all ready to get to know each other. I was enjoying myself even before dinner. The people I met were interesting, and I had a lot in common with them.

Then the food came. It was … chicken. That’s when Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, my rabbi from Leo Baeck Temple, said, “It wouldn’t be a Jewish convention without chicken.”

Everyone at my table was laughing, including me.

That’s when it hit me: I am a Jew. I was eating chicken with people I had immediate connections to, laughing over stereotypes and feeling pride in being part of such a great group. I became a part of the Jewish community that weekend. Whether it was the chicken, the friends, the senators, or the research; I had come to realize the reason for religion in the world.

I no longer view the idea of religion and community as only harmful. I have learned that a community can be the most important thing a person can have. A community is there for support and comfort in times of celebration and in times of need. Everyone — anywhere in the world — needs a community.

I am actually surprised to feel how fulfilling it is to tell people that I am a Jew and belong to the Jewish people. Thanks to that piece of white-meat chicken, I now have a community I will be able to rely on my whole life.

Lauren Schein, a junior at Santa Monica High School, was confirmed at Leo Baeck Temple.

Jewish Identity
by Mickey Brown, Tribe Contributor

I’m Jewish everywhere I go, but it always feels a little different depending on if I’m at my synagogue, at my camp or at my school.

When I’m at synagogue at Congregation Ner Tamid, I don’t feel unique. Being Jewish is typical and ordinary. I know everyone, and I simply take it for granted that everyone is here because they’re Jewish, and that everyone is Jewish because they’re here.

At Camp Hess Kramer, it feels completely different. I know that everyone is Jewish, but I don’t know anyone, and at first it’s strange. We know all the same prayers, all the same games and all the same rituals. The interesting part for me is that these things have less to do with being Jewish and more to do with being at camp.

It’s such a great feeling to be there and know that it is where I belong. People accept me at camp, and sometimes I just stand and ponder the idea that, “Wow, they’re all Jewish, every single one of them. I am not the minority, or even the majority, but the entire population! I am the religion!” Being able to say that feels really good.

School is another story, and to be honest, school is where I truly feel proud to be Jewish. I am part of a small minority at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, and I am treated a little differently for it. People see me in some of my classes as “the Jew” or “one of the Jews” and, truthfully, I love it! I am proud when I am at school to be known as “the Jew.”

The different ways people see me are mostly based on stereotypes. If someone were to point me out in a crowd to one of his friends and tell him that I am Jewish, the person would very likely assume I was smart, hard working, and fairly wealthy — and I have absolutely no problem with that assumption. I am proud to be thought of that way because those are valuable and honorable qualities that all people would want to have, and the fact that somebody would simply assume that I have them is quite flattering to me.

The truth is, however, that being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with those stereotypes. It’s about what I believe in and how I view myself. I have come to realize that my parents didn’t decide that I would be Jewish; I decided that I would be Jewish, and that I had to want it for myself. It didn’t matter how many people wanted it for me as long as I made my choice.

And as I stand here on the night of my confirmation, I think that it is obvious which choice I’ve made. I have nothing to prove to anyone regarding my religion, my beliefs, my faith, or my Jewish heritage, and I am very proud of who I am.

Mickey Brown, a junior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, was confirmed at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Israel
by Kevin Senet, Tribe Contributor

It was my first time in Israel, and on one of my first evenings there, I went to a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game. That night, Maccabi was playing Jerusalem HaPoel for the Israeli basketball championship. This rivalry is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rivalries in Israeli sports. The stadium was divided; the Tel Aviv fans were standing on one side in yellow, while the Jerusalem fans were standing on the other in red.

All of the sudden, before the game, the arena lights dimmed. I was amazed to see tens of thousands of people stop whatever they were doing — mostly chanting and cussing at the other side — to stand united and sing “HaTikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Not only did everyone sing, but they sang with pride and wholeheartedly.

Listening to this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I could feel the love of the Jewish nation in everyone’s voices, the love that has kept the hope for Israel alive in the Jewish people for thousands of years and through many difficulties. From this I understood why the Israelis have such extreme national pride and risk so much in order to live in the Jewish homeland.

I had never heard “HaTikvah” sung in public by tens of thousands of people. Being in Israel taught me not to hide my Jewish pride, but to show it in public. After living in Tel Aviv with an Israeli family for two months on the Milken-Lady Davis Israel Exchange Program, my pride in Israel and in Judaism has risen greatly.

I have also never seen fans as passionate as the Maccabi fans in any sports game in America. During the exchange program this spring, I attended every Maccabi game. When I saw that Maccabi was going to the final four in Europe, I was amazed. A team from the small country of Israel was going to Prague to play against teams from Russia and Spain. This shows the world that the Israelis and Jews are strong and can compete in sports, like basketball. When European countries see an Israeli team as one of the best teams in Europe, they must respect Israel and Jews.

Israelis are so proud of Maccabi doing well that more than 10,000 Israelis, including my host family, the Dekels, and I, went to the Euroleague Finals in Prague to cheer them on. Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball was one of the highlights of my stay in Israel. Not only was it fun to go to the games, but it taught me how different the Israeli culture is from American culture, and how to be proud of who I am.

Kevin Senet, a junior at Milken Community High School, was confirmed at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

God
by Natalie Paige Karic, Tribe Contributor

One night a few months ago, I was talking with two of my closest friends, whom I have known for as long as I can remember. Both of these girls are relatively religious Christians who frequently attend church and have a strong belief in God. Soon our conversation came to the subject of religion.

My friends asked me if I believed in God. I quickly answered that I wasn’t sure. Recently, I have asked myself how I could believe in God if I had never had a personal experience in which God spoke directly to me or guided me in some way.

I told them that to be a Jew you didn’t have to believe in God. I was certain about this, but I still couldn’t explain more. My friends didn’t grasp how I could be Jewish and be an active participant in my Jewish community yet not believe in God. They didn’t understand what I feel in services when the congregation is praying and singing to God. How is Judaism even a religion, they asked, if you aren’t praying to anything?

After thinking about it I came to the realization that most people don’t understand this important part of Judaism. Our religion is, of course, based on the monotheistic principle in which people unite to pray to one God, but a bigger part of Judaism, which my Christian friends overlooked, is the moral code, tikkun olam and other mitzvot that our religion promotes.

Of the ethics and values we are taught in Judaism, the most important to me is the learning and discovery integral to our Jewish religion. As we learn about the ideals and history of Judaism, we are better prepared to make educated decisions based on our beliefs about God and life.

After this year in Confirmation class, I feel as though I am more prepared to think about my belief in God. To be honest, I’m still questioning, but being a part of our Jewish community and trying to understand my religion has given me exactly what I wanted.

I know I won’t be judged by our community on the basis of faith, and I am always being asked to question my beliefs until I achieve what I consider to be the best understanding possible.

As I have grown as a Jewish woman, I have learned that being a part of Jewish community is what makes me a Jew. The people here are joined together by something great that cannot be explained. While we may not all believe the same things about God and life, we are all in this together.

Natalie Paige Karic, a junior at Harvard-Westlake School, was confirmed at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Special Delivery – When Baby Brings More Than Expected


Sarah Berger had a tough pregnancy. Berger, who asked that her real name not be used, had severe morning sickness for six months, and then was on bed rest for her last 10 weeks. But it wasn’t until her baby came home that trouble really began.

“On the third day, I remember this dark cloud descending on me…. I cried all the way home from the hospital,” she said. As she prepared for her son’s brit milah, “I started falling apart,” Berger said. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop crying.”

She called her obstetrician, who suspected that Berger had postpartum depression (PPD).

Experienced by about 10 percent of new mothers, PPD’s symptoms include sadness, apprehension, difficulty making decisions and changes in sleeping and eating habits. The symptoms of PPD last longer and are more intense than the tearfulness and fatigue characteristic of the “baby blues,” which generally subside after two weeks.

“Despite the common belief that motherhood automatically brings … a state of bliss and contentment, in reality the postpartum period is a time of increased vulnerability to psychiatric illness, particularly for women with past histories of depression or serious anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Vivien K. Burt, professor of psychiatry at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the Women’s Life Center of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. “We don’t know for certain what causes postpartum depression, but we believe it stems at least in part from the rapid decline in estrogen following childbirth,” she said, noting that during pregnancy, estrogen levels rise several hundred times and then drop back to prepregnancy levels within several days following childbirth.

Women suffering from PPD often fail to receive help for a number of reasons. They might be ashamed of their feelings, or they simply might not know where to turn. And not all obstetricians and pediatricians are as attuned to the condition as Berger was.

After she began seeing a therapist and taking medication, Berger quickly responded to treatment. When PPD hit again after the birth of her second child, she knew what to do.

Now Berger helps other women experiencing the condition by volunteering for New Moms Connect, a PPD support program offered by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). Volunteers for this free service help new moms and family members via telephone calls, home visits and referrals to community resources.

With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, New Moms Connect was developed as a response to calls received by JFS from new mothers “who were depressed and felt they had no one to reach out to,” said Debbie Fox, director of child and family services for JFS. “Their husbands had no understanding of what was happening, they had no understanding and their families had no understanding.”

“There’s so much pressure to be joyous when a new baby comes,” said Tamar Springer, a licensed psychotherapist who supervises the program’s volunteers. “A woman may be reluctant to come forward with her feelings…. Our goal is to decrease stigma, educate the community and help people understand that this is a medical disorder that’s not something to be ashamed of.”

So far, 10 volunteers, including Berger, have undergone training. One is a nurse and another is a dentist. All are mothers.

Berger said she chose to volunteer because she felt there was a lack of information about PPD both in the Jewish community and the community in general. She was pleased to be part of an effort to “let women know about it ahead of time instead of just getting hit with it afterward,” Berger said.

In her role, Berger listens as the women describe their situations, asks questions and makes suggestions for how new mothers can get support, whether by hiring temporary household help, attending a new mothers group in the area [see below] or seeing a physician. She often refers women to UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, both of which offer PPD programs.

So far, she has spoken to about five women over the phone and visited two more in person. Her husband has also spoken with one of the women’s husbands. She advises new mothers “to surround themselves with what makes them comfortable” and to articulate their preferences, rather than let other people decide what’s best.

Berger, who is Orthodox, said that certain factors can intensify the problem in her community. In her lactation consulting practice, she said, “a lot of the moms I deal with … are very young — around 19 or 20 — and are extremely unprepared” to deal with the changes that a new baby brings.

When family and friends learn about PPD, their reactions can vary. Berger said that after a friend heard a mutual acquaintance talking about Berger’s PPD, the friend told Berger that her openness might result in difficulty finding a shidduch (match) for her children.

Despite such comments, Berger felt that the experience also had its benefits. “It’s taught me a lot about myself and about how I want to raise my children and the kind of person I want to be,” she said.

When Mom Needs Help
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression

  • Sad, weepy, anxious and moody feelings that fail to go away after about two weeks
  • Feelings of doubt, guilt, helplessness or hopelessness that disrupt day-to-day functioning
  • Sleeping most of the time or inability to sleep when tired
  • Loss of interest in things that normally bring pleasure
  • Extreme concern about — or lack of interest in — the baby
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Fear of harming the baby
  • Thoughts of self-harm

A New Moms Connect Peer Support Group, which started June 21, is still accepting participants. The six-week session, designed for mothers with babies newborn to six months, meets Wednesday, 9:45 a.m.-11:15 a.m., at The Parenting Place at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, Grancell Village, 7150 Tampa Ave., Reseda. The program is also sponsored by JFS and the Valley Beth Shalom Infant/Toddler Program. For information, call Donna Ramos at (323) 761-8800 ext. 1213.

New Moms Connect (323) 761-8800, ext. 1028 (calls generally returned within 24 hours).

The Woman’s Life Center at UCLA (310) 825-9989

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Postpartum Depression Support Group (310) 423-1510

Postpartum Support International: www.postpartum.net.

Wandering Jew – The Hit Parade


Here it is: 5,000 years after Moses wandered the Sinai, his people have finally found a home in Reseda, no less, at the Jewish Home for the Aging, the largest continuing residential care facility for the elderly in the Western United States. Yet while these Jews are no longer wandering, they are today wondering when the big simchah begins.

“We’re so excited!” says Mimi Kolmer. “We’ve been waiting for this all year!” In her mid-70s, she is one of close to 1,000 residents here at Eisenberg Village, most past their 90th birthday, and here they are today, watching guys in their 30s and 40s playing softball.

“What’s this about?” I ask Doug Gellerman, and he tells me this is the Spring Classic Event sponsored by the Synagogue Softball League.

“The league consists of 32 teams,” he says, “made up of 620 guys from temples all over the San Fernando Valley and West L.A. Four years ago we decided to give something back to our Jewish community, and each year it’s gotten bigger. We raise money for the home and bring our families so the kids and elders experience each other.”

Gellerman points to a kid about 10 years old talking with an old guy on a bench: “It’s a mitzvah for the kids to learn about giving back.”

“Is this your grandfather?” I ask the kid.

“Yeah,” he says. “He’s telling me about when he was a kid, but he can’t remember. He thinks maybe he has old-timer’s disease.”

“It’s Alzheimer’s, not old-timers,” Gramps says. “Maybe you have young-timers disease?”

Then he grabs his grandson and kisses him hard on the cheek.

Next event is senior softball, and I watch a bunch of elders swatting a whiffle ball with a big plastic bat, with pitching and fielding handled by the kids. The pitcher, who looks like he’s ready for his bar mitzvah, throws Morton Symans a soft pitch, and he misses.

“Hey kid!” yells Symans, who’s 85 years old. “I might be a senior citizen but don’t throw me no soft pitch! The road ahead of you is not the road that I’m on. It’s not a soft road. So toughen up!”

The kid shrugs, winds up, throws with all he’s got, and Symans slams the ball over everyone’s heads.

“Smart kid,” Symans says. “He’ll do just fine.”

Hilda Foodman, 72 years old and a self-proclaimed tomboy, is up next.

“I’ll tell you a wonderful story that happened to me,” she says, “but you must promise not to tell.”

“Hilda,” her friend interrupts, “you’re telling a reporter!”

“Oy!” says Hilda, and grabbing the bat, hits everything pitched her way.

Up next in a “Be Cool” T-shirt is Shelly Balzac. At 78, he walks with a cane but he swats a long one.

“Any relation to the writer?” I ask.

“Balzac was married in the Ukraine,” he says, “and my parents were from Kiev.”

“So that makes Balzac…”

“Dead.”

A kibitzer. Everyone here is a kibitzer.

Next event is the talent show. First up is Bill Mednick. A youthful 82, he wails, “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger….”

Well, for most residents, the hearing isn’t what it used to be, so the PA is set very, very loud. Good-natured Ida Greenbaum, the accompanying pianist, is like a city bus in that she tends to slow down and speed up unexpectedly, which obligates Bill to turn to her pleading, “Where are you?”

Bill concludes, and master of ceremonies Ellis (“Not the Island!”) Simon introduces Muriel Tuckman. She finishes to loud applause but not as loud as her singing: “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…someone to watch over me….”

“And who would that be, dear?” I ask. “George Bush?”

“That louse,” says Simon, and everyone agrees.

“When I was in the Marines,” he says, “a G.I. called me ‘a dirty Jew’ so I kicked his ass.”

Simon now asks us to show some love for “The Bird Lady” — and up steps Mildred Cadish, wearing a long, red feather boa. Looking like a bird, she takes the mike, puckers her lips and makes so many high-pitched squeals, some of the residents begin sprouting feathers. “I’ve been chirping 79 years,” she announces to great applause.

Muriel is a hard act to follow, but here’s Howard Hersh, 85, marauding his way through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Amazingly, each note Howard sings is in a different key.

Give it up now for Lee Miro, who while disavowing any relationship to the surrealist painter, nonetheless presents a surrealistic performance sitting in her wheelchair and belting out in an operatic voice, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

“We thank you all for being with us today,” she tells the appreciative crowd, while Adam, a lad of 14, takes the stage and juggles oranges. He tosses one under his leg, and the room roars.

“Maybe he’ll wind up a produce man at Ralphs,” says Mimi Kolmer, who then asks me what temple I’m from.

I tell her Shirley Temple and she smiles.

“This is the most outstanding place,” she says. “I have lots of friends. And everyone has a smile or a greeting. I’m very lucky.”

But not as lucky as those of us now being pummeled by Al Heyman, “singing” a little ditty that was popular around the time Noah built his ark. “Because, you come to me, with naught save love, and hold my hand and lift mine eyes above….”

As Al hits his last note, I can hear corneal implants shatter.

“Every time he sings,” Simon tells the crowd, “my hernia kills me. Next week he’ll sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and your head will explode!”

The talent show now ends with Simon himself singing “My Way.”

“If it wasn’t for Frank Sinatra,” he says, “I would have been famous!”

Someone yells, “Ellis, was your family rich or poor?” And without missing a beat, Simon tells the room “You know, my family was so poor, if I hadn’t been a boy, I’d have had nothing to play with.”

Gellerman now hands out checks totaling $3,300, money raised by the softball teams to be used by the home for the residents. Before he leaves, Gellerman asks Ellis to “return the money.”

Jewish humor.

On my way out, as I head for my nearest Beltone dealer, I run into Symans, the guy who told the kid to toughen up.

“Old people are like Don Quixote,” he says. “They think they’re still independent but they wind up tilting at windmills. I accept what I have and who I am — so I try to help others adjust.”

And then suddenly, from the PA, comes one last announcement, the one proclamation that bridges all senior politics, religion and age: “Bingo will begin in the library in 15 minutes!”

“Gotta run,” Symans says. “Zey gezunt!”

Visit to Ethiopia Changes His Life


In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah — to immigrate to Israel.

Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry — Fishel vowed that he would do something.

Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel’s commitment to Jewish people worldwide.

After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group’s recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.

“John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. “He’s always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement.”

On that trip, Fishel’s second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw,” said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.

Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“I see Jewish issues as global in scope,” Fishel said. “I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state.”–MB

 

Kids Learn Burial Rites From Barney


Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica’s Sha’arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.

His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.

With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.

A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a “paramedic,” in vest and plastic firefighter’s hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.

This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.

“What do we now? ” the rabbi asks.

The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.

“Well,” Marx says. “As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried.”

When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the “Man From the Mortuary.” Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.

The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.

It’s an impressive transformation.

With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.

Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

“I’ve wanted to do a program on death for a long time,” Marx says on the way to the cemetery. “It’s good for the kids, but lots of parents haven’t had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world,” he said.

The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.

“Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body,” he says. “We hit on Barney as the perfect solution — he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him.”

Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.

Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn’t really important for people in their 40s.

“But, in fact,” he now says, “I learned things I assumed I wouldn’t need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion,” he said.

“Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we’d gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult,” he says. “As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it’s almost essential.”

Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.

“It’s always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life,” said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.

“Children in the fourth and fifth grade don’t yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions,” she added.

When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside’s Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary’s director of community outreach is waiting.

She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.

In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.

This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris’ gravestone.

All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations — ones that will no doubt continue.

 

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti


“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books).

According to a Creole proverb, truth is like oil in water; it always comes to the surface. Kathie Klarreich’s first book, a memoir of her years in Haiti, is a tale of truths — personal, religious and political.

The title, “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti,” comes from the nickname given to her by the kids in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In Haitian tradition, women take on the first names of their husbands; in her case she was named for the dreadlocks of her boyfriend (who later became her husband). She also refers to herself as a “Voodoo Jew.”

The book is timely reading as Haitians took part in long-postponed national elections on Feb. 7, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Klarreich’s impressionistic writing goes far in explaining the ongoing political turbulence that rocks the Caribbean nation — once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

On the eve of the elections, Klarreich was in Haiti, reporting for Time magazine. In an e-mail she wrote, “It’s sort of bittersweet to be covering elections again, seeing how much people want change and how slow it’s been to come.”

From the time of the author’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, the place got under her skin in ways that go beyond words. Something about the warmth and graciousness of the people, the landscape, the vibrancy and color of the place and the music touched her in a profound way. A second visit in 1988, with the goal of spending three weeks researching handicrafts for her San Francisco shop, turned into a stay of more than 10 years.

The book opens in September 1988 with gunfire, when Klarreich found herself a front-row witness to a coup d’etat, the first of several she’d experience. Information was scarce, and she was not sure what had happened or where to find safety, but following her instincts she made her way to a friend’s home. She was then unsure whether to remain in Haiti, and it was her worried mother, who in a long-distance phone call advised either to “get involved or get out,” who convinced her to stay.

Another friend suggested that since she was in the midst of history being made, that she try reporting. She made contacts, wrote and rewrote, and got published in the San Francisco Chronicle and broadcast on Pacifica Radio. After a quick and determined study of what makes a good reporter, she took on more assignments and soon found that major newspapers, magazines and television networks were calling her. As years passed, she felt less the foreign journalist and more as though she were recounting the history of her own country.

Soon after the 1988 coup, she went with a friend to hear a traditional music group perform at the National Theater, and when she first saw the drummer, “it was as though someone sliced a vein from my heart into the center of his.” Several months later, she met Jean Raymond and, ever aware of their differences in culture, education and economics, fell deeply in love. Their first son was born on the same day as another coup d’etat, in 1991, while they were in San Francisco. Jean Raymond felt displaced in America, homesick for Haiti, so he returned and she joined him later on.

Klarreich writes with honesty and humility, aware of the privilege of her upper middle-class background and ability — not shared by her Haitian friends — to leave at any point if the dangers, frustrations, government corruption and violence were to become too difficult to bear. She writes of adjusting to weeks with only 10 random hours of electricity, being mistaken for a CIA agent, losing a dear friend to assassination and interviewing political leaders. The memoir is also the story of her self-discovery as she pushes herself “to pare down the clutter” of her life.

Her curiosity about all things Haitian led her to experience the voodoo tradition. She attended a five-day traditional ceremony and while dancing, was surprised at her writhing bodily reactions, as though spirits possessed her.

“I was not a nonbeliever, but at each foreign juncture with the spiritual, I had only my Jewish spiritual upbringing as a frame of reference. This didn’t fit in that box. It didn’t fit anywhere. No feelings any rabbi evoked though any sermon I’d ever heard came close to reaching this kind of religious experience,” she writes.

Her husband is a practitioner of voodoo and she is not, although she says that learning about voodoo has helped her to better understand the country and it history. In their home in Haiti, she would light Shabbat candles, with his ritual items nearby. She now lives mostly in Florida, where her 14-year-old son goes to school, and she travels frequently to their home in Haiti, where her husband is primarily based.

In a telephone interview from Key Biscayne as she was about to leave for Haiti, she explains that voodoo is very much misunderstood, promoted by Hollywood as having to do with sticking pins into dolls and some sort of black magic. She’s pleased that her openness “allowed me to just observe and take in what it was. In this post-9/11 world, we have to come to other people’s religions with open minds and not be judgmental.”

Klarreich, 50, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland where her father served as a city councilman, and she says that one of the gifts her family gave her was travel, exposing her to many places from a young age. Her Jewish upbringing prepared her for her adventure in Haiti, and “for life in general. My parents set the stage for me to feel confident in making decisions and gave me space to do so.”

Now, when she looks at photos of her earlier self in Haiti, she sees how much her white skin makes her stand out, but she always felt accepted. Most Haitians, she says, don’t know much about Judaism, or Middle East politics.

“It’s a very isolated island, with its own language,” she said. “I’ve often thought this to be part of their larger political problem, that they’re so insular.”

Her mother suggested that she call the book “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The book took her about a decade to write, with several rewrites until she found a way to tell the story, which she does well. She begins each chapter with a Creole proverb — like “Love turns your head around” and “The lamp won’t light without a wick” — as Haitians invoke idiomatic sayings frequently.

“It’s part of Haitians’ charm; they see the world with humor, with joie de vivre,” she says. “We hear awful things about violence and poverty, but 8 million people get up and make do, often under great duress, and they do it with laughter and grace and creativity. I have tremendous respect for the way they have overcome so many difficulties.”

For Klarreich, Haiti remains a country “full of unpredictable flaws and wonders.” Each time she arrives, she’s enchanted anew.

“Haiti has taught me that there is not only one way to look at a situation, but infinite ways to create a solution, with humor and devotion, heart and determination as key ingredients.”

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

PASSOVER: Myriad Ways to Tell an Ancient Tale


 

Every haggadah has a story, its own story, beyond that of the exodus from Egypt. Depending on illustrations, design, typesetting, additions, where the edition is printed and who commissioned its creation, each version is a marker of Jewish history. In some cases, the wine stains on the pages tell stories too; they appear as family emblems, carrying generations of memories.

New Editions of Old Favorites

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s splendid book, first published in 1975, “Haggadah and History” (Jewish Publication Society) is now back in print. The book is scholarly, intriguing and beautiful, an aesthetic timeline of Jewish history and culture. Featured are 200 facsimile plates, depicting haggadah pages from the early days of printing in the 15th century to the 1970s, with explanations of their context.

As Yerushalmi — the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University, who specializes in medieval and modern Jewish history with an emphasis on Spanish, Portuguese and German Jewry — notes, the haggadah is the most popular and beloved of Jewish books.

“Scholars have meditated upon it, children delight in it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. It has been reprinted more often than any other classic text, and is the most frequently illustrated.

A haggadah printed in Poona, India in 1874, with text in Hebrew and Marathi (the language of the Bene Israel) opens with a full-page illustration showing women in saris, flowers in their hair, preparing and baking matzah, seated in classic Indian positions familiar from Hindu painting. The illustrations are modeled on an earlier version of the haggadah printed in Amsterdam, although they are Indian in tone and detail.

Other highlighted editions include the earliest illustrated haggadah, with decorative woodcuts. Its place and date of origin are unknown; it may have been printed in Spain or Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century before the expulsions, or by Sephardi exiles in Salonika or Constantinople. Also included is a version reproduced by mimeograph in North Africa in 1942 by the Palestine Jewish Brigade.

Selected from the collections of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the haggadahs featured here are only a small percentage of the number of editions that have been published. Since Yerushalmi wrote his book, many new versions — with folk art designs, environmental themes and computer-generated illustrations — have been created.

Also new this season is “Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav), including 10 essays drawn from the writings of the late scholar and leader known as “the Rav,” who died in 1993. This volume, part of the series MeOtzar HaRav, was edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, prepared from handwritten manuscripts and tapes of the Rav’s lectures.

The first essay, “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night,” begins on a personal note, as the Rav recalls his childhood fascination with the nights of the seder and of Kol Nidrei. He felt “entranced by these two clear, moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty.” Enveloped by a “strange silence, stillness, peace, quiet and serenity,” he would “surrender to a stream of inflowing joy and ecstasy.” On those nights, he sensed the presence of God; the commonality of the two is man’s encounter with God. In this and the other far-ranging philosophical essays, he goes on to explore the experiential and intellectual dimensions of the seder and the major themes of Passover.

New Haggadahs on the Shelf

“Touched by the Seder” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, with an introduction by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Artscroll) is a haggadah featuring inspiring stories and commentary, compiled by the author of the “Touched by a Story” series. The book includes the Artscroll translations and seder instructions. The selected stories — whether about Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, families showing great strength in the face of tragedy, two friends caring for a third friend immediately after he is wounded in battle while fighting in the Israeli army or Rav Chaim Berlin’s experience on Yom Kippur in the late 1800s — are a vehicle for emphasizing the teachings of the holiday

“The Chazon Ish Haggadah” (Artscroll) features the traditional haggadah text, highlighted with the writings and teachings of the late Maran Hagaon Harav Avraham Yehaya Karelitz, who was known as the Chazon Ish and died in 1953. During his lifetime, much of his work was anonymous, unsigned commentaries, and here Rabbi Asher Bergman compiles his rulings and customs regarding the seder.

An introductory section that lists the halachic rulings and practices of the Chazon Ish on preparing for the holiday notes that he ruled that “one must search books for the possible presence of crumbs.” He would set aside the books he planned to use on Pesach and, beginning several days before the holiday, would check them page by page.

On the page of text with the words “Whoever is hungry — let him come and eat,” Bergman illustrates the generosity of the Chazon Ish, who comforted and helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel. With money sent to him from Jews all over the world, he married off more than 100 orphan girls to young Torah scholars. He himself lived in poverty, while channeling money to Torah institutions and to the poor and sick.

“The Liberated Haggadah” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism) is different from other haggadahs in its humanistic approach, geared to secular and cultural Jews. This haggadah acknowledges early on the author’s view that of the Exodus story as mythical rather than historical. Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, recasts the story as a humanist parable, highlighting contemporary relevance.

Rituals are connected not to the historical Hebrews, but rather to an ancient springtime celebration. In addition to the traditional Four Questions, he offers translations in Ladino, German, Yiddish, Russian, French and Arabic and a set of modern questions, framing contemporary issues. He asks, “Why can we get people to the moon but we can not get the homeless adequate shelters?”

He also offers discussion questions for after the meal, raising timely issues including immigration, modern-day sex slavery and forced labor. Included are traditional and new songs, with touches of lightness and humor.

Also available this year is the “Internet Hagada” by Rabbi William Blank. The text is an edited version of the traditional text, set in contemporary English that reads well, with some Hebrew and transliteration. He also pays attention to page design, creating an attractive haggadah.

Here, the traditional four sons are four students: “One is diligent, one couldn’t care less, one is uncomplicated, one is too overwhelmed to ask questions.” Blank explains that there are no external themes imposed on the traditional material as many modern editions do; he emphasizes the universal values and deeply resonating spirituality of the seder.

Blank, who lives in Sacramento, says that he grew up Orthodox, was ordained as a Reform rabbi and now belongs to a Conservative synagogue. He is the author of “Torah, Tarot & Tantra: A Guide to Jewish Spiritual Growth” and “Soon You Will Understand the Meaning of Life.”

This haggadah, suitable for groups where participants are at different levels, is available only through the Internet. Readers are required to buy one (in .pdf format) and then can make as many copies as they need.

Haggadahs for the Kinder

“Max’s 4 Questions” by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Bryan Hendrix (Grosset & Dunlap) tells the basics of the Passover story through the adventures and questions of Max, the youngest of four brothers who lives in a chaotic house, where they host a joyous seder crowded with relatives. The youngest seder attendees might enjoy the stickers included for decorating the book’s seder plate.

“More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (Barron’s) is designed to engage, teach and keep young kids busy.

 

Other Picks for Passover


Everyone can easily participate in the seder with Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s 98-page newly translated, large type and transliterated “Passover Haggadah” (KTAV Publishing House) complete with numbered lines. www.ktav.com

Two books in one, “Haggadah” by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Continuum) contains a Hebrew-English Haggadah, with attractive Hebrew typography and accompanying commentary as well as 21 insightful and wide-ranging Passover essays, all written by Sacks. www.continuumbooks.com

Harriet Goldner created and self-published the 18-page illustrated and color-coded “Please, Don’t Pass Over the Seder Plate” to keep her grandchildren entertained while they learned the Passover traditions. www.jewishfamilyfun.com

Fully illustrated and easy to understand, Rob Kopman’s “30 Minute Seder,” downloadable in minutes, provides abbreviated and slightly non-traditional seder basics for impatient participants. www.30minuteseder.com

The Hebrew-English “Hamsa Haggadah,” beautifully illustrated by Eduard Paskhover (A.G.N. Ltd., Israel, 2005) and shaped like a hamsa, highlights the 12 stones of the high priest’s breastplate, each stone representing one of Israel’s 12 tribes. Distributed through Alef Judaica, Inc., in Culver City. — Compiled by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer