The unlikely candidate


I’ve always admired investment banker/doctor/accountant/lawyer/teacher/artist-types those who’d set their paths out early on and pursued their objectives outright
I, on the other hand, have had a seemingly somewhat … unexpected career path.

Since graduating college (with an English degree) I’ve changed jobs on average every two years. I’ve worked in media, nonprofit, consulting and even finance. I’ve considered an MBA, an MSW, the LSATs; I’ve been a junior this, a senior that, a teammate, a leader, a student, a freelancer, a mentor, a consultant and a peon. I’ve bookmarked mediabistro.com and hotjobs.com, and my resume is typically updated.

And at each point that I’ve begun a new job — and new job search — I grieve, I deny, I regret, I celebrate, I cling and, eventually, I let go. Then, I chalk it up to life experience.

The process is at once thrilling as it is exhausting. It’s also strangely familiar.

See, my love life has followed a somewhat parallel track.

By the time I started dating, most of my peers were also already well into their relationships. So while they were eventually settling down, I was first learning how to be a girlfriend.

I’ve been exploring my opportunities ever since.

Problem is: Unlike prepping for eventual retirement, at some point, we stop being too green.

Sometimes — like when I’m juggling too many half-committed plans, and I really just want to go home — I’ll reflect on some peers, and I’ll envy their peace of mind and seeming satisfaction.

It’s never been intentional, but I’ve dated assorted beaus for weeks, months even years. I’ve had heartbreaks and have broken hearts. I could go months alone or date constantly; I’d stay focused for periods, but experience life’s inevitable blips, followed by the required recovery period.

To me, mere satisfaction — in job or life — has always meant stagnancy. But, as we all know, the interview process is exhausting. Besides being on your best behavior, you’re subject to constant judgment. Confidence is imperative, and things are often not as they seem.

Plus, while what’s up-front might rock your world, it may be only part of what you’re seeking; a person may seem ideal, but the timing isn’t right; you might be willing to “compromise” (or sacrifice) some characteristics but not others. You may, simply, not be in love.
And so on.

“Mere” satisfaction seems increasingly appealing.

But I wonder if and when the interviews will really end?

True, most candidates eventually land some kind of job. They’re typically imperfect, but some just enjoy the steady income/benefits until something better comes along; others will be satisfied — awaiting vesting and plaques and anniversaries. Many do it for their family. For some candidates, the search concluded years ago. For others, it lasts years.

And the more baby announcements I get, the more I’m reminded that I’m still in the early rounds. For now, my family still consists of … myself.

I’ll admit that as I get older, spending weekends in Home Depot and on play-dates seems less appealing. But that’s not to say that spending my time arranging my own play-dates (and writing these articles) are my end-goals.

I still go home not to change diapers, but rather to obsess about my too many plans for the week. I can be lazy or hyper. I can date or be single. I can grab last minute drinks or hit the gym. It’s my choice.
With this admirable freedom, however, come shackles of the unknown — from which I may never break free.

Yes, each of my breakups has engendered more self-sufficiency and direction. It’s also made me increasingly both selective and open-minded. I can more easily identify what I do and don’t want and remain willing to explore.

A few years ago — after over-working as an underling, I took a position with more reasonable hours. I soon outgrew my position, but the job market bubble had burst. I started stressing about wasting my time, wanting to know exactly where I’d be in five years.

At some point I, too, would like to know the joys of marital spats and family vacations. I’d like to experience why people get wedding-obsessed. I want to use my vacation days for a vacation with someone special.

More than ever, I envied my directed peers.

I wanted a life-plan.

Ultimately, I followed my heart, using my spare time to pursue my hobbies, volunteer and write. I also had my longest relationship to-date.

And when we broke up, I found a job I finally adored, but not before considering moving abroad, joining four sports leagues and tearing a ligament.

Alas, seems to me, my life plan is not having one.

From a romantic standpoint, I have opportune experiences that inspire and educate.

But the blips all too often throw off even my unplanned plan. (Luckily, details like this don’t typically show up on resumes.)

So years after my first peon job, and at the wings of an overwhelming yet rewarding new one, I am finally perfectly more-than-merely satisfied.

Sure, I wake up earlier than I’d like, but I get to travel and love what I do. Plus, I finally have my very own office.

The notion of a long-term stint is both thrilling and unnerving, and it’s hard to say whether this will be the last place I’ll ever work.
But while I’m fairly certain I’ll always go for the brass ring; it’s the platinum one I’m really waiting to be sure about.

D. Lehon is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached at dlehon@yahoo.com.

Wanted: 20-something year-old JJ seeks SJF or SJM (20s-120s) for romantic, funny or poignant columns about finding -- and losing -- love in L.A. and environs. Open to all ages and interests. If you can wow me with your story, insight and writing, send your column (850 words), name and contact info to singles@jewishjournal.com; put SINGLES in subject line. No Phone Calls Please.

L.A. Jewry Needs More Exploring


Like any self-respecting East Coast native, I arrived in Los Angeles more than a decade and a half ago armed with the usual stereotypes of this city — namely, it lacked intellectual and cultural “gravitas,” was distinguished by its traffic and smog and defied all known logic of urban organization. Almost immediately, I came to realize that while there was a grain of truth in all of these claims, Los Angeles had many virtues. To begin with, it was far more playful and open to reinvention than the solemn and self-serious East Coast cities in which I was raised and educated. More substantially, it is the site of immense cultural energy that encourages initiative and innovation.

Since arriving, I’ve also shed another stereotype that I had brought with me as a historian of the Jewish experience. Trained as a Europeanist, I had been inculcated to believe that Los Angeles was to New York as America was to Europe — a pale imitation of the real McCoy, a “parvenu” in a world in which antiquity and social stratification bestow merit. This view, unfortunately, is all too common among East Coast or Eurocentric academics.

It is quite surprising, for example, that Los Angeles, the site of frequent innovation, merits no place in the definitive account of American Judaism recently authored by Jonathan Sarna. What this lacuna suggests is that we are in need of more research on the L.A. Jewish experience leading to a new scholarly synthesis that blends cultural, political, social, religious, and institutional stories into one tale. This research must attend to both the local and national contexts of L.A. Jewry.

For it is hard to deny that America has been one of the most successful sites of Jewish settlement in history, if not the most successful of Diaspora communities. Nor can one quarrel with the premise that Los Angeles is one of the most interesting laboratories of urban experimentation today, including its Jewish community.

What make Los Angeles and its Jews so interesting and worthy of attention? Indeed, why should the L.A. Jewish community be a subject of serious study for researchers. Here are some reasons:

1) Size — Los Angeles is the second-largest Jewish city in North America and one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world. Starting with but eight young men in 1850, the L.A. Jewish community has exploded in population over the course of its 150-year history, reaching its current population of 500,000-600,000. It has developed a vast network of organizations to which Jews of different religious, cultural and political persuasions belong. It also has a sizable majority of Jews without affiliation of any sort, who represent an important and largely untapped source for those intent on studying the challenges facing the American Jewish future.

2) Diversity — Similar to the larger city, the L.A. Jewish community is blessed with rich cultural and human resources. The arrival of thousands of Jews from Iran, Israel and the former Soviet Union over the past 30 years has injected tremendous diversity and energy into Jewish communal and institutional life. In Los Angeles today are some of the most textured and diverse ethnic Jewish neighborhoods anywhere in the world. We have an opportunity to observe in these neighborhoods, and among the recent arrivals, familiar patterns from the history of immigration to this country — the initial desire to organize among one’s own group, followed by a desire for integration into the mainstream, followed by a desire to reclaim parts of a fading or lost native culture. We also have the opportunity to juxtapose these recent waves of migration with the internal American waves that brought thousands of Jews to Los Angeles in early- to mid-20th century.

3) The Sunny Side — Jews have come to Los Angeles for the same reasons that millions of others have: sunny weather and an accompanying sense of social optimism and economic opportunity. Los Angeles has been very good to its Jews, who have assumed positions of prominence in Hollywood, the real estate business and local politics. Moreover, Jews have thrived on the ethos of social mobility and cultural experimentation for which the city is known (and often mocked elsewhere). Thus, they have constantly moved, often westward, in search of open space. And they have constantly remolded themselves from new arrivals into city elders, political radicals, moviemakers, and neo-kabbalists. In this sense, the L.A Jewish experience may not diverge radically from the larger American Jewish template of opportunity and upward mobility. It is the same (in terms of seizing opportunity), just more so.

4) The Dark Side — Some have observed that the “sunshine” narrative of Los Angeles must be tempered by a healthy dose of the “noir.” According to that darker story, evoked by Mike Davis in “City of Quartz ” and more recently in the film, “Crash,” Los Angeles’ veneer of opportunity and mobility barely conceal the barrenness of a vast urban wasteland, marked by anomie, isolation and a glaringly absent center. This “noir” account of the L.A. Jewish experience cannot be dismissed out of hand. It pushes us to think not just of the Hollywood studio bosses, but of the blacklisted writers accused of communist sympathies; not just of the conspicuously affluent, but of the invisible working-class poor; not just of the self-assured guardians of the faith, but of those who struggle to find anything meaningful in their lives as Jews.

Ranging between the narrative extremes of sunshine and noir, the Jews of Los Angeles make for one of the most intriguing and complex Jewish urban centers around. This is all the more remarkable given how understudied L.A. Jewry is. To say this is not to diminish in any way the pioneering labors of Rabbi William Kramer and Norton Stern, who did much to preserve the historical legacy of L.A. Jewry. Nor is to take credit away from groups like the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly or the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, which work to continue the work of Kramer and Stern.

Rather, it is to say that the last major monograph devoted to the history of Jewish Los Angeles was written 35 years ago by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner. Their “History of the Jews of Los Angeles” (1970) covers a great deal of ground, especially in tracing the institutional history of the community over the course of its first century. But much more remains to be studied and written, especially since the city has grown and changed in dramatic ways. Scholars ranging from Deborah Dash Moore to George Sanchez to Raphael Sonenshein have shed considerable light on one or another of the city’s Jewish history. But we need more.

A step in this direction will take place this weekend when leading scholars, community activists and political officials gather for a conference, “L.A. Jewry Then and Now,” to be held on consecutive days at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Autry National Center and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. At the heart of the deliberations will be two sets of key questions. First, how do L.A. Jews, in all their ethnic diversity and geographic dispersion, fit into the larger cultural and social mosaic of Los Angeles? In what ways is the Jewish experience different from and similar to the experience of other groups in this explosively multicultural city (Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Armenians, etc.)? A second set of questions is refracted through a broader national lens: What is the place of L.A. Jewry in the larger narrative of American Jewish history? Is L.A. Jewry unique or typical of the American Jewish experience?

Answers to these questions will, of necessity, be provisional. But they will set the stage for more systematic work over the coming years, work that will begin to fill large gaps not only in the history of the city of Los Angeles, but also in the history of the modern Jewish experience.

For more information about the Nov.11-13 conference, contact UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies at (310) 267-5327 or visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.

 

Is Indoor Play Good for Your Kids?


Debbie Friedman was visiting with two other moms at Serrania Park in Woodland Hills on a spring day in 2002 when she noticed their children were talking to a man walking his dog on the other side of the park fence. She went over to see what was happening.

“He said, ‘How old are you kids?’ They replied 4 and 5. He said, ‘Well, I’m 6. What are your names?’ It was a really creepy conversation,” she said.

Friedman said she thanked the man for showing the kids his dog and then sent the kids away.

“A lot of parents have fears of predators in the park watching them. It’s hard to keep an eye on two little ones…. You’re afraid they’re going to run off and someone’s going to snatch them,” she said.

Parents cite a variety of reasons for shying away from taking their children to local parks, from safety to excessively hot, cold or inclement weather to unsanitary conditions on playgrounds and in bathrooms.

When many Jewish parents do take their kids to play outdoors, the locales they pick are often the tonier parks frequented by other Jewish parents, sometimes requiring them to drive 10 or 20 miles. Favored parks include Beeman Park in Studio City, Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills and Serrania Park.

Galit Almog is a working mom from North Hollywood who makes time to take her child to Beeman Park or Balboa Park in Van Nuys, but she said it’s difficult to coordinate play dates with other parents because they also have busy schedules. As a result she said she’s been gravitating toward Gymboree Play & Music, an indoor “edutainment” center.

Structured indoor learn-and-play venues have become increasingly popular as children lead more regimented lives. Academic expectations and after-school activities chew up free time for outdoor exploring, which was once the mainstay of childhood. Experts agree that the amount of play time available to the average child has been dramatically reduced to an hour or less each day. Factor in that many households require both parents to work and it’s easy to understand why indoor play areas are gaining in popularity among young families.

“It’s more structured, you have a teacher, you have music, things to play with and a routine kids get used to,” Almog said.

Brentwood mom Natalie Bernstein is equally enamored with Gymboree after encountering unsanitary conditions at a neighborhood park.

“It’s cleaner, safer and there’s a greater choice of toys,” she said.

Indoor play can also address the needs of parents, said Adrian Becker, the owner of Gymboree Play & Music franchises in Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Calabasas for the last 23 years. Becker said parents — mostly women — come to Gymboree to play with their children, learn songs and develop new parenting skills they can use at home, but most of all they’re looking to make friends.

“I think parents are looking for community, and this is their way of connecting with like-minded people,” she said. “The neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. It’s hard to make friends in your neighborhood now.”

Suzy Epstein, preschool director of Conservative synagogue B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, said that parents want their children academically prepared, especially since many schools now teach kindergarten as if it were first grade.

“Kids already need to have so many skills that [parents] want children in a structured program, because they’re afraid they won’t be ready for kindergarten,” Epstein said. “It’s our job to prepare them, because that is what they have to face.”

But some experts in children’s recreation say that structuring play and confining it to temperature-controlled environments for safety and comfort reasons isn’t good for children’s development. They call for a balanced approach that includes unstructured outdoor play and caution that too much time spent indoors can have negative physical, social and psychological impacts.

“What’s happened is what [UC Davis play expert] Mark Francis calls ‘the childhood of imprisonment,'” said Randy White, CEO of White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, a firm that designs children’s play and learning centers.

“It’s because of a total fear of public spaces and child abduction. Parents today are horrified. Some parents won’t even let their children play in their own backyard unsupervised. The ‘secured, sanitized spaces’ are what kids are restricted to today,” he said.

White believes this is stifling children.

“Most of these activities are very structured, and young children need play — spontaneous free play, not directed play,” he said.

One indoor venue offering an unstructured approach is Playsource, a playground set up in a Woodland Hills shopping center storefront on Ventura Boulevard. Children stow their shoes in cubbyholes, run across a carpeted floor and choose from jumping in an inflatable castle bounce, scaling a rock wall, climbing inside a spaceship or playing house in a scale model, among other activities. The only time limits placed on kids are the operating hours and their own stamina. Parents take a seat at picnic tables next to the play area and visit with each other, read or eat while the kids play.

Friedman started the playground six months ago as a way to work and spend more time with her own children.

“Parks aren’t relaxing; you’ve got to chase your kids,” Friedman said. “Here, you come in, pay your eight bucks, you pass the gate and sit down.”

Jessica Gottlieb said she drives her two kids to Playsource at least once a week from Sherman Oaks.

“My kids beg for it,” she said. “They aren’t going to get hit, they’re not going to get sand thrown in their eyes. They like that they can be more independent.”

Gottlieb said she tries to split time evenly between outdoor parks and venues like Playsource, but if it gets too hot “we do indoor exclusively.”

Parents who spoke with The Journal said lack of shade at parks adds to their reluctance to visit. Trees in parks have been purposefully cut back from playgrounds out of fear that a parent might sue the city if a falling branch were to strike a child, said Kevin Reagan, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department’s western regional superintendent.

Reagan said that L.A. Parks and Recreation offers some indoor programs, like gymnastics and dance, as well as some indoor play areas in child-care centers, but there are no plans to cover playgrounds or move them indoors.

“There’s really nothing negative with parents choosing to take their kids to those other facilities,” he said. “We have a lot of people living here and there is no way that the city can provide enough recreational opportunities for every person that needs them.”

However, researchers are finding that spending too much time focused on indoor activities can have detrimental impacts on children’s physical and emotional health. They advise parents to take their children outside more and let them play in ways that they determine for themselves.

“There’s an enormous amount of research finally being done, which is documenting the importance of these types of experiences to children’s development,” White said.

Parents are doing their children a disservice by shielding them from hot or cold days, said Robert Bixler, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Bixler warns that children will become accustomed to a narrow range of temperatures if they spend too much time in controlled environments. “Air conditioning and heating is wonderfully comfortable, but it ends up limiting the experiences we have,” he said.

Another physical impact on children being traced to an indoor lifestyle is the growing problem of myopia, or nearsightedness. According to research conducted in Japan and Singapore by the Australian National University in Canberra, as kids spend more time indoors, focusing on close objects such as books, TVs and GameBoys, their vision is affected. Another study found that myopia rates in Israel among observant 14- to 18-year-old boys, who focus tremendous amounts of time studying religious texts, is 80 percent; only 30 percent of students in Israel’s secular state schools exhibit such problems.

In addition to physical problems, emotional and social issues also come into play. Can guided play impact a child’s sense of independence? You bet, said Jan Tolan, a CSUN leisure studies and recreation professor who specializes in play and recreation therapy.

“Depriving children of the freedom to explore or learn on their own is hurtful and damaging in many ways,” she said.

Experts acknowledge that directed indoor play can positively impact on a child’s development. But they also believe that when parents de-emphasize the importance of spending time outdoors it reduces a child’s desire to explore the world and can potentially prejudice them against participating in future outdoor activities. “There’s a whole range of experiences people shut themselves off from due to comfort,” Bixler said.

Self-direction, decision making and problem solving can be learned outside of a park, but Tolan believes that these natural spaces encourage greater personal exploration, especially when done in a way that is entirely independent.

“Don’t neglect that free time when the child can interact with the environment in any way they want to,” Tolan said.

She said parents still need to supervise their children for safety reasons when they take them to a park, but from a distance.

“Step in only when it’s absolutely necessary, or when invited by the child,” she said.

Ultimately, recreation experts say parents should provide their children with a much-needed break in the structure of their busy days that will allow for the opportunity to independently explore the world and have fun.

“Balance is a guiding principal in anything. Yes, Gymboree has some things to offer that will help your child develop, but don’t deprive your child of the park experience as well,” Tolan said. “The park is a learning environment, too.”

For the Kids


Watch Your Words

In this week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of King Balak, the sorcerer Bilam and Bilam’s talking donkey, we learn two important lessons:

1. Words are very powerful. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth. If it is a put-down or is mean-spirited, think many times about what you are saying and why you are saying it. Turn your negative words into encouraging ones.

2. Animals often sense things humans can’t. The donkey saw an angel of God that Bilam could not see.

Flower-
Power
Flag

Create a beautiful American flag. Find red, white and blue flowers (roses, tulips, camellias, gardenias, gentians, forget-me-nots or any other flowers of those colors you can find at the flower shop).
Use a large cookie sheet as your canvas on which to create your stars and stripes. It will make a great centerpiece for your family barbecue.

‘Image’ Is Everything


Dara Horn wrote an exuberant scene in her stunning debutnovel, “In the Image,” upon returning to her dreary garret flat during a yearabroad in 1999. “I’d been to this dismal British market in which an entireaisle was devoted to butter and fats,” the ebullient Horn, 25, said animatedly.”I recall a product called ‘beef drippings.’ The produce was wilting. All themilk was expired yesterday.  I was very homesick.”

So the New Jersey native did what any red-blooded Americanauthor would do: she sat down and wrote a scene about Costco. In the sequence,which parodies Emma Lazarus’ immigrant poem, “The New Colossus,” the youngheroine embarks “on a journey to the promised land of groceries … wherehuddled masses yearning to breathe free of halitosis went to stock theirshelves with mouthwash.”

It’s a frivolous but spirited moment in Horn’s richlydetailed novel, which places her within the same circle of Jewish rookie authorsensations as Jonathan Safran Foer. The story opens as Leora, reeling from thedeath of her best friend, stops speaking and instead simply examines “hersurroundings as if she were a visitor, someone passing through on a longjourney.” Then a very different kind of tourist, her late friend’s grandfather,Wilhelm “Bill” Landsmann, invites her to view his slide collection of Jewishcommunities abroad. Subsequent chapters travel back and forth in time toexplore the archetypal journey of 20th-century Jews, describing Leora’s doomedromance with Jake, a college jock turned ba’al teshuva, and Bill’s wretchedchildhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

While the literary novel is chock full of illusions to theBible and to Yiddish literature, it isn’t above a trek (or two) to Costco.”Some might look at this as silly materialism, but there’s something sort ofexuberant about it,” said Horn, a Harvard doctoral student in Yiddish andHebrew literature. “It’s not just because you can get anything you want, butbecause you have the imagination to want more than you have. It’s theinspiration to decide what you want and who you want to be, which is reallywhat it means to be an American. So in my novel, Wilhelm becomes Bill, but Jakealso becomes Yehuda.”

Horn began thinking about American Jewish choices when shefirst read Philip Roth’s short story, “Good-bye Columbus,” set in her hometownof Short Hills, N.J., some years ago. The year is 1959, when Jewish quotasstill abounded.

By the time young Dara was growing up in Short Hills in the1980s, the quotas were gone and so was the need for plastic surgery. Hornproudly led junior congregation Torah readings at her Conservative synagogue,traveled to distant Jewish communities with her parents. At 14, she publishedher first magazine article, about Jewish historical sites in Spain, in Hadassahmagazine. She says she set her novel in Short Hills as a nod to “how much thesuburb has changed and how much the American Jewish community has changed in 40years.”

The setting and time frame also allowed Horn to explore thephenomenon of “people becoming more religious than their parents, whichintrigues me,” she said. “In order to make the decision to become morereligious, someone back in your family had to make the opposite decision.Neither choice is made frivolously, and I was fascinated by what makes peopledecide either way.”

Horn never intended to explore those issues in a novel; infact, she did not intend to write fiction until another fateful day abroad in1999. Bored during a train ride back to her Cambridge University flat, she saysshe began flipping through the spiral notebook in which she jotted ideas fornon-fiction articles and “suddenly began seeing how all these topics could belinked.”

While her classmates frequented pubs, Horn holed up in hergarret and started writing what she thought might be a series of short stories.Eventually, she linked them into a seamless, sprawling narrative that, in thetradition of Yiddish authors, frequently alludes to Jewish texts. A passage inwhich Bill and Leora visit a gravesite uses the structure of the Genesischapter on the binding of Isaac. The book of Job is retold starring Bill. Andthen there’s Costco as “The New Colossus” — the veritable opposite of thatpathetic British market Horn visited in Britain.

During a recent interview at a private home in Westwood, thefresh-faced New York author gleefully opens her novel and reads from the Costcopassage, clearly one of her favorites. “[There are] Waspy families whisperingto each other over piles of vegetables…. Trailer trash families brandishingtheir rattailed hair behind carts filled with fish sticks, Chasidic familiessweating in their long sleeves,” she read with relish. “[All] loading up theirshopping carts like Oregon Trail pioneers supplying their covered wagons asthey prepare to conquer the frontier, the parents gazing up at the toweringceilings of low-low prices, bewildered and captivated forever by this placethey call America.”