Gried and the Space Between Us

The Space Between Us by Rabbi Janet Madden


[Ed. Note: Grief Awareness Day falls on August 30, 2017. — JB]

I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who founded a bank and a medical journal. He trained generations of physicians, funded and spearheaded disaster relief efforts and led medical missions to countries across the world in his lifelong efforts to increase medical knowledge and alleviate suffering. His family and many friends and colleagues gathered to honor his life. They derived comfort from knowing that he was able to pursue the work that he loved until the last months of his life, that his memory is a blessing to those who knew him, and that thousands of people were helped through his work. Grief at his death was balanced with the knowledge that he lived a life of passion and purpose.

Death can bring a new level of intimacy, new kinds of knowledge. When I sat with his family to plan his funeral, they told wonderful stories. I’d known that he was a child violin prodigy and I’d known about his life-long love of classical music, but I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” was his favorite song.

Three days after the funeral, when I made a follow-up phone call to his widow, I found the family in crisis. The previous night, while the recently-buried man’s seven year old great-granddaughter slept in the next room, her mother, his only granddaughter, had hanged herself. Her body had been discovered only a couple of hours before.

Distraught family members asked if I had detected anything unusual about this young woman’s grief. I had not. None of them had perceived anything that suggested that the young woman was not grieving her grandfather’s death as what death professionals assess as “appropriate.” During the following days and the excruciating experiences of police and coroner and preparing for her funeral, the family asked the same questions over and over: how could they not have known that she was in such profound distress? What could they have done differently?

As a spiritual director, a grief counselor and a rabbi, I am well prepared to encounter death. But this is a different kind of death, and the grief that has leveled this family is, I think, unique to those whose loved ones suicide. This is complicated grief—grief knotted up with self-recrimination, confusion, shame, fear, and anger.

I guided the family through this second, tragic funeral as gently and compassionately as I know how to do. I’ve been in constant touch with them. I’ve made referrals to therapists who specialize in working with the families of those who have died by suicide. For her heartbroken parents, honor and comfort and the blessings of memory are distant concepts. I cannot fathom what her seven year old daughter, who woke up expecting to get ready for a day at summer camp and found her mother’s body, is experiencing, and what she will continue to endure throughout her life.

In the days since the young woman’s funeral, I’ve reread the lyrics of her grandfather’s favorite song. What at the time of his death seemed an expression of longing seems, in retrospect, a chilling premonition:

“We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away…And life flows on within you and without you…”

I am praying for this family. I am praying for all who wall themselves off, concealing their suffering and despair. I am praying for less space between us.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

 [Ed. Note: Rabbi Janet Madden has agreed to submit a series of entries for Expired And Inspired – watch for them to appear fairly regularly, on a more or less monthly basis. — JB]

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Life in Southern Israel on hold during Gaza situation


Two weeks ago, Noami Cohen and Uzi Madar had a traditional engagement party for Jews from Arab countries called a “hina.” They dressed in colorful costumes, danced and partied with 120 of their friends. They were looking forward to their wedding and were expecting 500 guests.

But one day before the wedding scheduled to be held at the Agamim hall in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, Israel killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari. Soon afterwards, rockets began landing throughout the south of Israel. The phone started ringing – was the wedding on or not?

“The Israeli Home Front Command (in charge during conflict) said we could go ahead with the wedding but we could only have up to 100 people,” Naomi, 23, told The Media Line. “I’m getting married once in my life, and I don’t want to make it smaller or be afraid during it.”

So Naomi and Uzi postponed the wedding. They went on Facebook and made dozens of phone calls. Relatives from Tunisia and France who had come for the wedding turned around and went home. The hall, the flowers, the DJ, and the honeymoon in the southern resort town of Eilat were all cancelled.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” Naomi said. “I just feel so bad. Now, I have to start planning all over again. I waited for this so long, and then, boom, it’s just gone.”

Her fiancé Uzi, 27, who works for the army, said he watched the clock on Thursday night.

“Right now I was supposed to be breaking the glass, (a traditional Jewish custom to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD),” he remembers thinking. “It’s very depressing. We planned this for a whole year and then we couldn’t do it.”

Hundreds of weddings and other celebrations have been cancelled all over the south Israel – the region of the country most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets. Throughout the rest of the country, even when events have been held as scheduled, guests who live in the southern area have cancelled, afraid to be out driving when a missile hits.

“Everything has been cancelled since Thursday,” Shalom Gibli, the owner of the Agamim wedding hall, told The Media Line. “Usually we make people happy, and it’s always happy here, but now it isn’t. I told most of my workers to stay home.”

Agamim has two halls – one that can seat 1000 guests, and the other 500. Both are normally full every night, he says, and sometimes during the day as well for circumcision parties or other events. Gibli estimates he has already lost almost $200,000 in income. He says that even though legally he can charge Naomi and Uzi one-third of what they should have paid, his conscience won’t let him take any money.

But even without the wedding hall, Naomi and Uzi are already out thousands of dollars.

“We have to make new invitations, and we had already cooked a lot for the special Sabbath meals after the wedding,” Naomi said. “We will have to pay a cancellation charge on the honeymoon. We can’t get the DJ we booked so we’ll have to take someone more expensive. I cried for six hours on Thursday.”

Naomi lives in Moshav Zimrat, a small farming community just a few miles from the Gaza Strip. She says she hears the booms of rockets sent from Gaza exploding daily as well as Israel’s return air strikes.

“I don’t remember being as scared in my whole life as I was this past week,” she said. “I had to leave the house after being inside for almost a week – I was going crazy.”

She said her two-year-old niece is terrified every time the warning siren goes off. She freezes and is unable to move. Naomi says she lives in an old house and there is no reinforced room as is required in newer homes. She and her family go to an inside room when they hear the sirens.

Naomi says she’s tired of living with uncertainty, and Israel must strike hard against Hamas in Gaza.

“We’ve been living like this for too long,” she told The Media Line. “We have to deter them once and for all. We should cut off electricity and food. This is our country.”

She and Uzi have not yet set a new wedding date. She says she couldn’t bear to cancel a second time and will wait until the fighting ends before she gets married.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 29 – Oct. 5, 2012


[SAT SEPT 29]

MUSEUM DAY LIVE!

Smithsonian magazine hosts a free day at participating museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Grammy Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Autry National Center. Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is closed on Saturdays, will be open for Museum Day on Sunday, Sept. 30. Sat. Free (registration required, ticket information on Web site). Various times, locations. smithsonianmag.com/museumday.


[SUN SEPT 30]

 SUKKOT PICNIC

Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing, sukkah decorating, kids’ activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Center Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454. jewishla.org.

11TH ANNUAL WEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK FAIR

West Hollywood’s celebration of the written word features more than 220 authors and artists. Speakers include “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch (“Girl Walks Into a Bar”) and comedy writer David Misch (“Funny: The Book”); Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky (“Inventing L.A.”); political commentators Robert Scheer (“The Great American Stickup”) and Nancy L. Cohen (“Delirium”); novelists David Brin (“Existence”), Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”), Tod Goldberg (“Living Dead Girl”), Gregg Hurwitz (“The Survivor”), Stephen Jay Schwartz (“Beat”) and Jerry Stahl (“Pain Killers”); and children’s writers Amy Goldman Koss (“Side Effects”) and Eugene Yelchin (“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”). Attend writer’s workshops, poetry readings and performances, and peruse more than 75 exhibitor booths featuring publishers, booksellers and writing groups. Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free (includes admission, shuttle and parking). West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. westhollywoodbookfair.org.


[MON OCT 1]

“VOICES UNITED”

Comedian Sarah Silverman joins actor Russell Brand and singer-songwriters Catie Curtis and Mary Gauthier in headlining this Americans United concert in support of church-state separation. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $25 (standing room), $50 (rear orchestra), $100 (front orchestra). El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. au.org/voices-united-la-tickets.


[TUE OCT 2]

MAC MILLER

YouTube clips of the Pittsburgh native effortlessly freestyling are viral classics, and his records — including debut album “Blue Slide Park” — showcase Miller’s knack for lacing his rhymes with humor. The 20-year-old rapper makes a stop in Los Angeles as part of his Macadelic Tour. Hip-hop act Travis Porter and rapper YG also perform. Tue. 8 p.m. $30-$35. Nokia Theatre, L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[THU OCT 4]

“IS ALTRUISM A WONDER DRUG?”

David Levinson, Big Sunday executive director and author of “Everybody Helps, Everybody Wins,” joins bioethicist Stephen Post (“The Hidden Gifts of Helping”) and Stanford University School of Medicine neurosurgery professor James Doty in a discussion about the latest in medical science and altruism. They draw on recent studies that found that frequent volunteering among older adults led to reduced risk of an early death, and that nonvolunteers were more likely than volunteers to experience a major illness. Moderated by Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED health policy and public health blog “State of Health.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. zocalopublicsquare.org.

“RECOVERED VOICES”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon’s concert series restores two generations of composers that were wiped off the map by the Third Reich. Tonight’s chamber music concert features performances of lost works by Austrian composers Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker; and Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. Pacific Trio and friends accompany Conlon. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $37-$65. Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. thebroadstage.com.

 

“UNAUTHORIZED: THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN PROJECT”

Documentarian Barry Avrich’s latest film offers an unflinching portrait of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Avrich turns to Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, John Irving and others to examine the influence that Weinstein holds in Hollywood. A post-screening Q-and-A with Avrich follows. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (LACMA members, seniors, students). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.

The Eulogizer: Bible scholar, businessman-FBI informant, online journalism pioneer


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}. Read previous columns here.

Noted Israeli Bible scholar

Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted Israeli Bible scholar with a worldwide reputation, died Dec. 15 at 90.

Talmon, a native of Germany, was the sole member of his family to survive the Shoah. Following World War II, he became head of the education system in the Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus before coming to Israel.

Talmon’s achievements included the prestigious Israel Prize in Bible study. His research combined text criticism and the place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish canon. His work revealed a deep sensitivity for the Bible’s literary character and the social reality reflected in it.

He said people today must deal with the Bible in our own time, that Israeli society was an integral part of an extensive cultural network in the Near East, and that Jewish beliefs were influenced by its neighbors.

Talmon was the Judah L. Magnes emeritus professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he taught and held positions elsewhere in Israel, Europe and the United States. He published scores of academic papers. Talmon also participated in Christian-Jewish dialogue among biblical scholars and was a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to which he donated a collection of 10,000 volumes in the areas of Bible studies.

The Eulogizer was surprised to find no obituaries of Talmon in any major media, Hebrew or English.

California businessman who helped in FBI sting

Marvin Levin, a real estate developer who wore a wire in his cowboy boots during a major FBI anti-corruption sting of California’s state government in the 1980s, died Nov. 19 at 76.

In the wake of the FBI investigation, several lawmakers, state leaders, legislative staffers and a lobbyist were charged, and the hard feelings have yet to subside. Some of the reader comments (later removed) on a newspaper article recounting Levin’s life and death were scorching.

Levin was an invaluable informant in the sting, which ended in 1988 when investigators raided offices in the state Capitol. Levin’s boot-borne tape recorder had taped dozens of meetings with politicians and legislative staffers. The sheriff and undersheriff of Yolo County, California, also were convicted after they attempted to extort money from Levin for a re-election campaign.

Levin told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 that he was motivated to end Sacramento corruption because he had experienced it firsthand and “somebody had to.” All he received for his efforts were $1,800 to cover expenses, including a paint job for his 1978 Buick and the cowboy boots purchased at the behest of the FBI because they didn’t think he was “flashy enough.” But the activity cost him dearly; his wife said he had three heart attacks.

Levin was one of three children of Jewish refugees from Russia. His father was a storekeeper. He moved to Florida nine years ago.

Online journalism pioneer, website builder

Mary Jane “M.J.” Bear, a journalist and Internet pioneer who built websites around the world, died Dec. 17 at 48.

Bear, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, worked for TV and radio stations. At National Public Radio she became a vice president. She also worked for Online, Radio Free Europe in Prague and Microsoft, in Vienna, Austria. She launched websites for Microsoft in Greece, Poland, Israel and Turkey, as well as TV programming in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

During her illness from leukemia, Bear created a website on Caring Bridge, which provides free and private websites “that connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to family and friends.” The site is now filled with touching tributes from friends and family.

Bear took an active role in Jewish communities in every city in which she lived, and was a founding board member of the Online News Association, which is establishing an endowment fund in her name for young journalists.

Glitterati no match for ‘This Lovely Life’


May I make a suggestion for a great Chanukah or Christmas gift? Or recommend a selection for your book club? Or offer a proposal for making time disappear during your next long and painful airline experience?

“This Lovely Life,” by Vicki Forman.

I read two-thirds of it during a fancy and fabulous dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel two weeks ago, came home and finished it that night, read it again the next day, and now it’s on the nightstand next to my bed, where I keep reading passages from it.

I was at the annual Literary Awards Festival for PEN Center USA. It was a beautiful affair produced by Jamie Wolf and packed with famous people and designer gowns and party favor bags that weighed a ton. I was sitting between a very charming television writer named Dawn Prestwich and a very thin event organizer named (this can only happen in L.A.) Cat. By the time the speeches began, I had already secured a promise from Ms. Prestwich to come talk to my students at USC, answered Cat’s questions about how I was related to all the other Nahais in Los Angeles and skimmed the souvenir book a couple of times. When the obligatory welcome speech began, I started to dig through the party bag in search of a distraction.

There were books. And more books. And pamphlets about books — which is all very good and exciting for someone like me, but I didn’t want to look like the crazy lady at the ball who sits alone and reads while everyone else is having a glorious time, so I put the books back in the bag and tried to listen to the speech. The speaker may have been nominated for an Academy Award or two, but he’s not what one might call a Great Communicator. So I sneaked another look at the books, glanced at the synopsis on the back of “This Lovely Life” and decided I didn’t have the stomach for it. I looked through the souvenir book a third time and discovered that “This Lovely Life” was the evening’s winner of the Creative Nonfiction award. That could mean it’s a great book, I thought, or it could mean (no offense to the judges, but they do have to read a great many books) it’s short and easy to get through. I tried to laugh at the speaker’s jokes. I read the first line of “This Lovely Life.”

“I learned about grief during this time,” Vicki Forman writes in the opening sentence of this startling memoir about raising a child with catastrophic disabilities.

Who needs this? you ask. But read that line again and you’ll find there’s something intensely seductive about those words, the strength with which they’re uttered, the hair-raising honesty of the voice that speaks them. Eight years ago, Vicki Forman was a young mother with a loving husband and a healthy 3-year-old. She was pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl. They were born too soon, each weighing barely more than a pound. The parents assumed the babies would be born dead or die soon after birth. They didn’t.

“This Lovely Life” is as much a page turner as any Dan Brown novel, and a whole lot smarter as well; as much a tear-jerker as any “Kite Runner,” but a thousand times more sophisticated; as much a study of the American psyche, the American family, American society, as “The Corrections” or “Freedom” or any other of Jonathan Franzen’s door stoppers. What it isn’t —really, truly, isn’t — is depressing. There are more twists and turns here than in any mystery or thriller, more cliffhangers than in any Hollywood production, but there’s none of the canned “inspiration” of the kinds of stories you read in People, none of the “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger / make lemonade out of lemons / it’s not a disability, it’s a challenge” bravado that we seem to admire so much in this country. There’s just the constant, unwavering beat of a mother’s brave but broken heart, the astonishing candor of a parent who doesn’t fear the judgment of others because she knows what she has done and why. There’s the terrible but indispensable realization that the only way to overcome life’s cruelty is to accept it, that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to embrace him as much because of, as in spite of, his shortcomings.

I can’t tell you much about what happened during the rest of the PEN event that night. I remember David Kipen was as charming as ever when he spoke about his new bookstore — Libros Schmibros — in Boyle Heights, that M.G. Lord does a superb “Lucille Ball, Science Writer” cameo, that Vicki Forman looks like a pixie with a kind heart and a fierce resolve. And I can tell you that reading “This Lovely Life” will be a transformative experience for anyone smart enough to pick it up, even if she does end up looking like the crazy lady at the ball.

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.

Create a new model to enhance work, self, family and community


Now is the time of year when we return to what matters most in our lives. We reflect on what we’ve done and we commit to making things better in the year ahead. What a great and powerful moment in the Jewish cycle. For without this annual taking stock, how can we evolve to become the person we want to be and build our legacy as a positive force during our precious time on earth?

Following the June publication of my book, “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life” (Harvard Business School Press), I spent much of this summer traveling, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them.

Here’s what I heard: There’s much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic and with no other purpose than to merely survive. Demand for change is the order of the day, as it has always been in our Jewish tradition. Now, as I step into my 25th year teaching at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I’m struck by how different the work world is today and why a new approach to leadership — no matter where you are or what you do — makes sense.

This new approach is all the more necessary given the new demands on our time as well as our evolving aspirations. Throughout human history, the sun’s relationship to the Earth determined when people worked and rested. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people. New communication tools promise freedom from time and space, but it’s just dawning on us that we need to learn new psychological and social tools, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of nonstop pressures that come at us through cell phones and BlackBerries.

The Jewish tradition’s respect for meaningful and useful boundaries is clearly evident in the concept of Shabbat, which creates a natural separation in our lives. But just as there are boundaries, there is also a strong need for integrating the various parts of our life. When the different aspects of life fit together as one — perhaps the essential Jewish idea, to which the Shema calls our attention — then everything in life seems better.

The ago-old Jewish commitment to social justice and respect for the world around us is returning to favor in American business. Employers are learning that people perform better in their jobs when they bring passion into the workplace, when they are doing what they believe matters to the world and when they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. Greed and competition were ’80s cool. Green and collaboration are ’08 cool.

As I wrote in my book, being a leader is not the same as being a middle manager or a top executive. Being a leader means inspiring committed action that engages people in taking intelligent steps, in a direction you have chosen, to achieve something that has significant meaning for all relevant parties.

Individuals can do this whether they are at the top, middle or bottom of an organization or group. And they can do this in business, families, friendship networks, communities and social associations.

This may be easy to say, maybe not so easy to do. There are a few simple principles that can help:

  • Be real, by acting with authenticity and clarifying what’s important in all parts of your life.
  • Be whole, by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life.
  • Be innovative, by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it.

Anyone can bring these principles to their lives and perform better in all aspects. You just have to make an effort to reflect and grow, bolstered by those you enlist to push and encourage you. This is just what our Jewish tradition challenges and inspires us to do, especially during the High Holy Days.

In the Total Leadership process, you begin by writing and talking about your core values and your vision of the kind of leader you want to become — how you want to affect the world around you and why. That’s what I mean by being real, and it’s akin to what we as Jews do in prayer — we contemplate what’s important and how to bring our lives in closer alignment with our values.

Next you explore how the different parts of your life fit together as one — whether your world has integrity — by thinking through the performance expectations of the most important people in each of the four different parts of your life: work, home, community and self.

Then you talk to these people, whom I call your “key stakeholders,” for they are essential to your future, as you see it, to verify and perhaps revise your grasp of these expectations. This activity is similar to what we do on Yom Kippur in talking about what we need to do to strengthen our most precious relationships.

Finally, the fun, inspiring part is being innovative. This involves trying new ways to get things done with the intent of improving performance in all four life domains — pursuing, in other words, what I call “four-way wins.”

We need to focus on what matters most and to consciously take small, realistic steps toward acting on it. You’ll spend your time more intelligently — better aligned with your values, using more of your natural talents to pursue passionately the goals to which you’re genuinely committed. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Life without commitment is not worth living.”

In these Days of Awe, as we reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your “living” makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn’t, consider taking one small step toward making it so. Experiment with a change that aims to make things better for you — your mind, your body and your spirit — and for the people around you at work, at home and in your community.

Stewart D. Friedman (www.totalleadership.org) is on the faculty of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of the best-selling “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader

Settle down


When it comes to dating, even Tobey Maguire is interested in the concept of settling.

Now, I have no idea about Spidey’s love life — last I heard he was with Lois Lane, wait, no, that’s Superman, not Spider-Man, and this just in — the real Maguire is married and expecting his second child.

But I don’t want to talk about his personal life, I want to talk about his professional one.

Maguire has just signed on to develop a feature film from essayist and occasional Jewish Journal columnist Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

In a 5,500-word piece published in March in the Atlantic Monthly, Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother who chose to have a baby on her own asked a poignant question: “Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Gottlieb quickly answers her own question:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

Gottlieb’s stance caused quite a brouhaha on the blogosphere (read: rantosphere), where people called her everything from “immature” to “desperate” to “tragic” to “crazy,” labeling her a narcissist, anti-feminist, crackpot journalist. She has also been told “she needs a shrink, pronto.”

Gottlieb tells me she was a bit taken aback by the harsh reaction, but said that in addition to the 700 letters of support she also received, a number of rabbis have used her piece in their sermons. (She even spoke last month at Sinai Temple.)

I’m not surprised by the rabbis’ support. Gottlieb’s message is something I’ve heard many, many times before. Since the beginning of my illustrious dating career at age 19 (for marriage purposes!), rabbis, educators, teachers and other religious married people have been telling me the same thing: Find someone with shared values, someone you respect, someone you can build a life with. A good husband, a good father, a good partner.

Nothing new here.

In traditional Jewish communities, the notion of “Hollywood Love,” of “Love at First Sight,” of a “Love of Everlasting Passion,” has long been viewed as a myth. The problem in those communities is not whether or not to believe Hollywood love myth, it’s whether to believe love and attraction should play any part at all in the choice of a mate.

That was the message I got, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, I went to dozens of weddings (to this day, the words “bridal shower” make me break out in hives). The ceremonies were solemn and the parties leibadik (festive), and the “salmon-chicken-or-prime rib” menus were delectable, if indiscernible, but to me it seemed like something essential was lacking: love. Back then, in my world, it seemed people settled too easily. They married — young — to have a partner, to not be alone, to fit into the community, to have kids, to be part of what Gottlieb calls “a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business.”

If one could chart my own “why isn’t she married?” trajectory (and believe me, there are many who do) it might be the result of this kind of advice: I’ve seen too many loveless marriages hastily entered into for anything but love.

Now, of course, Gottlieb isn’t advocating marrying a man who repulses you or puts you to sleep every time he answers the question, “How was your day, dear?”

But it would seem that once you enter the slippery slope of settling, it would be hard to know when to stop. What exactly is the right thing to compromise on? If he is a nice guy, but he goes on and on at dinner parties until you hope someone will drop a plate of hot soup on his lap, is that settling?

See, the other side of the “too picky” see-saw is the “not selective enough” category. Most (married) people who watch their friends/children/congregants date are not familiar with this second category until it’s too late. For example, if a single person regales a married person about her date, saying, “he made me pick up the tab and then just hopped in a cab home!” the married friend will reply, “Well, maybe he’s just low on cash this week and got an emergency call, and you should really give him another chance.”

No, the message to Jewish singles is and always has been Gottlieb’s message: Why can’t you all just settle down?

Now that I’m in my 30s, I wonder if there is something in between musical chairs (grabbing the last man standing) and “The Notebook” (holding out for perfection).

And I suppose that is the beauty of a different kind of Judaism, one that mingles with the mainstream world — even Hollywood, believe it or not. Yes, there should be sparks and chemistry and love and happiness and laughter — together with shared values, common goals and mutual interests.

Because if I’ve learned anything from 15 years (!!!) of dating, it’s that whether you run into a marriage with someone you don’t love, or you hold out for a hero who never comes, either way, you’ll end up all alone.

It’s not about a plan


“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site momlogic.com—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background


Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner.

There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths, followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of the best American short story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; there are several stories that deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which his own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child with a disability, like his own daughter. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” the divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates in their wanderings, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman at the fraternity house across the street with her boyfriend. The story and the book end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now, he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time, and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

The two oldest of Apple’s four children — often the subjects in “Free Agents” — are writers. Both grew up watching their father at work — that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of co-existence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter


I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>www.specialolympics.org)

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>www.njcl.net); Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>www.jfsla.org); Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>www.hazon.org); Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>www.livestrong.org).

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>jfsla.org); MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>www.projectchickensoup.org).

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

Films: The ‘Little Miss’ that could maybe hopefully


When Peter Saraf signed on to co-produce the film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” he says he did so without hesitation. The script, about a dysfunctional family’s road trip, spoke to him immediately, and he was proud to bring his great-aunt and great-uncle to see it.

As the film began rolling, however, Saraf began to have some reservations. The family comedy features Alan Arkin as a grandfather who snorts heroin and yells obscenities. How would Saraf’s great-uncle, an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor, react?

“I kept looking over at him when Alan would go into one of his expletive tirades,” Saraf said. “He was just laughing!”

Audiences of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds warmed to “Sunshine,” much like Saraf’s relatives, after its July 26 opening.

The film first gained momentum with a standing ovation at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which led to a bidding war for distribution rights. Box office success followed, with a domestic gross of more than $59 million as of Jan. 4, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The numbers are expected to keep growing, with “Sunshine” still being screened in some theaters, even as it was released on DVD Dec. 19. Not bad for a film with an $8 million budget.

The Fox Searchlight release has also been a critical favorite, garnering film festival awards, Top Ten of 2006 honors from the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, as well as multiple nominations for Gotham, Satellite, Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. In light of this, “Sunshine” is poised to be an Oscar contender, as well.

The movie begins with the shabby Arizona home of the misfit, middle-class Hoover family. Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the motivational speaker dad who can’t get his book published; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is depleted from years of running and supporting the family; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay Proust scholar, who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover; hedonist Grandpa has been kicked out of the nursing home for his heroin vice; son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is an angry teen who’s taken a vow of silence; and then there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), the heart of the film, a pudgy, bespectacled 7-year-old innocent whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

When Olive learns she’s won a last-minute spot to compete in the pageant, she has two days to make it to the competition in Redondo Beach. The family piles into their broken-down yellow Volkswagen minibus and heads west.

The minibus that chugs along despite falling apart through the film is a metaphor for the troubled Hoovers. And “Little Miss Sunshine’s” promoters have enjoyed drawing a parallel between the family’s hard-won personal triumph and the success of this “little indie flick that could.” While an Oscar win might seem like a long shot, dismissing “Sunshine” would be a mistake.

The Golden Globes singled out directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a best musical or comedy nod, as well as Collette for best actress in a comedy or musical. And tradition has it that the Globes, to be held this year on Jan. 15, are fairly good predictors of Academy Award nominations.

Another Oscar bellwether is the Producers Guild of America, which included “Sunshine” as one of five feature films nominated for the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The Producers Guild Awards will be held Jan. 20.

The film’s universal appeal seems to tap the same spirit that propelled audiences of every background to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another indie feature that toyed with universal themes of family dysfunction. Saraf credits “Sunshine” screenwriter Michael Arndt for writing family relationships that ring true for all audiences.

“There is an honesty in the dynamic in that family,” Saraf said. “The script has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a real emotional underpinning, and I think that’s what people are really responding to.”

Co-producer David Friendly also sees the appeal of “Sunshine” in this light. The son of legendary CBS News president Fred Friendly, David personally identified with the script’s complicated father-son relationships.

“I did have a powerful father figure,” he said, describing his dad as a “larger-than-life character.”

One scene that felt particularly reminiscent for Friendly occurs toward the end of the film, as the family is nearing the freeway offramp for the pageant. Richard, who is driving, can’t figure out the exit, and thus keeps circling, while a cacophony of direction-yelling ensues around him.

Friendly fondly recalled being lost in Portland, Ore., with his father behind the wheel.

“Dad was sort of commander in chief insisting he knew his way around…. Doing loops around the airport,” he said.

The ability to channel such real human moments is what audiences of all demographics have embraced in “Sunshine,” and both Friendly and Saraf say that is enough, regardless of any awards buzz.

Friendly says that’s part of the moral of “Little Miss Sunshine” — to enjoy the experience, rather than being focused on winning — and it’s also something he absorbed from his Jewish upbringing.

“You learn from all the seders around the table. You get a good sense of what’s right and wrong, and the ethics of a good life,” he said.

“I think that also fundamental to the theme of the movie, we all want to succeed, but at what price? If you get too focused on the wrong things, it begins to corrupt other things.”

For Cryin’ Out Loud


Upon analyzing Vayigash, one of my bar mitzvah students commented: “Joseph sure cries a lot … it’s kinda weird.”

Well put. In fact, Joseph does
not simply cry — he weeps. A lot! “Aloud [so] that all of Egypt and the house of Paro heard.”

He turns on the waterworks upon revealing his identity to his brothers (who had attempted to kill him last he saw them). Later his tears stream down his maternal brother Benjamin’s neck, then on the rest of their necks, and then on his father’s neck. Yup, Joey’s a bawler with a seemingly strange affinity for necks.

Indeed, this is peculiar behavior. I mean, guys aren’t supposed to cry, right? They’re supposed to be stoic, autonomous, aggressive. Babies cry. Women cry (5.3 times more often than men — statistics say). For women, weeping in front of each other demonstrates trust. Conversely, while men might feel like sniveling as often as women, actually doing so exhibits weakness — especially in front of other men (research indicates that displaying such emotions communicates an easy target for attack; hence, men rarely cry in public).

The mere fact that Joseph felt so free to blubber is unmanly. But to do so repeatedly, publicly, in front of men already guilty of attacking him, and with an emotionally demented father having raised him? (Remember, Jacob is the guy that tricked his own father into a birthright without displaying any remorse, and later responded to news that his daughter had been raped and kidnapped without so much as a whimper.) It’s just weird!

Across time and in every society, the fact remains: Men don’t cry much. Get angry? Forceful? Absolutely. But tears and neck nuzzling are displays of vulnerability that have no place in definitively masculine behavior.

Yet, Vayigash narrates the triumph of a man clearly in touch with his feminine side over his family’s preoccupation with manliness, and in so doing, cleans up a whole bunch of karma — more aptly described within our faith as tikkun and teshuvah; mainstream Jewish ideas of “what comes around goes around” are not as much connected with reincarnation as with inheritance, and the notion of a soul needing to clean up consequences from past sins is recognized through family lineage.

Exodus 20:5-6 states: “I … your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children….” In Judaism, the sins of fathers are acceded to their sons, who must repair those transgressions through their own lives and return the long shadow of their souls to the light.

Applying this idea to Vayigash, it is interesting to note that the word “father” is repeated 38 times! It seems that Joseph has the responsibility of repairing his old man’s mistakes — by expressing emotions while Jacob could not, by embracing his own frailty while Jacob envied his brother’s physical strength, by prevailing over his siblings’ jealous and covert attempts to diminish him while Jacob got away with it. Joseph redeems his father’s transgressions.

While Jacob had to physically wrestle with, and triumph over, the archetype of man in the darkness to redeem esteem in his own physical strength, his son’s power came by passively allowing other men to exhibit dominance over him, lifting him out of a well of darkness in order that he help them from their own shadows by shedding light on their dreams.

Whereas Jacob concealed himself under a garment of fur so that his blind father would not recognize his lack of hair/masculinity, Joseph proudly sported his father’s gift of a multicolored coat — dazzling to the eye, but not terribly macho. As Jacob’s brother raged at him for stealing the favoritism to which he was entitled, Joseph’s brothers raged at him for receiving the favoritism to which they were entitled; while Jacob waited until his blind, dying father could only use his hands for recognition and concealed his identity before him, Joseph revealed his identity to his father before he died and “put his hand over his eyes” (Genesis 46:4).

Joseph wept because his faithful embrace of the trials and seeming betrayals presented during his life had returned him, with his family, to wholeness. He shed tears for all the men that get angry when they want to cry and all the women who cry when they are angry. He sobbed for those that confuse vulnerability with weakness, and in so doing demonstrated the power that comes from full exposure, freedom from resistance, depth of experience, and the capacity to respond with presence and authenticity — as all great and charismatic people do. He cried out his release from the past in forgiveness and understanding that it all had to be as it was, and in joy for the gift of reuniting in love.

Weeping is underrated. It is the expression of intense and inspiring moments of all colors. We can only laugh when things are funny, but we can cry from grief, joy, love, despair. In our doing so, we reunite the expression of the sacred feminine with the masculine in to One; we return the long shadows of our parents to the light, and together we laugh through our tears at the perfect and ironic balance of it all.

Kinda weird.


Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a a freelance officant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She will be teaching several classes for The University of Judaism’s Adult Studies program during their winter semester. You can reach her at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Laura’s Smile


Laura Benichou was born on June 9, 1998, with a hole in her heart. This hole probably saved her life, because she was also born without her main pulmonary artery.

The blood had to go somewhere, so it went through the hole. Her condition would take too long to explain, but one result was the lowering of the oxygen level in her blood to 75 percent and below (normal is 99 percent to 100 percent), which meant that her body had to compensate by producing more red blood cells. This in turn thickened her blood and caused other complications, like periodic brain seizures.

The first major seizure happened before she was a year old. To save her life, the top cardiac team at a major hospital in Los Angeles performed an 11-hour operation that implanted small “pipes and faucets” to help normalize the blood flow between her heart and lungs. This didn’t get the results they wanted, so a few weeks later they went back in to implant larger devices. Laura was not responding well to post-surgery care, which created more complications and led to another operation. After six months and three major operations, Laura was a year and a half old when she returned home.

Laura has never spoken a word, but she can coo, laugh, sigh and cry. At her best, she has taken steps with the help of a walker. She has a thin body with a smallish, sweet face framed by dark-brown hair. She gets 24-hour home care, with three rotating nurses monitoring her breathing and other vital signs.

One of those nurses says that Laura expresses a wide range of “appropriate” emotions, from happiness to surprise to crying for attention. Her favorite movie is “Mary Poppins,” and her favorite TV show is “Hannah Montana.” She likes toys that move, and she has a fondness for anything slapstick.

Oh yeah, and she loves to smile.

It’s that spontaneous smile, which I saw firsthand on a recent visit to her family’s handsome high-ceilinged apartment in West Hollywood, that her mother says “hypnotizes everyone who meets her.”

I think the smile has also helped her family fight to keep her alive. While she was in the hospital for six months, her parents took turns to be with her at all times. Her brother, a very cool-looking 16-year-old who’s a starter on his high school basketball team, is very protective of her and seems to have a knack for making her laugh.

Her mother, Veronique, a thin and perfectly put-together French Moroccan Jew in her early 40s, has become a walking medical handbook. During my late-afternoon visit, while she was serving mint tea in elegant china, she took several hours to calmly answer all my questions regarding their ordeal, and Laura’s medical history, even drawing a diagram to explain one of the surgeries.

Veronique says she “stopped living” when the doctors told her the news about Laura. At the time, she had a thriving international trading business. Her husband Richard, an intense, darkly handsome, French Algerian Jew who is a member of the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard, ran a successful garment business. They were also going through a major renovation of their home near the Sunset Strip, which they were preparing for the new baby.

It didn’t take long for the house (which they have since sold) and their businesses to take a back seat to Laura. Veronique herself was in a “coma of denial” for the first few months, but once she got out of it, she became quietly unstoppable — whether fighting in court against insurance companies (so far, she has prevailed at the key hearings) or doing constant research on the Internet to make sure that everything medically possible is being done for her daughter.

And God knows she’s done it all, medically and otherwise. She recalls now, with a tinge of disappointment, how vulnerable she was to faith healers of all kinds. She especially remembers the woman mystic from Israel, who spent three days rubbing different oils on her daughter while chanting special prayers. Veronique knew then that because they were people of means, there would be no shortage of miracle workers knocking on their door. But she was too vulnerable to turn them away.

Meanwhile, she was knocking on the doors of emergency rooms at all times of the day and night, whenever Laura had a seizure or some other complication. After a few years, she got so frustrated with the service and long waits that she started a company called SOS Medlink, which coordinates a network of doctors who make house calls (I’ve used the service myself, and if I had a say on the Messiah, I’d nominate a doctor who makes house calls). She is currently looking for partners to expand the business nationally, in the hope that it will help provide for Laura’s future care. Her husband has also gone back to work.

Right now, they’re both hoping for a medical success. They don’t like the option of doing nothing, because Laura’s condition hasn’t gotten any better, which leaves her at risk of another seizure (Veronique won’t elaborate). At the same time, though, an “out of the box” operation to repair Laura’s heart is also delicate. So they’re torn between two risky options.

Veronique and her husband will soon make a decision. In the last few days, they have met with a prominent surgeon, and they are exploring a “middle of the road” option that will hopefully do a little repair of the heart and buy them some more time.

In the meantime, they will continue to care for Laura around the clock, take her to parties and to visit family around town, and enjoy one thing that can always fill the hole in their own hearts.

Her smile.

Los Angeles mom pleads for life of son kidnapped in Iran


“Why is the world so silent — why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?” Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.

Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families — who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation — have filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.

“As a citizen of the United States,” Tehrani said at a rally in New York, “I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!”

Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.

“I was hoping that from this rally … the world would become more aware of this issue,” she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. “But I don’t know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since.”

She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.

“We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami,” Tehrani said. “We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers”.

A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying.She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.

“I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he’s still alive,” Tehrani said. “We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms.”

Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said.

Leaders from the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a Los Angeles umbrella group of Iranian Jewish organizations, have made quiet diplomatic efforts for the last 12 years to help secure the release of Babak Tehrani and the other imprisoned Jews. Six years ago some activists in the Iranian Jewish community, among them George Haroonian and Frank Nikbakht, became so unhappy with the IAJF’s lack of progress, that they began to pursue a more vocal public approach in attempting to secure the release of the prisoners.

IAJF leaders have long advocated minimizing criticism of Tehran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Despite internal differences of opinion, the various factions within the local Iranian Jewish community recently banded together in support of victims’ families’ lawsuit.

“Our entire community is united in demanding the immediate release of these individuals and will support any legal and moral course of action that their families may choose to pursue,” the group said in a statement released by the IAJF.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community spread news of the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, prevented the execution of the “Shiraz 13,” and they were eventually released.

Babak Tehrani was last seen in 1996, according to Fereidoon Peyman, an Iranian Jew who was the Tehranis’ neighbor in Iran and who now lives in Los Angeles. In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, Peyman said that in 1996 he visited Tehran’s infamous Evin prison while attempting to sell land nearby to prison officials. While there, he stated, he saw Babak.

“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye, I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” Peyman stated in his affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”

Evin prison is a maximum-security prison allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, Nikbakht said.

Experts familiar with Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran’s official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.

Babak’s father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.

American-style retirement for Israel’s seniors


The photos in the brochures and on Web sites are all different yet somehow similar: A group or a pair of elegantly dressed older men and women sit or stand against a backdrop of flowers or greenery, their graying hair carefully coiffed, their faces clear-eyed and smiling, their teeth white and perfect. These are portrayals of the world of retirement homes or, as many prefer to call themselves, senior citizens’ residences, in which — at least according to the pictures — happy seniors live out their autumn years playing bridge or billiards, strolling through gardens and sipping coffee in the company of vivacious friends.

Although old-age homes have always existed in Israel for those who cannot care for themselves, it is only in recent years that the American idea of retiring to a comfortable community of seniors has taken off here. Over the past 20 years, retirement homes have sprung up all over Israel, and each seems to be trying to outdo the next in the level of luxury, services and amenities offered.

“There are now more people over 65 in Israel than there are under 25,” said David Ditch, CEO of the Ad 120 chain. “The population is getting older, but physically they’re still young because medicine has advanced so much. The standard of living has gone up, and the elderly population has a lot of free time and is looking for ways to fill it.”

Official government figures bear this out. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 670,000 people age 65 or over in Israel in 2003, comprising almost 10 percent of the population. This proportion was more than double the 4.8 percent in 1955 and is expected to reach 12.7 percent, or 1.2 million people, by 2025. Life expectancy in Israel has risen to 77.5 for men and 81.5 for women, more than five years higher than it was in 1980.

But with increasingly long lives come other challenges. Fully 25 percent of Israel’s elderly live alone, and while their health may be good, loneliness and boredom can eat away at their days. Retirement homes promise a range of social and cultural activities in a supervised setting. But before rushing out to book a place for grandma, there are some factors to take into consideration.

“When someone comes to us and says they want to put dad in a home, the first question we ask is, ‘Why?’ and the first thing we do is meet the person to see what they want,” said David Danhai, who set up and runs Yad Lakashish, a free advisory service for the elderly. “If the children say dad is lonely, we look at why he’s lonely. He may already live in an apartment but shut himself off from his neighbors because that’s his personality. A closed-off person will be just as closed off living in a home. Or he may be lonely because he doesn’t know where to go to find activities and meet people his own age. We show such people how to use the resources they already have in their area, such as the local day center for the elderly, golden-age club or public gardens. It is no small matter for an elderly person to move out of the home where he has lived for most of his life. It’s traumatic and drastic, and a step that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

There are two types of retirement housing in Israel, and the differences between them are significant. First are old-age homes (batei avot), which are licensed and supervised by the Ministry of Social Affairs. While many people think these are only for the feeble and bed-ridden, in fact many of them are designed for the independent senior who wants to be taken care of.

Ministry conditions dictate that these homes must provide three meals a day (and two snacks) in a dining room, have a certain ratio of staff to residents, clean residents’ rooms daily, keep strict hygiene in the home’s laundry, among other stipulations. An old-age home might have a greater or lesser range of activities for residents, and medical supervision is ever-present. Residents generally live in one- or two-room apartments, which may have an electric kettle but no cooking or laundry facilities. All apartments have emergency call buttons, and staff check in on residents if they do not show up for a meal.

Residents pay an entry fee of NIS 130,000 to NIS 220,000 (approximately $31,160-$52,745), as well as monthly maintenance fees of NIS 5,000 to NIS 7,500 (about $1,200-$1,800). This entry fee depreciates to nothing within three to five years. The ministry’s Web site (www.molsa.gov.il) lists some 190 licensed old-age homes across Israel.

The second type of retirement housing is sheltered housing (diur mugan). This category is unlicensed and unregulated, but that does not mean it falls short. On the contrary, it is into this category that luxurious retirement residences such as Ad 120 fall. And it is this category that has grown so dramatically over the past two decades.

Sheltered housing buildings are essentially private apartment buildings for seniors with some — or a lot of — extras. Residents live in one-, two- or three-room apartments which, unlike old-age homes, have a kitchenette and cooking facilities and in some cases space for a washing machine. Apartments are cleaned weekly and have emergency call buttons, but daily checkups on residents are not necessarily made. Sheltered housing buildings usually have swimming pools, gymnasiums, game rooms and libraries and offer a wide variety of activities, including arts and crafts, exercise classes, concerts and lectures. In some homes, lunch in the dining room is included; in others it is extra. Some add coffee and cake in the afternoon.

Residents pay a deposit of NIS 530,000 to NIS 1.8 million (around $127,000-$431,000) for their apartments, as well as a monthly maintenance fee that can range from NIS 3,000 to NIS 5,000 (approximately $720-$1,200). The deposit depreciates by 2 percent to 4 percent annually for 10 to 12 years, and what is left is given to the residents’ heirs.
Each sheltered housing or old-age facility has a separately run Ministry of Health licensed nursing division for residents who need chronic care.

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

An open letter to the rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary


I want to share with you an email I wrote to Chancellor Elect Eisen as well as Rabbi Joel Roth on the JTS board to support allowing gays to marry and become rabbis:

Dear Mr. Eisen,

I am a 46-year-old woman born and raised in Los Angeles. I am writing to ask that the Conservative movement support gay marriage. As a child, my family was members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am with Rabbi Jacob Pressman at the helm. I am a private person but I wanted to share a bit of my story with you as I know mine is the story of many.

In elementary school I realized I was different. I had no vocabulary for it, but all the books, movies and relationships I saw led me to believe that my feelings were not normal and needed to be suppressed.

I began hiding what was to me a dark and terrible secret that I could not admit even to myself until my 20s. I did not want to be different. In fact, I went to sleep every night for years and years praying that I would wake up and be straight. Of course, that never happened. The thought of coming out and hurting my beloved parents or having them feel ashamed of me was more than I could bear and I thought my only options were either to commit suicide, which gay teens do three times more than their straight counterparts, or move to another city and hide my true self from my family forever.

I stayed in the closet until I was 28-years-old, dating men and sacrificing my youth and happiness trying in vain to fit in. I started having terrible panic attacks and actually thought I was going crazy. I realized one day that it was suddenly more painful to hide who I was than to admit the truth. I tried to prepare myself to lose my family. There were hints all my life that I was gay that my parents either ignored or denied hoping, like myself it wasn’t true or it would simply go away, or perhaps I would grow out of it. Their reactions let me know this would break their hearts.

Mr. Eisen, how different my life would have been had in my early years my temple and temple community openly welcomed gay people or if there were openly gay rabbis to demonstrate that everyone has value.

As Jews we especially understand the pain of being an outsider and of doors being closed to us simply because we were born Jewish. How terrible to think that we ourselves would ever make a fellow Jew an outsider.

By locking gay people out of the rabbinate or of the sacrament of marriage is to send a very strong message that gay people are flawed and not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as those who happen to be straight.

The reality is that 10 percent of society is gay. With an estimated 14 million Jews worldwide, that’s 1.4 million Jews that happen to be gay. With our numbers dwindling, we cannot afford to lose even one person or make any Jew feel not welcome. I have always felt great pride in being Jewish.

This year I became a bat mitzvah after two years of study. I love Jews and Israel as much as anybody. I do not think it is fair that I am excluded from being a full member of the community I love so much because of the way I was born. It’s like saying people with blue eyes can never marry.

Mr. Eisen, whether we have blue or brown eyes, straight or gay most of us grow up dreaming of the day we will stand beneath a chuppah with our family and friends surrounding us with a rabbi to bless our union.

It is my deep hope that the Conservative movement will make a strong and courageous decision to embrace all of our members so that someday no Jew will ever again feel like an outsider in our own community.

Sincerely,
Pamela Witt

Pamela Witt is a business owner in Los Angeles. She can be reached at pamwittla@aol.com.

Eight ways how ’tis better to give back


Having trouble finding the perfect gift for the one who has everything?

Want to give back to the community this holiday season and into 2007?

Here are eight great ways to contribute.

  • Make a Relief Donation: Israel has cease-fires in Gaza and with Hezbollah. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita occurred more than a year ago. But Magen David Adom and the Red Cross are still seeking financial assistance in these areas — as well as for other disasters such as house fires, explosions and transportation accidents. For more information and other donation options visit www.afmda.org and www.redcross.org.
  • Volunteer and Support Youth: It is said that the Jewish people should remain with previous generations and future ones, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. Make a connection with a member of the next generation by becoming a mentor. Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Los Angeles offers mentoring opportunities for adults older than 21 to pair with 6- to 18-year-olds, primarily from single-parent homes. Volunteers are expected to be involved for a minimum of a year and meet with their little brother or little sister twice a month. To apply and/or learn more about JBBBS’ mentor program and the sports buddies and art buddies opportunities visit www.jbbla.org.

    Another mentoring option is with Koreh LA. Koreh (Hebrew for “read”) sets a volunteer up with a preschool or elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District to read for one hour each week. For more information, visit www.korehla.org.

  • Purchase a Gift Basket for a Soldier: Let an Israeli soldier know they are in your thoughts with a snack package from Dash Cham. The Jerusalem-based company includes a mix of snacks, a cup of soup and a juice in the $10 parcel. Available www.dashcham.com.
    Another basket option supports The Daniel Pearl Foundation — whose goal is cross-cultural tolerance through music, journalism and unique communications — with a 40 percent donation of each $195 package sold. The basket features the Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl edited book, “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl”; a CD with compositions that weave in readings of Daniel Pearl’s articles, as well as candles, dreidels and chocolate. The baskets are sold at www.flashybasketsbymichelle.com.

  • Help Refugee Family From Darfur: A $30 donation to Jewish World Watch will provide a Sudanese family in a Chad refugee camp with two solar cookers. The light, small cooker, made of cardboard and aluminum, removes the family’s need to send women and girls in search of firewood which has put them in danger of gender-based violence. The pluralistic organization — comprised of various synagogues throughout Southern California with a mandate to fight genocide — also sells Chanukah cards with the proceeds going to the cooker program. To make a donation visit www.jewishworldwatch.org.
  • Join the Bone Marrow Registry: It is written in the Talmud that “He who saves one life, it is as if he had saved the entire world.” People with life-threatening illnesses such as lymphoma and leukemia, seek cures through bone marrow and blood stem cell transplants from someone that has a similar tissue type. The Gift of Life wants to increase the amount of prospective Jewish donors in the registry, especially since the Shoah severed bloodlines. An $18 donation enables the medical resource to send kit for a self-administered test, where a swab of cells could be taken quickly from inside one’s cheeks. Online donor registration and a list of upcoming donor drives are available at www.giftoflife.org.
  • Have a Tree Planted in Someone’s Honor: Help Israel’s environment — and the world’s — by giving a unique gift to a loved one or friend. For $18, the Jewish National Fund will plant the tree and provide a customized certificate with the honoree’s name and your personal message. In addition to the different themes available for the tree certificates, water certificates are also available. To make the world a little greener visit www.jnf.org.
  • Have a Winter Cleanup and Donate: One doesn’t have to wait for the spring season to clear up a closet or home and give to a good cause. The National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles (NCJWLA) accepts clothing, accessories, collectibles, furniture and appliances for their Council Thrift Shops year-round. NCJWLA also has a vehicle donation program. To set up a pick up or get more information, visit www.ncjwla.org.
  • Join Mazon’s 3 Percent Circle: It’s the season for eating, but there are still many that go hungry. Mazon – A Jewish Response to Hunger, a grant-making organization that combats hunger of people of various faiths and backgrounds, has multiple ways to donate. One option for this holiday season is to donate 3 percent of the cost of your event, whether it is a Chanukah party, bar/bat mitzvah or a wedding. The 3 percent pledge could continue with the cost of birthday parties, attending sporting events, restaurant dining, etc.

    To find out more information about the circle or how to get a holiday tribute card in someone’s name, visit www.mazon.org.

Milken School head gets the surprise of her life


Rennie Wrubel had no reason to suspect.

The board members, the 800 students on bleachers, the officials from the Bureau of Jewish Education and private foundations — they had come to Milken Community High School to hear Gen. Shaul Mofaz, minster of transportation and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel.

Right?

Mofaz, as it turns out, was a decoy. The surprise honoree was Wrubel herself, who received the Milken Family Foundation’s Jewish Educator Award for her work as Milken’s head of school for the last 10 years.

“I just have one question,” a stunned but composed Wrubel asked when she was finally able to lift herself off her seat. “Is that really Mofaz?” (It was.)

The annual Jewish Educator Awards, with a $10,000 prize, is awarded in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to five Los Angeles day school teachers or administrators annually.

“I want to recognize and celebrate a person whose intelligence, whose leadership, whose commitment and compassion have made a profound difference in our community, a person who has positively impacted thousands of young people’s lives,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which gave the naming gift and maintains close ties to the high school.

As Milken stood at the dais to announce the award, Wrubel wondered why he was talking about appreciating excellence in education, when the assembly was about Israel. Colleagues whispered that perhaps the digression was to recognize the school as a whole, since Wrubel surmised that he couldn’t be presenting a Jewish Educator Award, because she would have been informed of that.

Then Milken asked for “the envelope.” The school orchestra went into a drum roll and an audible wave of anticipation passed among the students. When he announced that Dr. Rennie Wrubel was the recipient of a Jewish Educator Award, Wrubel slumped in her seat, open mouthed — and the gym exploded.

That kind of reaction, and its ripple effect through the wider community, is what Milken Foundation officials are going for with the dramatic presentation of the awards.

“The surprise element evolved as the best way to get everyone’s attention and to make it most memorable to the students and to other people in the room,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. “We’re trying to get the community behind teaching, behind educators, and trying to get kids to understand that educators are recognized and appreciated and that kids should consider this as a profession.”

Sandler and a caravan of BJE and Milken Foundation officials presented the four other awards in one packed day in late October. Videos of those emotional assemblies will form the centerpiece of an awards luncheon in Bel Air on Dec. 14.

At Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, second- and third-grade teacher Beverly Yachzel received her award in an intimate gathering of the student body and teachers at the small school.

Tami Rosenfeld, a fourth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, didn’t know her family was hiding out in the back of the sanctuary for the occasion.

Rabbi Simcha Frankel, a teacher at Cheder Menachem Elementary School in Los Angeles, at first demurred from coming to the stage, but the cheering boys coaxed him up.
Bluma Drebin, Bible department chair and teacher of mathematics at the YULA girls’ high school, elicited whoops and hollers from the girls.

But even by the Milken Foundation’s standards, the ruse around Wrubel’s ceremony was unusual.

The elaborate scheming behind the assembly was the work of Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the parent organization for Milken Community High School.

Benjamin arranged for Consul General Ehud Danoch to come to the school, under the pretense of recognizing the school’s ambitious new Tiferet Israel Program, where 40 tenth graders will go to Israel for four months this winter and spring.

Then, three days before the assembly, Benjamin got a call from Mofaz saying he would be in town.

She jumped at the chance, and pulled off the last-minute schedule change for Mofaz to speak to the students.

Mofaz and Danoch both addressed the students, congratulating them on their continued commitment to fostering the bond between Israeli and American teens.

For several years, Milken Community High School has participated in an exchange program with its sister school in Tel Aviv, sending delegations each year to live with families.
This year a larger delegation will live in dorms, continue their Milken education and learn Jewish history and heritage both in the classroom and on field trips to the places they learn about.

In 11th and 12th grade, the same group of students will continue to have special classes aimed at teaching them to be advocates for Israel, and they will become part of the Israeli Consulate’s speaker’s bureau.

The fact that the assembly honoring Wrubel ended up being so focused on Israel was appropriate, Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise, said, since one of Wrubel’s strongest passions is for connecting the kids to Israel.

For information on the awards visit www.mff.org.

Theater: All in the ‘Herbicide’ family


The Emmy-winning writer Jay Kogen (“The Simpsons,” “The Class” and other shows) is helping Herb Astrow go over the opening lines of his first solo stage performance.

“Remember, it’s an intimate evening with,” Kogen tells him. “It’s your party. So rather than just going into a story, you want to be welcoming.”

“Welcome to the height of self-indulgence!” Astrow announces, cracking everybody up at rehearsal.

Astrow, a 72-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur (Yankee Doodles on the Santa Monica Promenade), is, after 50 years, returning to his first love: the theater. In a benefit at the Santa Monica Playhouse, he’ll star in “Herbicide” Dec. 9 and 10.

Astrow’s most recent role was playing Stanley the waiter in a production of “Death of a Salesman.”

“At Brooklyn College,” he laughs. “In 1958. As a kid I wanted to be an actor, but my own kids came along….”

“He’s been great at being brutally honest,” says Kogen, Astrow’s director, who helped him reduce 16 wild tales to the four most resonant. Or redolent, like the one where Astrow smells so bad from working at Nathan Strauss Twentieth Century Fish Market in Flatbush, that he rubs cologne into his jeans before bicycling off to meet his buddies, “Itchy” (Joel Stanislaw), “Rooster” (Stu Lazarus), “Ziggy” (Marvin Zelenitz), and “Pot Cheese” (Jerry Potolsky). Astrow was “Hercules.”

It was 1944, “that perfect time when the Jews, the Irish, the Italians all lived together,” says Astrow ‘s sister, Jo Anne Astrow. “It was a golden time for education in New York.”

Jo Anne Astrow named their production company Chestnut Avenue Productions, after the “last documented dirt road in Brooklyn,” where they lived above their Sicilian landlord, Mr. Sharaldi.

Sharaldi “owned the last horse in Brooklyn,” Herb says. “He called his horse ‘Horse.’ During the winter, when his ass got frozen to the wagon seat, he changed Horse’s name to ‘You F—– Horse.'”

Astrow went to work at the age of 9, making $4 a week delivering fish, which helped pay the rent.

His father, Barney, was his hero: “He sat in a chair reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia and philosophized on life.” He taught Herb to “always compliment women on their appearance and especially say nice things about their home furnishings.”

But multiple sclerosis forced Barney to quit his florist business. The family went on welfare, and when Barney had to move to another home, the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for Chronic Diseases, Astrow’s mother became his hero.

“By the sheer force of her will to survive,” he recalls. “God bless that crazy woman!”
Elsie Astrow underwent shock treatments for depression and used to beat her son with his father’s cane “over some nonsense thing I did, like eating too many creamsicles” he says.
She was suicidal, but saved his life with the taste of her lamb stew with sugared apple dumplings and the slap of a catcher’s mitt when Herb was choking to death one night at dinner.

The title of the show itself comes from “the life and death struggles” he says he had once with a houseplant.

“Struggles with a life,” adds sister Jo Anne Astrow, leading to Herb Astrow’s story of the vodka-and-Tab habit he picked up after breaking off with his textile business partners, the poisonous dieffenbachia plant and a Thanksgiving dinner in Queens where the two opposing sides of his family — Russian Jews and German Jews — no longer agree to “respectfully loathe each other.”

“Herbicide” is a family project. His son-in-law came up with the title, and Jo Anne Astrow not only co-produced (with Sally Schaub), she figures funnily in the stories. (She’s also comedian Lewis Black’s manager.) And director Kogen’s family and the Astrows grew up and vacationed together for years on Fire Island.

“Even when I was little,” Kogen says of his actor, “we all knew he had an adventurous life. We were told, ‘Don’t go on the boat with Uncle Herbie!'”

Proceeds from “Herbicide” will go to the Save the Playhouse capital campaign to put a down payment on the building at Fourth Street near Wilshire Boulevard.

George Vennes, Santa Monica Playhouse technical director, tells The Journal, “Rent for the offices, two theaters and two rehearsal spaces is up to $10,000 a month.”

With Youth Theater, cultural outreach and a legendary history, the Playhouse, says Vennes, “caters from two to 92.”

It was one of the playhouse’s ongoing workshops, an acting class with the actor Jeffrey Tambor, that first got Astrow interested in telling his stories onstage. And it was his writing coach, Wendy Kaminoff, who dared Astrow to make it happen. (Well, her business card does say: “Creative Ass Kicker”)

“Herb is this wonderful combination of New York savvy, old school wisdom and outrageous life experiences,” Kaminoff says. “Imagine Garrison Keillor, only if he was a handsome Jewish guy from Brooklyn.”

“Herbicide,” Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. $20. Price includes a post show reception at the playhouse. Santa Monica Playhouse 1211 4th St. For information call (310) 394-9779 Ext. 1

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

There is God in this place


Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.

In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.

As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.

My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.

My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.

Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.

Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.

Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.

According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.

The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.

According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.

The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.

But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.

When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.

Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.

We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.

“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.

Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

Two neighborhoods reveal Orthodox community’s fault lines


When Tali Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, she landed in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the Westside. It was near her office, and besides, it was where many of Los Angeles’ Orthodox singles live.

But after five years there, Rosenthal, decided to move to Hancock Park, commonly known as “The Other Side of Town.”

“I was more comfortable in the more serious religious atmosphere,” she said of Hancock Park, where she’s now lived for three years. “I feel like it’s a more dedicated day-to-day Torah life, in the general atmosphere. It’s just a general hashkafa, outlook.”

Ayala Naor, on the other hand, lived in the Hancock Park area for about 25 years. But when she and her husband relocated the family jewelry business from downtown to Pico-Robertson 10 years ago, they, too, decided to move to what they call “The Other Side of Town” — Pico-Roberston. “We felt like the people [in Pico-Robertson] were more along our hashkafa. The other side of town [Hancock Park] seemed to get more and more Charedi, more black hat, and we felt like we wanted to be amongst our own people, with the more Modern Orthodox Zionist outlook,” she said. “I feel more comfortable here.”

The Other Side of Town. It’s a term that implies that there are only two options, and for most Orthodox Jews that’s the case. Despite numerous additional religious communities in other neighborhoods — near the beach or in the Valley — for most Orthodox there really are only two sides of town: the one you live in and the one you don’t.

Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson are only about four miles apart — a 15-minute drive, an hour walk on Shabbat — and yet, increasingly, they are coming to seem worlds apart.

Pico-Robertson is not an official neighborhood; it got its name from the two main boulevards that crisscrosses it. It is a low-key commercial district replete with kosher restaurants, bakeries, synagogues and schools. Bordered by residential neighborhoods like Beverly Hills to the north and Beverlywood to the south, Pico Boulevard has blossomed over the last two decades, becoming the center for Modern Orthodoxy.

Hancock Park, on the other hand, is an officially designated historic neighborhood replete with Spanish-style mansions and leafy, shaded streets. But when religious Jews talk about Hancock Park, they’re actually referring to a somewhat broader geographic area — one that stretches to the west beyond La Brea Avenue and north to Beverly Drive. But no matter what one calls it — “Fairfax, Beverly, La Brea, mid-Wilshire” — this “eastern” side of the town sports full-time kollels (post high-school yeshivas) and dozens of shteibels (small, intense shuls), where men in black hats and women in wigs roam with more children than the norm of the modern American family. This is the more “yeshiva-ish” side of town.

Over the last two to three decades, each neighborhood has become increasingly homogeneous — some would say isolated — according to its own outlook or philosophy. Each one’s distinct character encompasses all walks of life, from how people dress to what and where they will eat to where they daven (pray), work, study, educate their children and how they choose to live their lives.

“The Charedi, or the fervently Orthodox, argue that the best way to preserve Judaism is to reject as many aspects of modernity as possible and to cut oneself off as much as possible from those that are not one’s persuasion,” said professor Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University and author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press, 2005). By contrast, he says, “the Modern Orthodox have argued that the religion is largely compatible with modernity and one does not need to cut oneself off from contemporary culture in order to be a thoroughly Orthodox Jew.”

Pico people watch television, go to the movies, use the Internet, attend secular colleges, and interact with other denominations of Judaism.

The Hancock Park community shies away from much of that, and in the cases of th
ings like the Internet, will limit usage to protect its Torah culture.

This separation between the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox communities is reflective of a kind of self-imposed segregation taking place in communities all over the United States, as two factions of Orthodox Jewry discover they cannot exactly co-exist, and are often in conflict with one another on major issues.

But what is the price of this separation?

Many leaders in the two communities will say publicly that the two are separate but equal — different but not in a bad way.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s become more distinct in its philosophical approaches,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, which, on Pico Boulevard, is one of the main Modern Orthodox shuls. “It’s a fact of life. It’s not to be judged.”

Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, also in the Pico-Robertson area, agrees. “There’s no friction, not from where I sit.”

Beth Jacob is the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the West, and one of the oldest here in Los Angeles.

But the people who live in the neighborhoods tell a different story. Not one of friction, but of intolerance or discomfort.

Michelle Harlow moved to Hancock Park with her family in 1964. She describes herself as Modern Orthodox, and says that over the years, she watched “more and more black hatters” moving in from the East Coast.

“You go down Beverly and La Brea, and you don’t know what country you’re in — there’s every kind of streimel and peyos,” she said referring to Chasidic dress and garb. “It’s hard for me to go out on Saturday in normal clothes. I feel that I’m being disrespectful to who knows whom. I feel out of place.”

Even though her children and some of her friends have gone to Pico-Robertson, Harlow’s not going to move. Her mother is there, and she wouldn’t be able to get as nice a house in Pico, a neighborhood with a high real estate cost but smaller houses.

Red diaper babies seen anew in ‘Commune’


It’s not on his resume, but filmmaker Jonathan Berman is really an anthropologist. Each of his three acclaimed documentaries, “The Shvitz,” “My Friend Paul” and his latest, “Commune,” is an examination of a small self-selected community.

“Oh, totally,” he said when asked if he sees these as ethnographic films. “I was working on the trailer for ‘Commune’ for YouTube, and I was thinking about how tribal and innocent it seemed.”
“Commune,” which opens Nov. 10, is a fascinating and frequently funny look back at the Black Bear Ranch, one of the most successful of the communes begun in ’60s America. Located in an abandoned mining area in the remote wilderness of Siskiyou County, Black Bear has managed to stay alive long after the word “hippie” became an antique.

Although Berman was too young to have experienced the hippy movement first-hand — “My sister was part of that era,” he said, laughing — he felt an instant affinity for the subject, in part because of his family background. Although he grew up in Merrick, Long Island, as a classic Reform Jewish suburbanite, Berman’s dad was a product of an earlier, tougher brand of Jewish activism.

“My father, Herb Berman, ran a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Graphic,” Berman said. “He was very community-minded. It’s a whole theme, the whole Jewish thing of people always looking for justice and utopia. He was always looking for tzedakah.”

The founders of Black Bear were, coincidentally, also pre-hippie utopians with a strong strain of Jewish radicalism in their lives.

“The first time I went up to Black Bear, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed,” Berman recalled. “Then I figured out — look at who the key people were: Richard Marley, half-Jewish, an ex-longshoreman from Brooklyn and labor organizer; Osha Neuman, Herbert Marcuse’s stepson and an East Coast radical; Efrem Korngold, whose father, Murray, helped found the L.A. Free Clinic; Harriet Beinfeld, who was an anti-war organizer. They were all red-diaper babies, interested in social justice, Jewish.”

They were also a little paranoid about being back in the glare of the media spotlight, even if the media in question was an independent documentary filmmaker and the spotlight was more like a flashlight.

“When we first got there it was [in the middle of] a reunion, and everyone was in a circle with someone blowing a ram’s horn — heck, it was a shofar,” Berman said. “And they immediately said to us, ‘Who are you? You’re the media. You’ll get it all wrong.'”

Given the coverage that such communities have attracted since the ’60s, ranging from active hostility to sniggering prurience, “They have good reason to be slightly paranoiac about the media,” Berman concedes.

But he stayed and stayed and finally was told, “You’re pretty good, you stuck around.”
The result, as in his first film, “The Shvitz,” a loving portrait of the vanishing world of the Jewish bathhouses, is an acute and sympathetic picture of a small but hardy group of people who come together as a self-created community in the face of the stresses of contemporary life. And, as in that film, Berman found himself with not merely a subject but also friends and, as he said with a chuckle, “co-conspirators.”

Much as the bathhouses have all but disappeared, most of the ’60s communes have faded from view. But there are still a few people up at Black Bear, the land itself is now in a perpetual trust and, most important, the animating spirit of the commune lives on in its now-dispersed members.
“Many of them remain activists,” Berman said. “Some of the families stayed in the area and became the primary motivators behind the Salmon River Restoration Council, which is a major environmental group up there. The ones who went back to the cities are involved in community organizing, public health work, legal aid work. There’s a palpable feeling of people keeping the faith even after they left.”

Berman feels a bit of that himself.

“To be frank, I haven’t even disassociated myself yet,” he confesses. “I have to move on to the next film. I’d like to move on to something else so I can come back [to the people from Black Bear] as a person, not as a filmmaker.”

“Commune” opens Friday, Nov. 10 at the Laemmle Grande Theater, 345 S. Figueroa St.

For information, call (213) 617-0268 or visit www.laemmle.com or www.communethemovie.com.


Click the big arrow to play the trailer for ‘Commune

Single, 60, and invisible no more


I’m over 60, single, considered sexy by some and ignored by others.

My experience is that if you are over 60, single and a woman
you’re somewhat invisible. Unfortunately, we live in a youth-oriented society where emphasis is placed on the young. So I started to make mental notes comparing similarities or differences between the under-60 singles and the over-60 singles.

I’m one of the over 60 “frontier generation” singles, someone who didn’t want to stay in a broken marriage. Before I pursued my new career — acting — I was a domestic engineer and political activist; I’m better educated than my parents’ generation, youthful, independent, in good health, vivacious and financially in a good place. I have a busy and somewhat active life with a small circle of friends. I have some baggage — I’m divorced, have married children who don’t live near me, and grandkids I don’t see very often unless I get on a plane. My youngest son, daughter-in-law and two darling grandchildren will be going to Uganda for two years, leaving early next year, so there is travel in my future. I see myself as somewhat of a risk-taker and adventurous, but I did not know what was awaiting me when I ventured out into the singles world after a long-term marriage, having been taken care of for many years.

All age groups seem to want the same thing: a soulmate, a soft shoulder to lean on occasionally, companionship for dinner in or out, theater, movies, and travel. I still enjoy cooking (and I’m good at it). I’m not too old for cuddling and hugging, and I happen to enjoy it.

I kept hearing about people meeting and connecting online, so I signed up. Well, my experience was like a bad dream, perhaps even a nightmare. Most men live in fantasyland and haven’t looked in the mirror enough to realize they are no longer 30-something. They all seem to be looking for younger women and a lost youth. My question: If these divorced men think they are God’s gift to the world, why are they single now?

One man I spoke to said music was his whole life, and he was looking for someone with the exact same interest and level of knowledge. I appreciate classical music, but that wasn’t good enough. He also had been married four times. Then there was a pharmacist who took me to lunch; he had had four marriages, although he didn’t go into any details — he didn’t want to talk about it. Then there was a widower who’d had a long-term, happy marriage and now wanted to just go out to have fun. Nothing wrong with that. He took me to dinner, a movie and then kept hinting about coming back to my place. Never happened. We couldn’t go back to his place, even if I’d wanted to, because his daughter and family had moved in with him as his caretakers. He’d fallen a few times in his house. We agreed to stay in touch. I haven’t been sitting by the phone waiting.

A date took me to the movies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and treated me to matzah ball soup at Canter’s. I arranged to meet him in Santa Monica, because he doesn’t like to drive at night. After the movie, we got back about midnight to where my car was parked, when he started to insist I come up to his place for soy ice-cream. Didn’t happen.

Then I met a friendly, interesting lawyer. We enjoyed walking, hiking and talking; occasionally he would take me to lunch. He would eat his lunch and half of my lunch. One evening I invited him to a theater event. He said he was going out of town. That evening he showed up at the event with another woman.
After reading many profiles, I got the impression that many men — and possibly women — are still looking for their Prince/Princess Charming and want to be swept off their feet. Love at first sight.

Realistically, I’m not sure it’s going to happen, since relationships consist of someone else’s mishegoss. I came to realize that I needed to find a nice person with a good heart and to look beneath the surface. Massage the friendship, allow it to grow and develop. I think all of us need to compromise.

I now have an ongoing friendship. The Internet didn’t bring us together. It was an interesting first meeting at Starbucks; he did a reading chart based on my handwriting. He was correct about many things. It certainly caught my attention. He calls me almost daily.

We e-mail, we date occasionally, share a lot about our lives and thoughts. He travels a good deal — it’s part of his job. Recently, his daughter went off to college, so now he’s home alone with his dog.

He’s a few years younger than me, but so what.

What can I say but the beat goes on.

He’s a nice person with a good heart.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

New Queen Esther flick is whole ‘nother megillah entirely



“‘Christian Money Makes Jewish Film,’ that’s the headline I’d like to see above your article,” Matthew Crouch, producer of “One Night With the King,” suggested in an interview.
 
The film, based on the biblical Book of Esther, “brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder … it’s vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them,” according to Crouch, the son of megatelevangelists Paul and Jan Crouch.
 
“A pumped-up Purim story,” observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
 
“One Night With the King,” which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even suggestive cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at close to 1,000 theaters across the United States.
 
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer/wife, Laurie Crouch, barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
 
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at “faith families,” in particular some 75 million Christian evangelicals in the United States.
 
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 “Omega Code.” Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
 
But what really rang Hollywood’s bell was the phenomenal box office success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
 
“It took Hollywood a few years to catch up,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but “Passion’s” $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
 
Fuhr’s own company has just released “Facing the Giants,” billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team, whose six-year losing streak is reversed through faith in God.
 
“Giants” was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find its audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.

The first major studio to finally get the message is Twentieth Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce around a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
 
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with “Giants” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox studio handling the DVD sales for “One Night.”Up to now, Jewish organizations have not weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian films phenomenon, either because it’s not yet on their radar screens or because of the fervent support of Israel by the evangelical community.

An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliakof the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com, who sees in the faith films a further encroachment by the Christian right on every aspect of American life, especially schools and popular culture.
 
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, sees a “positive impact” by “One Night” and urges potential Jewish critics to “stop being so prickly.”
 
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in “One Night” might upset Jewish sensitivities.
 
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film’s artistic merit. But the general consensus had it that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provided a positive portrayal of Jews.
 
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as “beautifully done and artistically and emotionally very satisfying.”
 
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
 
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and “felt comfortable with it.”

Foxman, who had been one of the sharpest critics of “The Passion of the Christ,” said that “One Night” “is not the gospel and it’s not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling.”

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism, gave the film a mixed review.
 
On the plus side, he liked the “compelling and wholesome beauty” of Esther, portrayed by newcomer Tiffany Dupont, and the movie’s emphasis that Jew-hatred is often motivated by a demagogue’s financial and political interests.
 
But Berenbaum, a scholar and author on the Holocaust, questioned whether “we need a movie on an incomplete genocide at this time,” or a film which “transformed a biblical story into a not terribly exalted love story.”
 
Most critical was Rabbi Levy of HUC-JIR, who described “One Night” as “a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther.”

He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to the preview DVDs, which described Esther as “an orphan minority,” but never mentioned her Jewishness.
 
“I find that offensive,” Levy said.
 
The American Bible Society, a Christian group that encourages biblical literacy and which rarely endorses a movie, has put its weight behind “One Night.”
 
“The film is consistent with the Bible and an inspirational story with a relevant message that will appeal to Christian and Jewish viewers alike,” said Robert Hodgson, dean of American Bible Society’s Nida Institute for Biblical Studies. “Films like this, with meaningful biblical messages, will soon become more mainstream as Hollywood recognizes their values.”
 
The 44-year old Crouch, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but is not without a sense of humor.
 
At one point in a lengthy interview, he pithily summarized his movie as “Cinderella Meets the Lord of the Rings.” Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting “family values.”

Wanted: someone to help suffering Jews


One day, Rabbi Barbara Speyer went to a Los Angeles-area nursing home to provide emergency chaplaincy services — spiritual comfort and care — to a dying patient. When she arrived, the administrator said to her, “Why do you guys charge for this? This should be voluntary!”
 
Speyer was not on staff with the facility, and her schedule is more than full. She works full time as a chaplain at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and serves on the Red Cross Disaster Team. She is also a community chaplain with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which is the hat she was wearing when she went that day to the nursing home.
 
“When your dishwasher breaks, don’t you call a plumber?” Speyer responded to the administrator. She had driven out to the Valley in Friday morning traffic for a fee that would barely cover the cost of her mileage, and she couldn’t believe the administrator’s attitude, although it was one she had encountered many, many times before.
 
“Why is spiritual counseling something you should give for free?” she said recently. “People feel as Jews, we’re supposed to care for one another. But we have multiple needs in the community, and people do not understand what is involved in maintaining and sustaining a Jewish community.”
 
Indeed, the Jewish community has many needs that require funding, manpower and programming, and they are often called “crises”: There is the Israel crisis, the intermarriage crisis and the disengaged youth crisis.
 

But the one crisis hardly spoken of is the aging crisis: Some 23 percent of the Jewish population nationally is older than 60, compared to 16 percent in the general population, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. In Los Angeles, between 1979 and 1997, (the last survey of Los Angeles’ Jewish population), for example, the number of Jews older than 65 grew from 11.1 percent to 20.4 percent. Put simply, the Jewish community is aging rapidly — and not necessarily healthfully, as medical advances in areas such as chemotherapy and kidney dialysis prolong life spans, while also sometimes adding extra years spent in hospitals, nursing homes, under medical treatment.
 
Who will provide spiritual care for the needy?
 
The crisis, for those involved, like Speyer, who is past president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, is not merely physical care — Medicare is a benefit afforded these people — her concern is the huge gap in provisions for another very important kind of sustenance.
 
“There is very little spiritual care being ministered to those who are in need,” she said. “I mean, we all need spiritual care. We have a large society of the elderly who spend their time alone,” either at home or in nursing homes and often not affiliated with any synagogues or religious organizations. “No one is attending to the needs of these people.”
 
“People are becoming more aware that there is more than just the curing process. There’s also the healing process that must go on with a patient and his or her family,” said Cecile Asikoff, national coordinator of the association, the umbrella organization for national and international professional Jewish chaplains, totaling some 300 members. A chaplain is a spiritual counselor who provides guidance, comfort and care to people in institutions — hospitals, nursing homes, prison and the military, and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains sets standards and can qualify Jewish chaplains.

“An important element in the healing process is the spiritual process. The healing process can be helped by confronting the spiritual issues of, ‘Why me, why now?'” Asikoff said.
Which is where the chaplain comes in — or should come in — to offer spiritual guidance and counseling, to sit with the patient and his or her family.
 
“A person is not just his or her disease any more than he or her eye color. The disease is part of who the person is. Part of the pastoral piece is helping people come to terms with very difficult, life-threatening or life-ending conditions, the piece of transitioning from one place in life to another place in life, the elderly, the transitioning piece of hospice, those are all pastoral pieces that are not outside his or her illness or medical condition,” Asikoff said.
 
In 2002, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles published a study, “Services to Jews in Institutions,” originally sparked by the United Way’s elimination of a prison chaplaincy program. The 42-page study was divided into two parts: “Jews in Prisons,” and “Jews in Hospitals and Nursing Homes.” Although the first part sparked the study, the second half was what attracted people’s attention.
 
“There is a significant shortage of trained volunteers, chaplains and others to meet the needs of those in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice. Not enough professionals are entering and remaining in these fields,” the study reported.
 
This is something that people like Asikoff and Speyer know very well: Many elderly and sick Jews need spiritual care and are not receiving it. And there are not enough people who can provide it.
 
The concept of chaplaincy originated among the Christians, though, bikur cholim (visiting the sick) is considered one of the most important mitzvahs in the Torah.
 
Historically, members of a Jewish community and rabbis have attended to sick people. But these days, for many of the unaffiliated sick — and even those who are affiliated — a rabbi’s time is often not sufficient to provide real care.
 
Rabbis often serve vast communities and with those communities come myriad other obligations, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, speeches, functions, counseling and fundraising. Often rabbis have time only to visit the terminally ill and even then not on a regular basis.
 
Still, with equal rights for all religions, the demand has been increasing. Many institutions have begun to seek out Jewish, as well as Christian ones, and, of late, Muslim, Buddhists and many other religions. And the requirements are stringent: A professional chaplain today must be board certified, having completed 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education working at a hospital or institution.

Violinist Joshua Bell walks in the footsteps of masters




Although he doesn’t exactly think of it this way, Joshua Bell is the latest in a long line of Jewish violin-playing aristocracy.

His teacher was Joseph Gingold, and as Bell fondly recalled him, “He was a Russian Jewish violinist. He had an incredible joy for the violin that rubbed off. He introduced me to the older generation — Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman — and they became my idols.”

Those giants had been contemporaries of Gingold and, like him, were all Jews, too. Now Bell, who is generally acclaimed as America’s greatest living violinist, is the latest to be passed the scepter, even though he is only 38.

He may seem young, but he has been playing professionally since he was 14, so, as he admitted with a certain amusement, “I’ve been playing violin professionally longer than I was not playing before. And when you consider that I had my first public performance when I was 7…..”

But he is always aware of those Jewish ghosts at his back.
“A lot of the things that I do when I play are not things I picked up from them consciously, but by growing up with their language, through their music, I internalized it,” he said. “For example, the way they use rubato, something that’s very hard to teach. Kreisler would play incredibly rhythmically but around the beat. He did it very tastefully, it was never overdone.”

Bell is, by his own admission, more of a cultural Jew than a religious one.
“My mother is Jewish, a very typical Jewish mother,” he said. “She was very involved in my practicing. Both my parents were behind me and loved music. But for me, Jewishness was very much a cultural tie. I feel very close to the Jewish side of the family. I grew up with my Jewish cousins, going to all the bar mitzvahs, so I feel very close to that side, and I identify myself as being Jewish.”

He feels that identification with particular acuteness when he performs in Israel.

“My mother lived there; my grandfather was a Sabra,” he explained. “I have family there, and last year, I saw some of them for the first time since I was 4. Even my violin [a famous 1713 Stradivarius] has a connection to Israel. It was owned by Bronislaw Hubermann, who founded the Israel Phil, and when Israelis hear that it’s ‘the Hubermann,’ they get very excited.”

What is it about Jews and classical music? If you ask Bell he is, understandably, a bit guarded
“That’s something you’d have to ask a Jewish sociologist, which my uncle happens to be,” he said, laughing. “I guess it’s a cultural thing. To be successful in music, you need to grow up with cultural influences; in the Jewish households, culture and music are valued. It’s also about role models. Fifty years ago, a Jewish child would be told, ‘You’re going to be the next Heifetz.’ You have to be careful when you say things like this not to be misunderstood.”

Certainly Bell grew up with music all around him.

“Music was very important in my family,” he said. “All the cousins would come over for family musicales, and everybody would play. Nobody was a professional, so there wasn’t a family member to get me started. For me it was Joseph Gingold.”

Bell enjoys one of the busiest schedules a musician could dream of. The three weeks he will spend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October represent the longest stretch that he will be in one place all fall and winter. But someday, when his schedule slows down, he would like to do for some young would-be Joshua Bell what Gingold did for him.

 
“I had such a great relationship with my teacher,” he said. “Gingold told me stories about Ysaye, who was one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century and his teacher, and I’d like to pass these things on at some point in my life. I can’t imagine not doing that.”

 
Joshua Bell will perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Oct. 19-22 and in an open rehearsal and question-and-answer session with the Colburn Conservatory Orchestra on Oct. 27, followed the next night by a concert with the Colburn. He will appear in a chamber music recital Nov. 1 and again with the Philharmonic Nov. 3-5. All these events will take place at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, except for the concert on Nov. 4, which will be in Santa Barbara.

 
Bell’s newest CD, “Voice of the Violin,” is available on the Sony label.


 
For more information, call (323) 850-2000 or go to wdch.laphil.com.

Rabbi Carron brightens prisoners’ darkest days


Daniel, a blue-eyed 24-year-old who was a few credits shy of finishing his undergraduate degree at UCLA last spring, is now an inmate in unit 131 at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

When Rabbi Yossi Carron arrives for his meeting with Daniel — not his real name — an unseen guard in a concrete and black glass bunker releases the latch on the sliding steel door that connects the youth’s dorm pod to the unit’s deserted common area.

On the far side of a thick glass wall, other inmates sleep in their bunks or drift aimlessly beneath the harsh white lights overhead.

Daniel looks awkward in his pale green prison outfit. He has gained 20 pounds since he was convicted three months ago on a charge of dealing methamphetamine, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in his skin.

Carron wraps Daniel in a quick but firm embrace.

“How’s it going?” Carron asks with one hand on Daniel’s slumped shoulder and another on his cheek.

The pair settle into plastic chairs at the corner of a table decorated with a stenciled checker board. From his pants pocket Daniel pulls a small ziplock bag that holds a pencil stub and two sheets of paper covered front and back with Daniel’s dense, neat handwriting. With guidance from Carron, Daniel is working through the recovery movement’s Fourth Step: making a “fearless and searching” inventory of his life.

As Carron scans the sheets of paper, Daniel hunches forward, his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve really had to look at my relationships — friendships and sexual relationships — in this step,” Daniel says. “It’s kind of shocking to see how much I’ve needed other people to feel complete.”

Carron lays the sheets of paper on the table and gives Daniel his full attention.

“It’s still hard, though,” Daniel says, turning his gaze up to meet Carron’s. “I mean, none of my friends have come to see me.”

Carron leans toward Daniel.

“You’re an extraordinary guy, all by yourself,” he says. “I don’t show up for any other reason than I want to.”

Daniel blushes but doesn’t look away.

“Chances are a lot of these people are connected to the parts of your life you want to change,” Carron says. “Am I right?”

Daniel looks down at his hands and nods slowly.

Sitting up, Carron drums a finger on the pages to draw Daniel’s attention to his inventory.

“This is going to be the greatest Rosh Hashanah of your life,” Carron says, “because you’re sober and you’re not lying to yourself or anyone else.”
Daniel sits up and looks squarely at Carron. He takes a deep breath and says, “You make me feel very special.”

With any luck, Daniel will be spending Rosh Hashanah on the outside. It’s likely he’ll soon be making the transition from jail to the recovery program at Beit T’Shuva, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For the members of Carron’s patchwork prison shul who are still behind bars come next week, however, there will be a holiday Shabbat at Men’s Central Jail, across the street from Twin Towers. Most of the Jewish inmates who participate will be bussed in from one of the five additional jails Carron serves in Los Angeles County. Some of the 70-odd men in Carron’s shul will have to stay away, however, in lock-down or solitary. Others are considered too high-risk to move.
“We’ll have between 20 and 40, including volunteers,” Carron says. “All things considered, that’s a pretty good turnout.”

Carron, a former bandleader at the Beverly Hilton, might seem an unlikely host for such a party.

A decade ago, Yossi Carron was called Jeff. He was a successful 40-something musician with a daughter in grade school, plenty of money in the bank and a nagging sense that something was missing in his life.

“It was all good, but I just wasn’t having fun anymore,” Carron says over braised tofu at a Chinatown restaurant the day before his meeting with Daniel.

The lightbulb over Carron’s head began to flicker when he was asked to serve as the first cantor at the then newly formed Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. The job was a good fit for Carron, who has an impressive voice to match his musicianship. Still, he’d never paid much attention to the flow of services before. But as he threw himself into his new role he began to realize he was feeling deeply fulfilled by the experience.

“I was sticking Post-Its in my siddur,” he says. “Pretty soon I needed to know more, so I started taking classes at Hebrew Union [College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)].”

As he continued to follow the thread of his curiosity, Carron’s enthusiasm began to blossom into a calling.

One day Rabbi Denise Egger at Kol Ami told Carron, “You should be on the bimah.”
In May 2003, Yossi received his ordination from HUC-JIR.

“I thought I’d have a normal shul,” Carron says. “You know — with ladies organizing bake sales and that sort of thing.”

But not long after his ordination, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California offered Carron a part-time job as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County prison system. The task seemed thankless — the job’s responsibility covered three jails and two hospitals, but there was only enough money to pay for a chaplain’s services one day a week.

“It was frustrating for the person who had the job before me, and I could tell it was going to frustrate me,” Carron says. “But for some reason I wanted it, and I’m the kind of person who pushes to get what he wants. So finally the board came up with the funding for a second day, and then the job seemed do-able to me.”

Carron’s daughter was in high school by that time, and he didn’t want to have to uproot her to take a job somewhere else. So Carron said yes.

Russian Singer Goes From Defector to Cantor


“I was born in the 1960s into a typical Soviet Jewish family,” says Svetlana Portnyansky. “We never went to synagogue, never were religious. At family events at home, we sang Jewish songs sometimes, but we’d close all the doors to make sure no one heard us.”

Given Portnyansky’s non-Jewish upbringing, it’s odd that this interview is taking place at Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, where she’s the cantor. How did she go from being a popular singer in the Soviet Union to a defector who had to leave her family behind, to a cantor at a shul in Orange County?

Like just about everything else in Portnyansky’s life, the answer has to do with music. Her father was “a musician at heart” who made a living as an industrial engineer in Moscow. “He taught me piano,” she says. “I grew up with music and absorbed it in my soul. I knew that I was born to be a professional singer. So I went to the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduated with honors and became a singer who specializes in Jewish songs.”

After graduating, she was invited to sing at the Moscow Jewish Theater. This was in the late 1980s, during Perestroika, and it was the theater’s grand reopening after having been closed for 40 years.

“I sang a solo concert,” Portnyansky says, “and my musical career took off. I became a public figure, sang on nationwide radio and television. It was wonderful to be popular, but it was also dangerous: I received threatening letters saying things like, ‘Jews are supposed to be in Israel. Go home! This is our country!'”

Portnyansky felt it was time to leave. “I didn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. I couldn’t see how I was going to live that way, being threatened. Besides, I’d always wanted to go to America.”

Ever since she was a little girl, she says, she dreamed of coming to the United States. “My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade.”
The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.

“My musicians and I got theatrical exchange visas. I knew I was going to defect. I talked it over with my family. I said to them, ‘It’s our only chance. I have to take it now.’ They understood. They blessed me.” Portnyansky was in her mid-20s then, with a 4-year-old son who stayed in Moscow with her husband and her parents.

“In the U.S. we had some very successful concerts, East Coast to West Coast. The tour lasted two months. When it was over, I told my musicians I would go back [to the Soviet Union], but not just yet. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going back.”

She defected, and during those first few months in New York it was very difficult not being with her family. But she had some money, and she had friends who let her stay in their place. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she says. “I called my family very often. It was also a period of concern, whether I would make the right choices. I was determined not to do certain things, like wash dishes or sing at a restaurant.”

After much thought, she decided to pursue a second Jewish musical track, one that paralleled her pop singing career: She would study to become a cantor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In order to become a legal resident of the United States, she contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and told them that she could not go back to the Soviet Union. She showed them the threatening letters she’d received. HIAS took up her case.

During the months she was in New York without her family, Portnyansky got word that her father had died in Moscow. She couldn’t risk going to the funeral. “I didn’t have the green card,” she says. “I was afraid I might not be permitted to come back to the United States.”

But in early 1992, Portnyansky’s family found a way to join her: Her husband, son and mother came to the United States on tourist visas. They moved to Southern California, where Portnyansky gave birth to a second son and continued her cantorial studies.

During the early 1990s, though she was not yet a legal resident, HIAS’s advocacy bore results: She was permitted to work in the U.S. She gave “jazzy, cabaret-style” concerts; and, after completing her liturgical training, she started to work as a cantor. “I was busy at that time,” she says. “My only problem was that I couldn’t leave the United States.”

Getting her green card took more than five years. She later found out that the process had been delayed because her file had been lost. After Portnyansky became a legal resident in 1996, her first trip was to Israel. Since then she’s continued her dual career: cantor in Newport Beach … and

Happy Birthday from Berlin


At precisely 8 a.m. one day last year, I was awakened by a phone call. When I picked up the receiver, I heard a man’s voice say “Happy Birthday from Berlin.”

Since I
knew no one there who could possibly know my birthday, I took it to be a practical joke. But it wasn’t. The caller was Ruediger Nemitz, an official of the Senate of the Federal State of Berlin calling to invite me to come “home” as a guest of my native city.

Along with some other German cities, Berlin, since 1969, has had a program to invite “former Berlin citizens who were persecuted or forced to emigrate during the National Socialist period.” By the time I received my call, more than 33,000 former Berliners had been invited, and now, finally, it was my turn. I left Berlin in 1933, when I was just 3 years old, and I have visited the city a number of times as an adult on business, but I had no memories of my life there. I accepted the invitation and considered it a wonderful birthday present.

When my wife and I reached the London airport en route to our Berlin flight last spring, we noticed a small cluster of people with luggage tags similar to ours.

“Those must be our people,” I said to my wife, and went over to introduce myself. They were, indeed, part of our group, and we quickly played “Jewish geography.” As it happened, one of the couples lived within a block of my first London home after leaving Germany, and another, now thoroughly British, knew Los Angeles well, having worked there on several movies, most notably the James Bond series.

We were all roughly the same age, and at least one member of each couple was a Berlin native. Our group of 84 came from nine countries, with the “U.S. delegation” numbering just eight. The largest group came from Israel, followed by Chile, Argentina, England, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Belgium.

Our common origin notwithstanding, we all had become totally assimilated into the countries in which we live, and we stuck together with those who spoke our language. Moreover, I found it remarkable that we all got along well, and that there was not a single “kvetch” among us.

Yet we all came to Germany with our own “baggage.” Some knew the country from previous visits or military duty and felt no animosity toward the present generation of Germans. Others, a number of whom had lost family members or experienced Nazi atrocities themselves, were still bitter and unforgiving. Still others had lived a life of denial in their new homelands and didn’t want to admit their origins, even to themselves.

Our program included several receptions with speeches by senior government officials — all women. They expressed their gratitude that we returned to a city from which, as Mayor Karin Schubert put it, “you were driven away … exposed to profound hostility … humiliated, excluded and persecuted.”

One speaker characterized the Berlin Jewish community as “a piece of the mosaic that makes up our history” and emphasized the importance to the city of today’s Jewish community, which numbers approximately 30,000. Schubert also said that the city goes to great lengths to promote integration among various groups, including the Muslim community.

“We made mistakes in the past,” she said, “believing that different cultures can live peacefully in parallel. We have learned that integration is essential!”

Nevertheless, I found it quite remarkable that today’s Berlin contains so many reminders of the Nazi regime. Among them a billboard in front of a railway station listing the names of concentration camps to which Berlin’s Jews were deported, and so-called “Stolpersteine” (copper memorials in the shape of cobblestones) embedded in the sidewalk in front of the former homes of many Nazi victims. Our tours included these and many other important landmarks of “Jewish Berlin.”

My most indelible memories, however, are focused on three extraordinary experiences.

Visit With a German Family

We spent one afternoon with a German family, Cato and Annette Dill, two young lawyers who live in a delightful home in a Berlin suburb with their two children — their daughter, Benita, 18, and son, Dario, 14. All speak English well and have traveled widely.

Cato, 49, is treasurer of the Liebermann Society, which operates the country mansion of the German Jewish expressionist painter, Max Liebermann. Together we visited this spectacular home, filled with the artist’s paintings and located on the shores of Lake Wannsee — not far from where the site of the infamous conference where the “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem” was planned.

The mansion and its gardens have been beautifully restored and only recently opened to the public. Our time together ended at the Dill home, where we got an insight, if ever so brief, into a sophisticated young German family whose interests and values were similar to ours and far removed from the Germany of the Third Reich.

Shabbat Dinner

By sheer coincidence, the daughter-in-law of my oldest friend was in Berlin on business during our stay. Leah Salter is an observant woman who lives with her family in Alon Shvut, an Orthodox community in Israel. We arranged to meet her for Shabbat dinner at the glatt kosher restaurant Gabriel, located in the Jewish Community Center on Fasanenstrasse. The center occupies the lot on which Berlin’s largest synagogue stood prior to its destruction on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Of that synagogue only a portion of the entrance arch remains and now frames the entrance to the center.

Leah and my wife, Barbara, began the evening by lighting and blessing the Sabbath candles, and we continued with my celebrating Kiddush. The restaurant has only about a dozen tables, and each was set in Sabbath finery, with starched white table linen. As the evening progressed, other family groups arrived, and the head of each household celebrated Kiddush at his table. Judging by the melodies they chanted, they were most likely from Eastern Europe.

The menu was traditional Eastern European: chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and so on. But that was the least important element of the evening. I was deeply touched by the spirit of Shabbat, which was palpable, and the realization that here we were, all survivors, celebrating “Shabbos” on the very spot the Nazis had chosen to eliminate us. What a demonstration of “Am Yisrael Chai!” (the people of Israel live.)

Jewish Resistance Fighters

The final day of our tour began with a visit to Weissensee Cemetery. Since I believed I had no family members buried there, I remained near the entrance and admired some of the monuments to holocaust victims and Berlin’s Jewish aristocracy.

My lonesome vigil was soon interrupted by one of our guides, Caroline Naumann, a young woman active in Berlin’s nascent Jewish community, who approached me saying “Come, I want to show you something.” She led me a short distance to a memorial honoring about two-dozen young German Jewish men and women in their 20s who rose up against the Nazis during the war. They were members of a movement similar to the “White Rose” student uprising and, tragically, all were shot.

Among this small group, were three who bore my family name of Rothholz. Although I have no idea whether they were relatives or not, they made me feel very proud.

Some Final Thoughts

At our farewell reception in the ballroom of the Jewish Community Center, Dr. Otto Lampe, director of the “homecoming” program, promised to do everything in his power “to keep alive the memory of the Nazi terror and to pass it on to future generations.”

Dr. Gideon Jaffe, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany suggested that “we Jews are a warning system, because we are often the first victims of crimes, but usually not the only ones.” He concluded by saying “I hope you have convinced yourselves that Germany has changed a lot, and changed for the better.”

I, for one, left Berlin convinced.

Peter Rothholz, who headed his own Manhattan-based public relations agency, now lives in Santa Monica and East Hampton, NY and is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications.

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