Chasing parental boredom while catching some foreign films


I was in seventh grade when my dad took me to see a Turkish movie exploring the lives of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of a coup d’etat.

Why did he take a kid to see the movie “Yol”? To teach me a valuable lesson about suffering? To expand my world-view beyond Brandeis Hillel Day School and ballet class and working weekends at my mom’s coffee shop? No. My dad wanted to see the movie.

And if I wanted to hang out with my dad, that was the deal. Yol.

Not only did I see that movie — which consisted mainly of tight shots of tortured souls walking up hills into wind — but also a multitude of other age-inappropriate films, thanks to my Pops and his bi-weekly Sunday visits during which he dragged me to everything from documentaries about coal mining and obscure folk singers to lengthy Swedish films. At the time, I really cared more about Swedish fish.

Now that I am a parent, I realize that my dad was onto something, and I’m looking for ways to emulate him.

My dad’s concept was to choose an activity that he loved and bring me along, thus he would never be bored or resentful that he was doing something lame like hanging out watching me try on clothes at Wet Seal. If he could convince me to share his love of art house films, he could kill two birds with one long, boring cinematic achievement: He could spend time with his kid while enjoying a favorite pastime.

You might think, wow, what a selfish dude.

Maybe his daughter was exposed to things that were adult and therefore disturbing. Or maybe his daughter was bored. Or maybe he should have sucked it up and gone to the mall, or perhaps to see “Footloose,” which involves teens in perhaps emotional prisons, but not actual prisoners.

To that I say, yes, it was uncomfortable watching some of the films, and confounding at times. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my dad on Sundays, and I didn’t really care what movie we saw. Maybe, to his credit, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, he exuded a certain happiness and calm. And kids read that kind of vibe. So, I never got the feeling my dad didn’t want to hang out with me.

There should be a word for that in Turkish.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I thought it was a stroke of genius when I saw a father at a skateboard park with his toddler. This little girl was an incredible skateboarder, shredding, as one might say, on a giant half-pipe. When I spoke to the dad while marveling at his girl, he told me they go there four afternoons a week. This guy, I realized, had found his Yol, an activity that wouldn’t suck the life out of him, something that might somehow enrich his daughter’s life (while maybe jacking up her shins or teeth) and one that he could do without too much personal sacrifice. Sure, this guy could have sat through an endless series of tea parties, but he would have hated that, so he taught his daughter to skate and now he has a skate partner for life. Or at least until she is old enough to decide whether to resent him.

So I continue searching for my Yol.

Loving my child is no problem. However, filling toy dumpsters with torn-up bits of paper towel before dumping them over into a plastic garbage truck is more depressing than an Ingmar Bergman film festival (yes, my dad took me to one, so I know). At this point, the things my boy likes to do — play with trucks, fill pails with sand and water to make sand castles, your basic hide-and-seek — well, those are wrenchingly, painfully dull.

Turns out, the word Yol is actually Turkish for “the way,” and I need to find mine. Hopefully, it won’t be headed uphill into the wind.

Brotherly Advice


In the last year, my younger brother has been asking for and taking my dating advice on an almost daily basis. It’s a fact that continues to astound me. This isn’t to say I don’t have anything worthwhile to say on the topic, despite the fact that I’m married now and raising two kids. It’s more that I’ve simply never had this kind of relationship with him before.

My brother and I were born two years apart. We shared a room growing up, played with “Star Wars” action figures together and coordinated plans to torture our younger sister, but around high school our paths split. He was into extreme sports and living life on a razor’s edge, whereas I was content lounging around the house reading and going with friends to places like Gorky’s to get into philosophical conversations.

The one thing we still had in common was our appreciation for women, but even there we differed. He liked the adventurous party girl, while I was drawn to the moody intellectual type. He ended up converting at age 16 to Catholicism after dating a Catholic girl, while one of my love interests led me to get serious about my Judaism and attend Shabbat services at CSUN Hillel.

My brother and I eventually found ourselves in completely different cities, and our phone calls went from weekly to monthly. As time went on, I was surprised if I heard from him more than a few times a year. We saw each other for the first time in eight years when I flew out to the Midwest to be a groomsman at his wedding in 1999. And I realized how far our paths had diverged when he proudly showed off the printed wedding blessing his in-laws secured from Pope John Paul II.

Like many men, my brother and I relied too much on our spouses, and we willingly sacrificed our male friendships on the pyre of our turbulent marriages. I was left with one close friend when my first marriage crumbled three years later. In 2004, when my brother’s marriage and business were falling apart, he couldn’t name any guy whom he could count as a reliable friend.

Throughout his contentious divorce, we still barely talked. I wasn’t sure what help I could offer him or whether he’d want it. But when he finally opened up to me a few months later about how he wanted to find love again, I couldn’t hold my tongue.

I told him to focus his time and energy on rebuilding his life and his self-esteem. He couldn’t offer stability to anyone, and he needed time to find himself outside of the context of a relationship.

“Date,” I said, “there’s no reason to get serious about anyone.”

Naturally, he didn’t listen. He moved in with a new girlfriend who had a tattoo emblazoned provocatively across her chest and observed a three-drink minimum when she visited with our family.

It wasn’t long before my brother started calling me with his doubts and anxieties. She was still chummy with her ex, he said. After he found multiple calls on her cell phone to her former beau, he wasn’t convinced everything was kosher, especially because their love life had hit a rough patch.

“She must have girlfriends to run to for advice,” I said. “Assume she isn’t just ‘talking,’ and tell her to drop him as a friend or you’re moving out.”

And to my surprise he did it. He moved out.

When he got his own place, I told him not to invite women over. He didn’t believe me at first. When he found two women he’d dated staking out his home at different times to see if he was bringing anyone else over, it dawned on him the advice might exist to protect him.

When he blew some first dates by talking too much, my advice was to keep his mouth shut, start listening and asking questions, but without turning it into an interview.

“Women want men to be enigmatic,” I said. “They’ll project what they want onto you. Don’t let your reality interfere with their fantasy.”

The guy who almost always wanted to talk about himself suddenly started taking the back seat in our conversations and shocked me by asking about my life.

After months of living on his own, my brother eventually reached a point where he told me he didn’t want or need a relationship. It amused him to no end that even though he was forward with women about not wanting a commitment, they still pursued him with a dream of getting to see his home — and with the hope of eventually moving in.

My brother has since been called a player — as well as many other names that can’t be printed in a family newspaper — but he learned quickly that many women will keep calling even after they’ve sworn off of him for good. It was a liberating revelation for him, because he saw that he didn’t have to become someone he wasn’t in order to attract a woman.

He’s even started to explore his Jewish heritage. He calls me frequently from the road as he’s on his way to use the gym at his local JCC, asking my advice about how he should handle his evening. And after joining a Jewish dating site, he asked me to recommend a synagogue for him to try on for size. Needless to say, Mom is kvelling.

I’m just excited that he’s also sought out his old friends, reserving a few days each month to play poker or get together for dinner. He tells me that they trade dating advice as they sit around the table, sharing what works and what doesn’t.

Although I’m about 1,600 miles away from him, I’m always by the phone, ready with some advice when my brother needs me. And I’m glad to know that even if I can’t join him at the table with his buddies, at least he’s regularly offering me a seat as one of the important men in his life.

I’ll love him like a brother … in-law


When I was growing up with two older sisters, the only thing I ever truly wanted was a brother — someone who could torment my sisters when I was tired. After realizing that I was the only reason my parents wouldn’t have another child, I was tempted to pray for an “accident,” but I quickly aborted that mission because the possibility of a younger brother wasn’t worth the agony of another sister.

It seemed as though my childhood quest to find a brother was hopeless until nine months ago. My wildest dreams came true when I received a call from my oldest sister saying she was engaged. Somebody up there must like me.

It also seemed that my years of being the butt of my sisters’ jokes were about to end as this man brought a much-needed gender balance to my family. But getting to know my sister’s fiancé was a very delicate procedure. I wasn’t just testing a potential suitor. I was also testing a potential brother.

During their year-and-a-half courtship, I examined our every encounter carefully, from how many ice cubes he used to the point spread after he beat me in basketball.

I knew what I wanted in a brother. He had to have three things to make it as a male in my book: intelligence, class and courage. Intelligence to appreciate a man like me. Class to train me how to be a player in the George Clooney mold.

And courage to protect me when the super villains discover my weakness.

Before he even proposed to my sister, he had already passed one of the tests.

The first time we met I wasn’t sure what to think of him. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you, Jay,” he said. The man was a Mensa-level genius.

When he proposed to my sister, I waited for the perfect time to test his class: the Las Vegas bachelor party.

This information-technology professional, whom we were expected to wine and dine, ended up beating the pants off me in poker at the Mirage Hotel and Casino.

I had lost to him in b-ball and cards — not necessarily my strongest games — but I’d test him in an area where I excel.

As the seven of us entered a gentleman’s club off the Strip, I was thinking payback. I wanted to see how easy it would be to embarrass my future kin. This surplus of sin would truly prove to be an adequate environment to test his limits. Now he was playing in my court.

Compared to the rest of us, he was as reserved as a handicapped parking space. My sister would have been proud of his all-smiles-but-no-touch policy. The brotherhood we shared was apparently more important to him than the bountiful A-list “dancers” who surrounded us. Class? And then some.

I was shocked at how well he handled the situation. At that moment he truly deserved a hearty “yasher koach.”

As impressed as I was with him following the bachelor party, I still wasn’t totally convinced he would measure up to my expectations of what a big brother should be.

As the wedding approached during Memorial Day weekend, I knowingly put myself in harm’s way to see if he’d swoop in to rescue me. Would he exhibit the courage to square off against his own fiancée?

My sister and my future bro were fighting in the living room of our parents’ Pittsburgh home. As they were debating a minor sticking point about the placement of the kids’ table, I suggested they move it close to the bar.

My sister glared at me, the lasers in her eyes charged and ready to burn a hole right through me. He smirked at me, and then turned to face her down in the ultimate one-on-one battle.

“Baby, it’ll all work out,” he said, adding that he’d be there for her.

I realized then how much courage it must take to marry a woman in my family.
I still felt a little uneasy about accepting a new member into the family, even though he passed my three-pronged test. But when I saw my sister walk down the aisle with him during the ceremony, it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if I accepted him.

When I saw how happy my sister was, I realized that this wedding experience wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about creating a gender balance in my family. It wasn’t about gaining a big brother.

Instead, it should have been about my being a good brother.

As I stood by the chuppah, holding back tears that would have surely embarrassed me as well as the other men in my family, I thought about how much this man and I have in common. He is also the youngest child. He also has an older sister, but no brother. And he’s also a nice Jewish boy, like yours truly.

But more importantly, I knew he’d make a great husband for my sister.

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.

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

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.

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights


I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

From Agony to Acceptance — Documentary Delves Into Intermarriage


When Holocaust survivor Leah Welbel learns that her American granddaughter is about to marry a Christian, she cries out, “When this happened in my old hometown, my family used to sit shiva. Here they expect me to open my arms. I can’t do it.”

Leah’s agony in the documentary, “Out of Faith,” is deeply rooted in the memory of her 33 months at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the same dilemma of rejection or acceptance is faced by other American Jewish families, half of whose children and grandchildren opt for interfaith marriages.

The film, which will have a special screening on Sept. 12 at the Laemmle Sunset, is rich in the human drama of family relationships and sharpened by the Holocaust experience, while tracing the trajectory of the American arc from immigration to assimilation.

Leah, deported from her Slovakian hometown at age 16 and in her mid-70s when the film was made, is the classic indomitable Jewish matriarch. Voluble, feisty, humorous, a born survivor, she ably made her way, first in Israel and then in Skokie, Ill.

She taught herself the intricacies of the stock market and prospered, even as she continued to labor over her gastronomic specialty, potato sandwiches. And she hasn’t spoken to her grandson, Danny, in six years, since he married a non-Jew.

Now her granddaughter, Cheryl, has announced that she will marry Matt, a Christian, and Leah tries a different tack. If she pushes Cheryl hard enough, Leah figures, maybe the new bride can persuade Matt to convert to Judaism.

Though raised in an Orthodox home, Leah is not particularly observant, not even lighting candles on Friday evenings. But by allowing her grandchildren to marry non-Jews, she insists, “I feel like a traitor … we’re finishing the job Hitler started. We’ll become extinct like the Mayas.”

Always in the background hovers her older husband, his eyes alternately dead or haunted, who worked in a Sonderkommando shoveling Jewish corpses into the crematorium. He says little but wonders, “Where was God in Auschwitz?”

Leah’s son, Michael, also married a Christian, but his wife, Betty, converted to Judaism. Not an unmixed blessing, Michael observes, since “she became more Jewish than we are. We had to reel her back in.”

A friend has a different attitude.

“If I didn’t let my son marry a Catholic, I would have lost a son,” she says.The different viewpoints toward intermarriage are reflected by the film’s producer, L. Mark DeAngelis, and director Lisa Leeman.

DeAngelis, a 36-year-old Chicago lawyer, businessman and now founder of Eliezer Films, grew up in a secular home. When Leah, a family friend, invited him to accompany her on a trip to Auschwitz some five years ago, he accepted and found both a subject for his film and a new attachment to Judaism.

“I started wondering why, when I dated a non-Jewish girl, it bothered me, which seemed almost like a racist thought at the time,” he said in a phone interview.DeAngelis has no doubt about his viewpoint now. “If our community is to have a future in this country, Jews must marry Jews. Only that way will their kids have a shot at staying Jewish,” he said.

He is now launching an outreach campaign, “Keep the Faith.”

Leeman, a veteran Los Angeles filmmaker and editor, represents, in her words, “the classic American story of assimilation.”

Her father, she said, was “a New York Jew,” her mother, a Protestant of Scandinavian descent from Idaho. Neither parent was religious and Leeman thought little about her identity until she attended a meeting of the Conference of Christians and Jews.

“At some point, participants were asked to divide into Jewish and Christian groups, and instinctively I chose the Jewish one,” Leeman said.

As the product of an interfaith marriage, Leeman has a tolerant — or ambivalent — attitude on the topic.

“I can understand that any ethnic group, Jewish, Chinese or Mexican, wants to pass on its culture and heritage to future generations,” she said. “But are they willing to do it at the price of family strife and estrangement?”

The web magazine, InterfaithFamily.com, interacts with about 20,000 Jewish visitors a month, says managing editor Micah Sachs. The webzine is not a professional counseling service, and most questions are referred to a hometown list of rabbis and social workers.

Yet, over time, Sachs and his colleagues have accumulated some pragmatic suggestions, particularly for parents struggling with a child’s interfaith relationship or marriage.

  • Your child is not rejecting you but making a personal choice.
  • Opposing or condemning your child’s love for a non-Jew is almost always counter-productive. While parents should not hesitate to stress their own attachment to Judaism, understanding and welcoming a non-Jewish partner works out better in the long run.
  • Do not insist that the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism, unless it’s his or her own decision.
  • Your situation is not unique. Depending on the definition of who is a Jew, slightly more or slightly less than 50 percent of Jewish newlyweds between 1995-2000 married non-Jewish partners. Some 33 percent of these mixed households raised their children as Jewish. However, in families with two Jewish spouses, 96 percent raised Jewish children, according to the National Jewish Populations Survey.

“Out of Faith” will screen at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 12, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theatre, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, to be followed by a discussion between the audience and the filmmakers.

Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested. For information, contact Kim Fishman at (310) 907-5852, or e-mail outreach@outoffaith.net. For background on the film, go to www.outoffaith.net.For more information on “Out of Faith,” visit, www.Jafah.org.

The Circuit


Hoop Dreams
For 16-year-old former Encino resident Marisa Gobuty it’s all about basketball.

Throughout the summer, Gobuty, a 5-foot-7 high school junior point guard, who now lives in Israel and plays for Israel’s National Basketball Team, will be playing for the Southern California-based Finest Basketball Club (FBC), and compete in tournaments across the United States.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Israel for a short two-year stint. They have lived there ever since. But like in Encino, Gobuty’s love and passion for basketball led her back on to the courts around Tel Aviv, eventually landing a spot on the Israel National team at age 15. She is now one of only 12 team members on Israel’s Segel Zahav, which means Gold Team. It is comprised of the top players in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Living in Israel has been a great learning experience culturally and emotionally,” Gobuty said. “By playing basketball there I’ve also gotten to compete against some of the best in the world playing in European FIBA Championships, as well as having the opportunity to learn about different cultures. But some of my most rewarding moments have been talking to other high school-age teenagers about what it’s like to grow up in a country that is constantly on alert in a war time like state and being able to share my experiences.”

Support Your Students
The West Coast Supporters of Yeshiva University (YU) recently held a dinner at the L.A. home of Esthi and Walter Feinblum. Forty YU supporters attended the event and raised $100,000 for the West Coast Scholarship Drive to ensure that all qualified undergraduate students who wish to attend YU can do so regardless of their financial circumstances.

Love ‘Triangle’
Take one part Jewish mother, one part Italian mama, add a dash of hot-blooded lethario and you have an evening of laughs with Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan and Joe Bologna at the Brentwood Theatre production of “The Bermuda Avenue Triangle.”

The star-studded opening night featured such icons as Carl Reiner and wife Estelle, Larry Gelbart, Dom DeLuise and Norm Crosby who showed up to support the cast. The farce, written by Taylor and Bologna, addresses the plight of two mothers in their golden years and the daughters who love and endure them.

Lucky Night for JFS
The Regent Beverly Wilshire was filled May 23 as guests mingled and munched on healthy appetizers. The occasion was the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) 13th annual gala fundraising dinner. Husband and wife Deborah Barak and her Dr. Etan Milgrom received the Spirit of Humanity Award, and Connie Mandles was honored with the Anita and Stanley Hirsh Award.

The annual gala brought in $700,000 to help JFS provide vital services to people of all ages, ethnicities and religions. JFS’ nationally recognized programs counsel troubled families and individuals, support the elderly, house the homeless and abused and feed the hungry.

Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, the stars of the hit CBS series “Numb3rs” were a standout as masters of ceremonies, bringing to the job the sharp and funny relationship they share as the Eppes brothers in their show.

Renee Olstead, 16, a star of the CBS sitcom “Still Standing,” wowed the crowd with sultry jazz standards and an original tune from her upcoming second CD, accompanied by Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster. Foster also coaxed Krumholtz into crooning a respectable version of the Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life,” to the delight of the crowd.

Founded in 1854, JFS is the oldest and largest social service agency in Los Angeles. JFS is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation and United Way.

A Call to Action
Noted author and journalist Frank Gaffney Jr. spoke to an overflowing crowd May 30 at Valley Beth Shalom when more than 500 people attended the Republican Jewish Coalition Los Angeles chapter event.

His new book “War Footing and President of the Center for Security Policy America & Israel: How We Can Prevail In The War On Terror” speaks to America’s role in supporting the war on terror. The crowd listened — and noshed — as Gaffney addressed the issue of Iran and its potential threat to Israel and the United States, urging Americans to play a more aggressive role in stopping terror.

Gaffney said threats to Israel are designed to demean the American spirit.

“We need to support our troops by doing more than putting a bumper sticker on our cars,” he said. “We need to ensure they have the resources they need to fight the war. To mobilize the resources of this country’s resources, energies and talents to prevail.”

 

Singles – Want, Not Want


Remember the guy I wanted to want me?

Guess what?

He wants me.

Sort of.

Get this: The other day I got a phone call from him. Remember him? I hardly do, understandably so, because it’s been about three months since we had a date. A good date, as far as dates go. I mean, the restaurant was nice, the food was good, the conversation flowed, and we liked each other, as people if not potential mates, but that’s saying a lot, as many of my blind dates end with the feeling that after one minute more I’d be arrested for murder.

We traded a couple of e-mails after the date and said we’d be in touch, said it that halfhearted way that meant we were never going to see each other again. End of story.

Except it wasn’t. Relationships in my life never seem to end. Guys are always calling me back, weeks, months, years later. My life is like an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: He’ll be back. After a breakup I try to remember this, that there are never any goodbyes, just au revoirs. Trickle Trickle Drip Drip.

“Hi, Amy. Sorry I’ve been out of touch,” he says in his message, as if we were ever in touch on a regular basis; as if a week had gone by, and not a season; as if I should remember who he even is; as if I’d been sitting by the phone waiting for his call.

I called him back. I probably shouldn’t have but I was curious. To what did I owe the honors? Did he want to set me up with someone? Did he have a job for me?

“Sorry I’ve been out of touch, but I was having a little existential crisis,” he said.

“Is it over yet?” asked. Guys in and out of my life are always having existential crises. I wish they would just have a real one. Actual crises are so much more finite.

“Anyway, I was thinking about calling you. I was thinking it would be nice to talk to Amy Klein,” he said. I stayed silent. It’s weird enough when people talk about themselves in the third person, but it’s even stranger when someone talks to you about yourself in the third person.

“I thought we could get to know each other,” he said. I stayed silent at first because I couldn’t believe a person was asking me out three months later, and then it quickly hit me that he must have gotten dumped or something — something — because these calls don’t come out of the blue. I had nothing to lose at this point, so I just asked him straight out.

“So what’s been going on in your dating life that precipitated this call?”

“Funny you should ask that,” he said, and went on to tell me how he’d been dating a woman and they really clicked, but she was 42 and wanted to get married and have kids, and he just wasn’t on that fast-track program — I wanted to know which program he was on, the pretend-I’m-interested-in-a-relationship-but-I-need years-of-therapy-program? The jerk-people-around-till-I’m-ready-program? In any case, they broke up and became friends.

“And so I thought of you. I thought, ‘Hey I like to get to know women slowly, I can do this with Amy Klein,'” he said, as if reminding himself of my name. “I mean, and I’m just thinking out loud here, sometimes I freak out on a blind date when there’s no instant click, and I wasn’t necessarily smitten with you, but I’d like to get to know you.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Rewind tape, counselor. Of course, in playback it’s easy to see what a complete narcissist this guy is, not asking me one question about where I was in life, if I’d gotten married, had kids, gotten divorced, etc. In the moment, though, I was half flattered. I mean, on the date I hadn’t been sure how I had felt about him, but still, I wanted him to like me. And he liked me. He did, right?

But suddenly it hit me: He doesn’t like me enough. Now, no one’s saying a person should be in love with me after one date — two, maybe — but three months, one existential crisis and another girlfriend? That’s a bit much, even with someone as flexible as me.

“Don’t you think I should be with someone who’s smitten with me?” I asked. I really had nothing to lose. “I mean, doesn’t Amy Klein deserve that?”

He paused, maybe for the first time. Maybe this phone call wasn’t such a good idea, maybe there was another person on the other end of the line, maybe that’s what he was thinking. No, he wasn’t. He was still thinking about himself.

“I’m not saying I was smitten with you. I was just saying I wasn’t necessarily smitten with you,” he said, reinforcing the insult even as he tried to mitigate it. Perhaps the fact that he wanted to share his precious time with me should be compliment enough.

There comes a point in your dating life where you have to try and stop proving to people what idiots they are. That point, for better or worse, has just arrived in my life.

I said I’d call him back. I will — in three months. After my existential crisis is over.

 

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress


Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.

That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.

The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.

“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”

For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.

“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”

On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”

His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.

At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.

The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.

It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:

“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”

“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”

“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”

“Barbra will always love me.”

As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.

He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”

Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.

“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”

 

‘Thin’ Exposes Hefty Secrets and Lies


Alisa, a 30-year-old Jewish divorcee, consumed 200 calories most days. But every few weeks, she repeatedly binged on gargantuan amounts of junk food, then purged by vomiting, swallowing diuretics and Ipecac. After several days, the mother of two usually landed in the hospital.

“I remember at one point thinking … ‘This is the one thing I want so badly, to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it,'” she says.

Alisa is one of several severely ill eating disorder patients profiled in “Thin,” the film debut of renowned photojournalist Lauren Greenfield. The raw documentary also profiles Polly, who slit her wrists after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany, a goth teenager determined to lose 40 pounds, and Shelly, who was force fed through a surgically implanted stomach tube for five years. Handheld cameras follow their rocky physical and emotional journeys at the Renfrew residential treatment center in south Florida.

The movie joins an expanding body of work on female dietary obsessions, including the PBS documentary, “Dying to be Thin”; Eve Ensler’s play, “The Good Body,” and Greenfield’s own 2002 book and exhibit, “Girl Culture.”

Her documentary focuses less on the complex causes of eating disorders than the Herculean task of recovery for patients who use food the way addicts use drugs. Polly, a shy psychiatric nurse, weighs in at 84 pounds, but blissfully talks about the days when she sucked food out of her feeding tube with a syringe. Brittany reminisces about the “chew and spit” game she used to play with her mother: “We’d buy bags and bags of candy and just chew it and spit it out. We just thought of it as a good time.”

During 10 intense weeks at the center, Greenfield learned that while societal pressures often trigger eating disorders, they are actually mental illnesses with grim statistics. Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. No statistics exist on Jewish women, but experts say they may be particularly vulnerable, in part, due to more zaftig body types and the drive to look all-American (i.e. svelte).

All seriously ill patients are tough to treat: “Secrets and lies are a big part of eating disorders, because you have to hide your habits from friends and family,” Greenfield explains from her Venice, studio. “At Renfrew, women would clandestinely jog in place in the shower, or conceal weights in their clothing to cheat the scale.”

The center’s rules, therefore, are strict. When Polly arrives at the clinic, staff members promptly search her luggage and whisk away “contraband” such as cigarettes and prescription drugs. In another scene, the usually feisty Polly is obliged to eat a cupcake for her birthday, which she consumes slowly and with disgust. Afterward, she cries bitterly.

Alisa also appears pained when required to sketch a silhouette of herself, which she draws as an obese figure — though after a month at Renfrew she is healthily trim, with an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman. She traces her eating disorder to age 7, when her pediatrician declared her fat and she was placed on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

On camera, she does not discuss how her Reform background fueled her disease, but she answered e-mailed questions through Greenfield.

“Alisa believes that Jews are a proud people; they are very concerned about self-image and there is a strong emphasis on education and money,” the director says. “She thinks that makes for more of a need to overachieve and be perfect, which can drive an eating disorder. So her sense is that being Jewish contributed a lot to her [illness].”

The filmmaker, who is also Jewish, relates to her subjects because she was once obsessed with the scale. At 12, she began physically comparing herself to the other girls at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and went on to become a chronic teenage dieter. At Harvard University, she “went on a crash diet and lost 26 pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship,” she says.

Eventually Greenfield — named one of 25 top photographers by American Photo magazine — dedicated much of her career to chronicling how the Barbie-doll culture scars women. But her 2002 book only touched upon the life-threatening topic of eating disorders, save for several pictures snapped at Renfrew. The artist remained haunted by one of a gaunt patient standing backwards on a scale so as not to see her weight gain.

In June 2004, Greenfield returned to Renfrew with cinematographer Amanda Micheli to further explore the subject, this time in a cinema verite-style film. But she found that earning patients’ trust proved difficult.

After many setbacks, Greenfield won them over by showing she would turn the camera off whenever she was asked to do so. Polly made the request while on a suicide watch, but changed her mind after the director spent the night talking with her. She allowed Greenfield to shoot her purging her breakfast the next morning, an act that is almost always done in secret and is forbidden at the center.

Alisa also purges on camera, but expresses a moment of hope during one group therapy session.

“For a fleeting moment I imagined a better life,” she says. “And maybe — pun intended — I can taste recovery.”

“Thin” will screen at the Sundance festival Jan. 19-29 and on HBO this fall.

 

Movie’s Journey Mirrors Director’s


In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather’s bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.

In his prime, Schreiber’s grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.

“I didn’t know how to begin to mourn him,” said the actor, who is now 37. “He had been the pivotal figure in my life.”

Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.

The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex’s anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

“It’s really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events,” Schreiber said. “He doesn’t deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation’s processing of history in a distinctly personal way.”

Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery — the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.

Milgram had been Schreiber’s primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber’s bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.

Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters’ apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.

Yet Milgram wasn’t a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

After Milgram’s death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.

“Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood,” he said, “I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else.”

He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however. That’s where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer’s dizzyingly imaginative “Illuminated” in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather’s life.

“The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather’s history,” Schreiber said.

The actor (“The Sum of All Fears,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.

“I really trusted [Liev] right away,” Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. “I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring.”

After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent’s number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002’s most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.

Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn’t such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York’s Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather’s old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.

Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.

His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon” because the character — a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family — reminded him of Milgram.

The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust-themed “Jakob the Liar” because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.

“There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather’s relatives and realized what they had endured,” he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.

He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with “Illuminated,” in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.

After all, Foer’s novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.

“I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write,” he told the Evening Standard.

The result was his postmodernist “Illuminated,” told through the fictional Alex’s letters to Foer’s alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex’s written account of Jonathan’s journey and Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.

After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber — who took much of the dialogue directly from the book — transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.

The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg’s “Must Love Dogs,” based on Claire Cooke’s novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.

During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor’s expressive blue eyes could convey the character’s rich inner life.

“I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is,” Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. “And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany.”

Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather’s shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.

“The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example,” he said. “But that scene taught me that, yes, the ‘war’ can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan’s collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory.”

While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.

“Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again,” he said. “The movie allowed me to do so.

“My ‘illumination’ was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don’t need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is inside of me.”

The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.

 

The Evil Stepmother Dies


What do you do when you lose someone? Someone you really hated?

It’s a little awkward, I’ll tell you that much. Last month, my stepmother of more than 25 years died at age 67 of lung cancer. It was a terrible death, one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, which, incidentally, she was.

What was my grudge? I hadn’t seen her since I was 17, the day I vowed I’d never see her again — dead or alive. That was the day she hid a piece of her jewelry, a brooch shaped like a bumblebee, and tracked me down at a crowded Santa Rosa public tennis court to accuse me of stealing it while my brother and father looked on.

But that is just the end of the story. The beginning is this: She never spoke to me directly, only in the third person, as in “Teresa is getting fat. Teresa looks dirty today. Has she been playing outside? Teresa has no table manners.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate her malevolence. The woman repeatedly suggested I was adopted when we were alone together, which she denied doing in front of other people. She was the Great Santini in a denim wrap skirt and espadrilles.

Better yet: She was the fairy-tale evil stepmother.

The question is: What happens to the story when the villain dies?

Once when I was 8 years old, I caught the flu and couldn’t get out of bed. She didn’t feed me for two days while my dad was at work, oblivious. I was so scared of her, I didn’t even tell him. This is a woman who once told me, “You should never wear your seatbelt. They don’t work.”

There are other stepparents who suck, I’m sure; mine was just one of them.

She didn’t want me around since the day she met me at age 3, and she made sure I knew it. In turn, I fantasized she would step off a curb and be hit by a Mack truck.

I only saw her when I visited my dad once a month, taking the bus from San Francisco, where I lived with my mom. But that visit was more than enough to coat my childhood with a gummy film of dread.

Why did she hide that brooch? My guess is that she was angry my dad took us kids to play tennis that Sunday morning. She felt excluded and restless. So, she made a move that seemed logical to a jealous wacko, hiding jewelry to accuse her stepchild of stealing it. This was her pattern. If fun was being had — my dad and I listening to poetry records from the library, my brother and I watching an especially funny “Gomer Pyle” — she would find a way to stop the amusement.

Judaism tells us to “honor thy father and mother.” But where does that leave someone in my shoes? Trying to think this through, I began speed dialing local rabbis.

“Tradition teaches you have to respect a stepparent, as part of honoring your parent. However, you needed to self-preserve, ” Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, of Temple Sinai, told me over the phone. “God doesn’t want us to be violently damaged, not our physical selves, not our souls.”

This underlines what I already believed: Shaking my stepmother loose was the best thing I ever did.

As for my dad, I wish he had defended me that day or any other day. But to believe me over her would have meant kicking her out, overhauling his life, cooking his own meals, being alone. It also would have meant admitting that his mate was cruel to his kids, had always been, and that he’d allowed it.

Easier to look the other way and hope for the best.

My dad and I remained close all those years I never spoke to her, and that always surprises people. He was generous in letting me have my grudge. He may well have known my stepmother richly deserved it. He would drive hours to see me because I wouldn’t go over to his house. My stepmother hated everyone in our family, so I never ran into her at gatherings. She was easy to avoid.

Now that she’s gone, my dad calls me in Los Angeles almost every day, and he doesn’t back down from his support of his wife.

“She was the smartest woman,” he told me over the phone. “Life was never boring with her. I was just a dumb kid and she taught me everything.”

She was 8 years older than my dad and had bookcases full of psychology books from all the community college classes she took. She never earned a degree, but she was happy to diagnose all of our mental problems. Maybe he found that helpful. And maybe she was intelligent — odious and diabolical — but intelligent.

In a sense, my stepmother was a good influence. Shame and the hunch that you are internally mangled really can give you a strong work ethic. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to prove how wrong she was about me — my lack of talent, my lack of beauty and manners, even my kleptomania, which she invented.

During almost every conversation, my dad now says, “Teresa, I’m not going to be with any more crazy women.”

Because of my stepmother’s unfortunate spending-to-earning ratio, and her yearlong illness, my dad now rents out a room in his house and drives a bicycle. Still, he wasn’t a victim. He was a volunteer.

Whatever his reasons for staying with my stepmother, none of them will ever be good enough for me. But after hours on the couches of nurturing women with amber beads and hyphenated names and advanced degrees, I stopped being mad at my dad for failing to protect me. The feeling was just gone one day, like an ache in your shoulder or a crick in your neck you barely remember having once it goes.

I can lather up resentment for a long line at Starbucks, but I’m all done being pissed off at my dad, or trying to figure him out.

When my stepmother died, it was redundant. To me, she was already gone. Still for my dad, it was a devastating loss. Which makes this a complicated situation. The graceful thing is to listen, be supportive, tell him he’ll be OK, give him books about grief and even copy edit his JDate profile, all of which I’ve done. “My wife recently died [cancer]” is just not what chicks dig in an Internet profile and I was there to correct it.

While I might be tempted to blurt out, “Ding dong the witch is dead!” I don’t. To me, there is no sense in respecting the dead just because they happen to be dead, but there is something sacred in respecting the living, in this case my dad, who needs me and whom I couldn’t love more, despite his questionable taste in partners.

“You are obligated to honor your father,” Rabbi Brad Shavit Artson, head of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, told me, reassuringly. “But you’re not obligated to lie, or to be a doormat, just to be a grown-up. This isn’t the time to unburden yourself of your true feelings about your stepmother, but to shut up and be his help, make sure he eats and sleeps, be compassionate. That’s all Judaism requires of you.”

Because keeping my mouth shut is the most mature thing I’ve ever done, I want to follow Artson’s directive. To that end, I’ve asked my dad not to read this particular piece.

As it happens, I had two stepparents. My mother also had remarried. Earlier this year, my stepfather died, which was like losing a parent, because he was good to me and I admired him. I figure when it comes to losing stepparents, this year I broke even.

Although we offered, neither my brother nor I attended our stepmother’s funeral. Dad insisted he didn’t want us to fly all that way.

A few weeks later, when the commotion ebbed and the grief set in, my dad invited us for a weekend visit. Our plan was to cheer my dad up, take him hiking and to the movies.

That’s how I ended up back in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, in the damp house I hadn’t seen for years. I stayed in the old utility room where I used to sleep with whatever hunkering golden retriever they had at the time. Just being there reminded me of how terrified I had been of her. I still had the sense that at any moment she was going to barge in and shout, “Teresa left crumbs on the counter! She needs to get out here now!”

My stepmother never worked at a paying job a day in her life, and had the tawny, crinkled skin of a woman who gardens a lot. As mean and squinty as her eyes were when directed my way, they were green and pretty, homecoming-queen eyes. Although my stepmother was always gaining and losing the same 40 pounds, to me she was all beefy shoulders and sinister stockiness. I have no idea how tall she really was, because in my mind, she was as fearful and looming as a defensive tackle, leaning her elbow in my doorway, impassable.

My stepmonster may be incinerated, but she still gives me the stone-cold willies.

The only perspective being an adult gives me is that she must have been really screwed up. Miserable and screwed up. Conventional wisdom and pop psychology suggest I suck it up and forgive her, but Judaism does not, Artson said.

The need to categorically forgive, he said, “is a lie we get from a weird, watered-down Christianity. It’s not a Jewish teaching. In Judaism, we’re only obligated to forgive someone who seriously apologizes and repents.”

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but during her last weeks of life, I really thought she was going to make amends. Every day, I waited for that “sorry call,” but it never came. She still owes me an apology and it’s going to be pretty hard to collect now. Being in her dwelling without unleashing the full force of my resentment was like making a fist and digging my nails into my palms for three days.

The hallway was painted a sort of art deco dusty pink. That has to be one of her colors, I thought, and even though her belongings were mostly gone, her handprints were everywhere.

At one point, I noticed a Chupa Chups-brand canister decorated in a cow pattern, which looked like it could contain a large number of gourmet lollipops. It was propped against the wall by the front door. I figured it must be something a friend dropped by, because my dad doesn’t have a sweet tooth. Every time we went in or out the door, there it was, this bizarrely cheerful candy tin on the floor.

As I was brushing my teeth one night, I suddenly recalled my dad telling me about my stepmother’s cremation, how he hadn’t scattered her ashes yet, that they both agreed not to waste money on a formal funeral or an urn. I distinctly recalled my dad saying how pricey urns are and how cruel the funeral industry is to prey on the mourning. I flashed back to the big cow-colored canister in the corner. Those weren’t lollipops. Those were evil stepmommipops.

What happens to the story when the villain dies?

For me, it’s been about my dad, about biting my tongue in his presence while still holding on to one unswerving truth; I didn’t want her to suffer, but I don’t miss her. And that’s just going to have to be fine.

The Talmud says, “The world is like an inn; the world to come a home.” Although I wish we hadn’t been checked into the same inn, I hope she is home. I notice the Talmud says nothing about spending the hereafter in a gourmet lollipop tin, but I’m sure she’ll eventually be scattered, ashes gusting up off some mountain as my dad and his latest golden retriever look on.

Here’s the thing about villains; no matter how far they scatter, they also stick.

All of the rabbis I spoke with said the same thing. We don’t have to forgive, but for our own good, we should try.

But what about that temptation I feel to do a happy dance instead of mourn? That can’t be appropriate.

“Mourn the relationship that should have been,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. “Sit down with a glass of wine and ask yourself, how nice would it have been if she had been supportive, protective, fun to be with?”

“Rabbi,” I said, “that’s what I did all of my 20s.”

He paused and said, “Do it again.”

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award and L.A. Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com

 

‘Jubana’ Memoir Rescues Its Author


“Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” by Gigi Anders (Rayo/HarperCollins, $23.95).

Three years ago, Gigi Anders found herself down and out in Hackensack, N.J. Her fiancé couldn’t go through with their wedding, she had quit a job at a nearby newspaper and her friends lived elsewhere.

“I was alone and without a safety net,” she recalls. “Then there was my hair, my weight, etc. Writing was the only noninsecurity I had.”

Surviving on cases of TaB and cartons of cigarettes, Anders spent the ensuing years squeezing memoir material out of her childhood, adolescence and Byzantine relationship with her larger-than-life mother. Due out next week, “Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” simultaneously reads like a classic coming-of-age tale, Jewish history lesson and stand-up comedy routine. Born in Havana, the now 47-year-old Anders left Cuba and an upper-middle-class life of wealth and privilege before her third birthday. After a brief period in Miami, her family settled in Washington, D.C., where her doctor father and social worker mother tried to rebuild their lives. Though Anders’ tribulations and the legacy of Fidel Castro’s regime certainly loom large in the story, the highly glamorous and opinionated “Mami Dearest” frequently steals the show.

“She’s my best material,” admits Anders about her mother. “If I had a boring mom, I’d having nothing to write about.”

For Rene Alegria, publisher of the HarperCollins’ Rayo imprint that focuses on books by and about Hispanics, Anders’ memoir “was unlike anything I ever read. I hadn’t really seen this type of Hispanic Jewish story before,” he said. “Then there’s the fact that Gigi is just incredibly funny and she really brought her story to life in a way that’s universal.”

On the telephone, Anders speaks exactly like the book she’s written. Candid, passionate and prone to interspersing the conversation with hysterical impersonations of her mother’s Cuban-accented English, Anders also emphasized that she “fiercely loves” her parents, now in their 70s.

“I wanted very badly for no one in my family to feel ambushed,” she says. “I didn’t write the book for axe-grinding and score-settling. I would call my mother every Sunday and we would talk about what I was writing. She never once said, ‘Don’t write that.'”

For Anders, the biggest challenge lay in depicting key tragic events while maintaining the wildly humorous tone.

“I didn’t know whether or not go there,” she says of the traumatic sexual awakening she experienced at 14. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents or have people feel sorry for me. But this was my life and that experience changed me forever.”

Anders claims that the term “Jubana,” meaning “Cuban Jewess,” “has been floating around for awhile” in her family. To be her family’s style of Cuban and Jewish, she says, means there’s no conflict between lighting Chanukah candles and enjoying roasted pork loin afterward.

“But the Jubana thing also means you’re a minority, minority, minority — that no matter what, you’re an outsider,” she said. “Sure I’m white, but not like how other people are white.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anders attended elementary school where she identified with the African American kids.

“I would go to their birthday parties and try to get their parents to adopt me,” she recalls.

Later, when her parents moved to a different D.C.-area neighborhood and could afford private school, Anders attended Sidwell Friends, an elite prep academy. There, she “faced rich, white kids who weren’t Jewish and who seemed to be happy all the time. It seemed like they could just say, ‘I think I’ll go to Harvard’ and it would just happen, while I was at home killing myself,” she said.

At Beaver College, a private school in Pennsylvania now called Arcadia University, Anders had more contact with Jewish kids, but once again, could not relate.

“They were equally as rich as the Sidwell kids, but these girls wanted to get married immediately,” she says. “I had always associated the Jewish side of myself with education and achievement.”

Anders says her “Hispanic side” had more to do with “choosing the right red lipstick and having anxiety about becoming a writer. I got very nervous about being competent and relatives would tell me to dumb myself down or I wouldn’t get a man,” she said. “I had this conflict of beauty vs. brains, this long-term conditioning of if you’re a girl and you’re not married then it’s a double whammy for your Hispanic family.”

Upon graduating from college, Anders briefly worked as a waitress before responding to a job listing from the circulation department of the Washington Post. After a year on the job, she managed to get transferred to an editorial department and eventually became a special correspondent. She also began writing for a variety of other publications, including Glamour, Allure, Latina and The American Journalism Review.

Recently, Anders gave an in-house reading for her publishers and experienced “the best moment of my life. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. People were listening to me read and they were laughing but I felt they understood,” she said. “It’s so strange. The things in life that made me feel terrible about myself led to this moment where I thought, ‘This is who I was meant to be.'”

 

Discovering Keys to Lasting Matrimony


“Everlasting Matrimony: Pearls of Wisdom From Couples Married 50 Years or More,” by Sheryl P. Kurland (American Literary Press, $39.95).

In the late 1940s, Ron Farrar’s and Joan Pachtman’s passion to help those in need charted the course for personal passion and lifelong matrimony. The West Hills residents met in college, when Ron was a member of a veteran’s organization and Joan belonged to a service club.

The two groups shared office space, and their frequent sittings led to another common interest — each other. Today, 53 wedding anniversaries later, their love is deeper and richer than ever before.

In the United States, according to the National Marriage Project, the odds of a marriage lasting, much less lasting over 50 years, are dim. Statistics released by the organization show:

• The U.S. divorce rate is close to 50 percent;

• Today’s divorce rate is more than double that of 1960;

• The number of people getting married has declined 40 percent from 1970 to 2002;

• The more partners people live with, and the longer the time they live together, the more likely they will eventually divorce.

Even with shelves full of self-help marriage books available today, the statistics aren’t improving. Celebrity divorces are splashed across news headlines: Celebrities terminate marriages as if they’re spilling out a bad cup of coffee.

We rarely hear of success stories of real marriage experts, like that of the Farrars.

The Farrars are one of 75 couples I interviewed — husbands and wives separately — across the United States and Canada who’ve celebrated no less than their golden anniversaries. Two other couples from the Los Angeles area are also featured in my book, “Everlasting Matrimony”: Russell and Ruth Blinick of Chatsworth, married 52 years, and Arthur and Anna Cohen of West Hills, married 54 years.

What makes a marriage loving and lasting until death do us part? The lessons in “Everlasting Matrimony” are innumerable. The Farrars, Blinicks and Cohens share theirs:

Accept nothing less than permanence.

“There are many wonderful ups and difficult downs in the course of a long marriage and certainly moments of wanting to flee,” Russell Blinick said. “There slowly evolves, however, a realization that something strong and reassuring is being established.”

Blinick echoed a stalwart philosophy expressed by others in the book that divorce was never an option.

Today’s naysayers challenging this core commitment believe that this generation of couples stayed married, no matter how miserable the relationship became. On the contrary, no matter how difficult the circumstances, their attitude and determination to keep the marriage afloat never wavered.

Through compromise and communication, and patience and understanding, harmony eventually was restored. Ultimately, the marital bond became more meaningful, sacred and rewarding.

Sprinkle anger with humor.

“It took us many years to learn how to ‘fight,’ but now we are aware that we have periods of stress, can argue, get it out on the table and negotiate it, and then let go of it,” Ruth Blinick said. “A sense of humor is always important.”

Disagreements can only be solved with each spouse giving a little here and there, with one person sometimes abdicating more than the other. Laughter is often the best anecdote for problems.

So what if she mistakenly threw out the green bean casserole that he was going to eat for lunch? Is it a major offense that he erroneously read the friend’s party invitation, and they showed up on the wrong date? Chastise or chuckle? The choice is yours.

Be willing to make changes. Children, money, health — different factors, planned and unplanned, impact a marriage over the years.

“Ideally, both [partners] should be able to change; to initiate change and anticipate change, and sometimes switch roles,” Anna Cohen said.

There’s no pat formula for a solid, loving marriage. Additionally, the formula that works today will require alterations over and over and over again throughout the years.

Capitalize on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Pooling talents, skills, likes and dislikes creates a dynamic duo.

“We found that we worked very well together as a team,” Joan Farrar said. “When we teamed up, we found that we could do anything together.”

Feeling good about the relationship requires first feeling good about yourself.

“A long-lasting marriage demands loving, liking and respecting. If I love, like and respect me healthily, I will love, like and respect thee healthily,” Arthur Cohen said.

Being self-content as an individual is essential to the health of couplehood. Complacency of either partner produces stress and anxiety in the relationship.

When talking with each couple, it was easily evident that their hearts still go pitter-patter. Each spouse was quick to praise the other for the success of the marriage.

Ron Farrar’s closing words well represented the depth of their love: “I love her [my wife] dearly — far more than at the beginning of our marriage…. I find myself grateful to the point of tears that I ended up with the girl I did.”

Sheryl P. Kurland resides in Longwood, Fla. For more information, visit www.everlastingmatrimony.com.

The Love Impaired


 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

Create a Bridal Look That’s Made for You


The ornately beaded gown spent decades wrapped in a sheet from the time grandma was a bride until her granddaughter walked down the aisle.

Both brides were beautiful and the dress was a focal point each time, thanks to the loving restoration work by dressmaker Camila Sigelmann, who made it possible for Amee Huppin Sherer to be married in Grandma Marian Huppin’s 1925 wedding gown.

It took Sigelmann about 40 hours and a lot of luck to find beads to match the originals, to repair and reinforce the gown, to make some modifications and to create a matching head piece.

“It was a real honor for me to work on the dress,” Sigelmann said. “I understood that not only was I working on a dress for a very important occasion but that it had a lot of family history. That gives the project a whole other dimension.”

Sigelmann, who teaches apparel design at Seattle Central Community College, has run her own dressmaking business for about six years. She is one of a number of seamstresses across the country who restore antique wedding dresses and create new, custom gowns for brides. Amee found her in the Yellow Pages.

It is a special and honorable profession for the dressmakers who have the opportunity to participate in some of the most joyous moments of family life. They speak of their work with pride and enthusiasm.

Victoria’s Bridal has been in the business for more than 20 years, making everything from contemporary to traditional gowns to theme weddings.

Choosing to have a custom-made wedding dress is more a matter of style and personal service than of price, said Denise Mahmood, store manager of designer Victoria Glenn’s shop Mahmood. She said formal gowns from Victoria’s start at $1,000 and tea length dresses start at $600. Prices vary considerably, however, based on fabric and style. The cost of a custom-made gown includes fittings and alterations, which can cost up to $200 extra when buying a manufactured dress.

Another dressmaker, Laure Rancich-Flem, cautions brides not to look at custom-made gowns as a way to save money.

“If someone comes to me and has found a dress in a magazine … I cannot make it cheaper,” Rancich-Flem said, unless the bride wants to make changes in the dress such as using satin instead of silk.

The dressmaker said the best reason to call a seamstress is because you want a special gown tailored to your body and your taste.

“If you’re going to do custom work it’s usually because you cannot find what you want in ready-to-wear. Maybe you don’t want a traditional gown, or you’re hard to fit … or you just want something very untraditional in fabrics, colors or styling,” Rancich-Flem said.

She recommended trying on some manufactured gowns and looking at bridal magazines before deciding to talk to a dressmaker. A trip to a bridal store will give a woman a chance find out what dress details she likes and what looks good on her.

All three women agreed on suggestions about how to find a custom dressmaker. The first thing to do is ask for recommendations from friends who have had custom gowns made or who have hired a seamstress to create other clothing. Brides without personal recommendations can ask at a fabric store for a list of dressmakers who specialize in bridal gowns.

The next step is to call some dressmakers, talk to them about their experience and see some of their work. This process should start about six months before the wedding.

Mahmood said brides should ask a dressmaker how long she has been in business, how many dresses she averages a month, if she’s overloaded with work and if there are other seamstresses working for her on contract. Ask to see the dressmaker’s portfolio book and some actual dresses she made and request a list of references.

Rancich-Flem said that once you and a dressmaker have talked about the details of your actual project, you should request a bid, including creation and design time and materials cost.

Sigelmann said the dressmaker and the bride, and possibly her mother, need to be able to forge a good personal relationship because they may be working together for up to six months.

Her clients tend to be working women and mature brides who have clear ideas about wanting something a little different in a wedding dress.

The dressmaker found the Huppin gown an interesting challenge; it was also an emotionally and intellectually intriguing project.

“It was a very special dress,” Sigelmann said. “I found myself wondering what her grandma was like and how did she feel when she wore the dress.”

Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

Secular Connection


I fell in love with a brilliant, attractive and witty Filipina woman last year. She was a fallen Catholic, didn’t accept Jesus as her savior and was totally cool with raising kids Jewish. When I went to her uncle’s place for a birthday party and everyone was singing "Sunrise, Sunset" on the karaoke machine, you’d be hard-pressed to find a closer, warmer, more Jewish family than theirs.

Apart from the fact that our cuisine is superior, I was amazed at how similar the dynamic was: Abundant food, loud overlapping conversations, juicy gossip and more food. I felt like I was at home, except for the fact that I was only white guy in the room.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I went to a public high school that had roughly the same percentage Jewish population as a yeshiva. My local synagogue was so Reform I think they closed down on High Holidays. And yet, of the women I’ve dated post-college, I’ve had exactly two Jewish girlfriends. What, in the name of my concerned Jewish mother, is going on here?

Well, it’s certainly not due to my love of the other major religions out there. Once you’ve had one drunken girlfriend speak in tongues, and had another say that, despite how much she loves you, you’re still going to hell, it’s hard to be sympathetic to non-Jewish zealots. My guess is that it’s just a numbers thing. There are 2 percent of us and there’s 98 percent of them. The odds are stacked in favor of intermarriage. Four out of my five cousins went that route and are all very happy. This poses an obvious dilemma: How important is it to marry within our religion?

On Passover 2002, I e-mailed my very close, very bright, very agnostic friend a simple "Happy Pesach" to greet her in the morning.

She innocently replied later, "Happy Peaches?" Ugh. You gotta be kidding.

In other relationships, I’ve had women suggest that we could raise our kids in both religions and let them decide what they are when they’re older. Yeah, right. Those kids won’t be Jewish — supporters of Israel, consumers of gefilte fish, complainers about drafty rooms — they’ll just be two more white kids in search of racial, ethnic or religious identity. That’s not a crime, per se, but it’s certainly not what I want for my children.

The Filipina and I ultimately didn’t make it as a couple, but not because of religion. Still, I decided to get serious and start dating Jewish women.

A lot of people don’t understand — or can’t accept — the strangely powerful hold Judaism holds for secular Jews like me. What makes me Jewish? My bloodline? My last name? My prominent nose, mop of hair and acute sense of sarcasm? It’s pointless to isolate individual qualities, especially ones that play to stereotypes, but as far as I can determine I’m Jewish because I was raised that way. I identify with others who were raised that way.

When I attended college in North Carolina, where only 20 percent of the student body was Jewish, all of my best friends were Jews — even though I wasn’t hanging around the Hillel. I didn’t seek them: I found them. We were like-minds sticking together in a foreign environment. And while many bristle at this comparison, my Jewish experience, far more cultural than religious, is more akin to being black than it is to being Christian.

Jewish neighborhoods in New York aren’t homogeneous ghettos because we’re forced to live there. They result from the desires of people who are looking for quality public schools, short commutes to the city and access to good bagels.

By any definition, I’m a bad Jew. I don’t keep kosher. I haven’t been to Jerusalem. I don’t belong to a synagogue. In fact, there are years that I don’t go at all because tickets are scarce and davening with Chabad isn’t my idea of a good time. So what difference does it make to me who I marry? I’m not sure, but it does. Not because of parental pressure, because I have my mother’s blessing no matter what I do. Not because Jews are better, as the best relationship I’ve yet to have was with a non-Jew. Rather, I see myself marrying a Jewish woman because of internal pride, shared values and cultural identity. Because of the commonality of knowing that our people have been persecuted for millennia and are still thriving. Because regardless of how often I demonstrate it publicly, there’s one important and undeniable fact: I am Jewish.

And whomever I end up with had better know off the bat that the satin thing I grab from the box in temple once a year isn’t called a beanie.

Evan Marc Katz is the author of the “I Can’t Believe I’m Buying This Book: A
Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating” (Ten Speed, 2004) and is the
founder of e-Cyrano (

Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home


For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy" represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: "The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular," the 49-year-old author said.

"But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn," he continued. "This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf."

"Boy" revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: "I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here," he tells a friend. "I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats."

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

"So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from," actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. "He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole."

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who "instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history." His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, "physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences," who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression "instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake," Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. "The Model Apartment" (1984) is a kind of "Frankenstein" story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; "What’s Wrong With This Picture?" (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; "The Loman Family Picnic" (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of "Death of a Salesman."

Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

"[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play," said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. "Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives."

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. "Sight Unseen" (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends"(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of "a succession of domestic catastrophes" in his circle.

"Brooklyn Boy" began with another observation several years ago.

"My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents," he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was "an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like."

The character also "embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children."

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner ("Conversations With My Father") who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: "I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground," he said. "But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man."

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.

"’Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip," he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Mom Was There


As I was ordering invitations for my eldest son’s bar mitzvah in May 2001, we discovered that my mom had end-stage cancer.

With severe and unrelenting pain, Mom became alarmingly feeble, her pain unremitting. Her doctor told us, "Take her home and make her comfortable. It’s a good time to get out the photo albums and gather the grandchildren around." His prognosis? A few weeks to a few months at best.

My sister and I felt as if we had been hit with an emotional stun gun. Cancer had already claimed our father, aunt and grandmother. Our only brother had been killed in a car accident more than 30 years before. We could not fathom losing our mother, who had always been so strong both physically and psychologically, and with whom we each enjoyed a close relationship.

My bond with Mom had become increasingly intimate over the years, enhanced in large part by our spending more time together, frequently over Shabbat. Nearly every week, Mom would come over and sit on the same spot on the living room couch as the kids piled around her to show her their school projects, tell her about their week or have her read them a story. And she greatly enjoyed meeting other guests at our table. As a docent at the Skirball Cultural Center, Mom’s knowledge of Jewish history often enlivened our conversations.

I began my campaign to get Mom to come over as often as possible two years earlier, when my mother-in-law, whom we have since lost, was critically ill.

"We only have your dad and my mom left," I told my husband then. "The rest of the week is too hectic for visits. We’ve got to get them over here for Shabbat."

I could never imagine how much more precious this time would become, having had no inkling that it would be so limited.

After Mom’s devastating diagnosis, my sister and I were thrust in a whirlwind of preparing for hospice care in Mom’s home. Given her prognosis, we also had to rush and get her business affairs in order. We tried each day to absorb the shock of it all, our expectations of a long future for Mom shattered. I felt I was living a surreal dream, as on any given day I could be calling the hospice nurse to inquire about morphine dosages, while also waiting for the bar mitzvah caterer or photographer to call back.

The day I picked up the invitations I headed out with heavy heart to visit Mom. Thinking of all those crisp, lovely invitations filling several boxes in the car, I began to cry. For much of the drive over the 405, I wondered how I could show them to Mom without breaking down completely. I even considered briefly not showing them to her at all. Yet how could I not show them? Could Mom, despite what the doctor said, survive to see the first of her grandsons step up as a bar mitzvah and read from the Torah? Or might I actually be sitting shiva during the week of this simcha?

During that drive, I decided not only to show Mom the invitations, but also to continue to share with her my plans as they progressed. My mom, always a realist, knew that she might not live to be at the event, but it gave her pleasure to know how the plans were coming along. I steeled myself during my daily drives to remain strong in her presence, and allowed myself to cry alone in the car on the way home. Most of the time, I was able to stick to this plan.

But Mom’s deterioration was rapid and inescapable. It seemed nearly impossible for her to make the bar mitzvah. While she didn’t tell me directly, she confided in her hospice nurse that she wished I could move the bar mitzvah up.

When the nurse told me how deeply Mom worried about this, I was crushed. Mom understood that there was no way to move it up. But something had to be done. My husband and I came up with another idea: If Mom couldn’t come to the bar mitzvah, we would bring a trial run of the event to her.

We invited the entire family to Mom’s house for the following Sunday for brunch and to hear our son, Avi, rehearse his chanting of his parsha. Our rabbi, Moshe Cohen of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles, also came, and wrapped Avi’s brand-new tefillin on his arm and head for the first time, explaining the significance not only of the tefillin, but also part of the meaning behind Avi’s parsha, V’etchanan. In this parsha, Moshe recounts his disappointment that despite his fervent pleas, God would not allow him to live to enter the land of Israel. Once again, the 3,000-year-old Torah resonated with our lives today in a way that was too deep for words.

It’s a good thing we rushed to put together this trial run. If we had waited even one more week, Mom would have been too weak to appreciate what was happening. We took our last photos with her and the family that day, but it is painful to look at them. I much prefer earlier photos that reflected her life spirit and beautiful glow.

Mom died two weeks before Avi’s bar mitzvah. My week of shiva coincided with the first nine days of Av, historically a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. When I got up from shiva, I rushed to finish the details of the bar mitzvah that there had been no time for: menu planning, seating arrangements, getting suits tailored.

Fittingly, Avi’s bar mitzvah fell on Shabbat Nachamu, the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, when the Haftarah reading from Isaiah promises comfort to the Jewish people for all the tragedies that have befallen us: "Comfort, comfort My people, says your God," Avi read. As he read, I felt the promise of comfort for my own loss, and for the ongoing heartaches of our people.

Many friends offered their solace to me before and after Mom died, assuring me that she would be at the bar mitzvah, no matter what. I know they were right. The day could not have been anything but bittersweet for us, but our pain was somehow balanced by the joy in our son’s rite of passage into Jewish manhood, and by the very distinct sensation of Mom’s spirit filling the room, emanating from her well-deserved seat in the world to come.


Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of
two humor books and a columnist for Religion News Service. Read more of her
columns on www.judygruen.com.

Commitment’s Price


These days, many women complain about the epidemic of males who run in terror from the thought of a committed relationship.

But there are plenty of guys out there who are eager to commit. I know, since I just found one.

Like many people searching for love, I found Ken through an online matchmaking service. As soon as I clicked on his profile and photo, I knew that any guy with a face that honest and eyes that sincere wouldn’t steer me wrong.

After a bit of research, I had it on good authority that Ken didn’t smoke, drink, bet the mortgage at the racetrack or chase women. He didn’t care if a woman looked like Jennifer Lopez or Kathy Bates. He was just a sincere guy looking for a little honest love in his life.

There was only one thorny issue: What would my husband say about all this?

Clandestinely, I offered to meet Ken. We took a walk around the neighborhood and hit it off. I invited him home to meet the family, but warned him that my husband might not go for this arrangement.

I realized that Ken’s manners could appear a little crude and urged him to be on his best behavior. Yet despite my admonitions, Ken behaved badly during his trial run with the family. It did not help that one of his first acts as a guest in our home was to appear in the living room, chewing on a pair of underwear that he had lifted from the laundry.

“He’s just nervous,” I said, trying to excuse the inexcusable. “Besides, he’s an orphan. It’s not his fault that he didn’t have anyone to teach him the finer points of social etiquette.”

“Next thing you know, he’ll be chewing up the furniture,” my husband said. “Let’s send him back.”

“No!” the children shouted in unison.

This was the only thing they had all agreed on since the night I suggested they eat Corn Pops for dinner. They thought Ken’s manners were charming, probably because he made their own behavior look classy in comparison.

We overruled my husband, but our victory came at a price. As Ken began to feel more comfortable, he revealed a kinkiness that I would never have imagined.

He lapped water from the toilet, filched snacks from the garbage, including things too repulsive to mention, and jumped on the kitchen table when our backs were turned and ate all the cheese off our just-delivered pizza. These boorish behaviors made a black mark on Ken’s record.

“I’m sure he’ll learn to behave eventually,” I said, doubting whether this was really true.

Ken may have been cute, but based on what we could glean of his intelligence, he was unlikely to ever qualify as a Fullbright scholar. One day, I came home to find that my husband’s prediction had come true: Ken had tunneled through one of the living room couches, his face still full of couch stuffing. I wondered: Could this relationship be saved?

Reprimands did no good. If we shouted, “Ken, drop that calzone, right now!” or “No making woo woo in the shoe!” he seemed genuinely contrite, if not a little confused. His expression seemed to ask, “Did you think I’d sit here reading the Wall Street Journal? I’m just a beagle, for God’s sake!”

This explains why for years I flatly refused my kids’ pleadings to acquire a canine companion. I envisioned cleaning up messes throughout the house, pitching good shoes into the trash that the puppy had chewed and trying to stop his insane barking at the mailman.

Essentially, I envisioned the very life I am living now. We’ve had fish and turtles and still have a hamster that has enjoyed surprising longevity, given our previous adventures in pet ownership. However, I fear that one day soon we will arrive home to discover the hamster has died of a heart attack while running on his wheel, terrorized by our new puppy, who thinks the rodent is lunch.

Under the force of my kids’ grinding, incessant pleas (a specialty of the house), I buckled. In a moment of insanity, I agreed to hunt with my youngest son on the Internet, clicking on dozens of doggie profiles. We immediately had to dismiss several inappropriate candidates.

“Hairball came to us with a bit of an attitude problem, but with a lot of work, he’s sure to become a reasonably lovable companion,” was one honest description of a terrier. Just what I needed: another personality with attitude.

One handsome lab came with this caveat, “Shaquille is recovering from a mastectomy and is fearful of children. Takes antidepressants daily. Would do best in a quiet, adult-only home.”

Most of these darling doggies were not destined for our family, including a skateboard-riding Lhasa Apso that nipped at young children; Leroy and Estelle, a pair of yappy Chihuahuas that had to be placed together or they would commit suicide, and an aged rottweiler named Boo recovering from a broken leg. All things considered, Ken seemed the best of the bunch.

True, since he joined the family we are down by one couch, three shoes, two pizzas and an unquantifiable pair of socks and underwear.

But at least he wasn’t afraid to commit.


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” humor column, available on her
Web site, www.judygruen.com. She is also
a columnist for Religion News Service.

In Search of ‘Shlomi’


Shlomi, the 16-year-old protagonist of the Israeli film, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi,” has his hands full.

He cooks the family meals, cleans up, does the laundry, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family and bathes his grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title.

For his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered none too bright by his family and in school, where he is flunking out.

Worse, Shlomi believes the outside world’s assessment of him, which seems to be confirmed by his first attempt at romance. When he suggests to his girlfriend that they “upgrade” their relationship — Hebrew slang for having sex — she “freezes” him out.

At home, the situation is even worse. His obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time slip with her best friend. Shlomi’s older brother is the mother’s favorite, and she regales the boy with clinical details of his real and fancied sexual conquests.

Shlomi’s older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother’s home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the Internet for porn.

It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi’s life slowly turns around.

A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi’s layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and poetic sensibility.

A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi’s real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts — she, the herbs she grows in her garden, and he, the diet-defying cakes he bakes in the kitchen.

The film’s theme is “the pain created by the gap between one’s outer image and the inner truth,” said Shemi Zarhin, the film’s director, himself of North African descent.

“Monsieur Shlomi” is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with absolute veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting.

As a special bonus, Ashkenazic viewers will get a much-needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Although director Zarhin’s ancestors came to Palestine nearly 300 years ago, “both I and Oshri grew up with the mindset that we were part of Israel’s underclass,” he said.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” opens July 16 in Los Angeles.

Spiritual Parenthood


Sometimes we wonder how the translators arrived at the names they designated for the books of the Bible. But our parsha, the opening one of the book of Bamidbar, makes the translators’ choice self-evident. After all, what is this parsha more than a collection of Numbers?

Why did God count the Jews in this protracted census? And why did the Torah bother to tell us about it? Rashi explains that God wanted to demonstrate to us, his children, how dear we are to him. Like a caring shepherd who counts his flock after each storm and attack, God repeatedly counted us in the wilderness to exhibit and communicate the special place that each Jew holds in His heart. Thus, the exhaustive detail that the Torah affords each census: Tribe by tribe, and family by family, the Torah shares with us the numbers breakdown to stress the singular affinity that God has for every Jew.

Amid the details of the general census, the Torah takes pause to reintroduce us to the family of Aaron, the high priest. The associate kohanim — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar — are introduced by the following repetitive clauses: "These are the offspring of Moshe and Aaron…. These are the names of the sons of Aaron."

"Where is the mention of the sons of Moshe?" the sages of the Talmud ask. "And what does Moshe have to do with the sons of Aaron?"

The subtle implication of the text, the sages explain, is that the sons of Aaron were also the sons of Moshe, their teacher, because, "Whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, Scripture views him as if he birthed him."

The Torah elevates the holy task of the educator to spiritual parenthood. A good teacher, a great giver who imparts wisdom to his or her disciple, plays an essential role in rearing and shaping the student and is akin to a mother or father.

The Torah imparts this notion in another place as well. Jews around the world read the "Shema" every day and night, where it says, "You shall speak them to your sons" (Deuteronomy 6:7). Here, too, the sages of the Midrash explain, "’Your sons’ — these are the students."

The Torah once again defines the relationship between teacher and student, between rabbi and congregation, in familial terms.

But why did the Torah have to demonstrate this more than one time? In Numbers it taught that the student is like one’s own child. Why restate it in Deuteronomy?

Some years ago, a teacher of mine shared an answer: the Torah recognizes two distinct dimensions of a mentor or teacher. One role of the teacher is to impart information — an intellectual achievement that continues to provide for a student long after he or she leaves the classroom. But the teacher also plays a distinct role in influencing the subtleties of personal development and spiritual growth. Every child — indeed every person — must acquire knowledge. More importantly though, that same person must acquire wisdom.

One must recognize that those two roles can be satisfied by more than one person.

When it comes to our children — and our own spiritual growth — we must stay conscious of who those mentors are. Yes, our children are learning from us and from their teachers about the rich history and culture of Jewish tradition (not to mention algebra and chemistry), but their senses of morality and life values might be the product of prevailing popular conceptions, celebrity sound bites or even fictional characters. Our teachers may be Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, but our rebbes (mentors) might be Judge Judy or Forrest Gump.

Our responsibility to ourselves and to our children demands that we find spiritual mothers and fathers in those bearers of the millennial wisdom that has been our key to survival and success: the Torah. Together, we must teach our children how to steer through life guided by the moral compass of Torah wisdom.

Rabbi Gidon Shoshan is the director of outreach at the Los Angeles
Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) in Westwood. He can be reached at ravgidon@LinkLA.org.

A Family Affair


In his 86th year and in his 86th movie, Kirk Douglas has fulfilled a long-cherished dream by uniting his clan in the film, "It Runs in the Family."

The picture’s Gromberg family, for whom the word "dysfunctional" was invented, consists of patriarch Alex (Kirk, naturally), son Mitchell (son Michael Douglas) and grandson Asher (grandson Cameron Douglas).

Rounding out the mishpachah (family) is Diana Douglas, Kirk’s ex-wife and Michael’s mother, who plays the patriarch’s wife, Evelyn.

The Grombergs of Manhattan are over the top in every conceivable way. They are gratingly Jewish: Kirk sprinkles his comments with Yiddish vulgarisms, screams out a "Kaddish" (prayer for the dead) as he sets fire to a boat carrying the corpse of his senile brother and for good measure, there is a family seder from hell.

Adding to the New York stereotype, the Grombergs are obscenely rich, thanks to the patriarch’s successful career as a corporate lawyer.

At the seder, when the youngest grandson, Eli (Rory Culkin), finds the afikomen, Kirk whips out a $1,000 bill and another greenback of the same denomination for 24-year-old Asher, who didn’t find the afikomen.

There is almost constant intramural bickering between the crusty Gromberg patriarch and his son; between the son and his wife, Rebecca (Bernadette Peters); and between this couple and their children. Ultimately, the family rallies around when Asher is busted for growing and selling marijuana.

Relief comes occasionally, as in the warmly portrayed relationship between the Gromberg grandfather and his wife and the brotherly bonds between the two grandsons.

But most of the time, the film is as dysfunctional as the Gromberg family, running off in a dozen different directions and with a convoluted plot line that defies description.

Australian-born Fred Schepisi directed the film, with Michael Douglas doubling as producer.

"It Runs in the Family," released by MGM and Buena Vista International, opens Friday, April 25.

Nice, Jewish Maidel


Amy Sherman-Palladino’s acclaimed WB series, “GilmoreGirls,” began when the Jewish Valley girl visited the picturesque town ofWashington Depot, Conn., several years ago.

“It was so ridiculously Norman Rockwell,” saysSherman-Palladino, 37, the daughter of ex-Catskills comic Don Sherman. “Like,we’re driving down the street and people are going, ‘Where’s the pumpkinpatch?’ It was so funny, that I thought, ‘I should set something here.'”

“Gilmore’s” fictional town of Stars Hollow, Conn., has itspumpkin patch, but it is also peopled by characters with Sherman-Palladino’srapid-fire speech and vaudevillian wit. Thirty-four-year-old single mom LorelaiGilmore (Lauren Graham) and her brainy 18-year-old daughter/best friend, Rory(Alexis Bledel), spew one-liners faster than Joan Rivers on speed. When Rorybalks at visiting her blue-blood grandparents, Lorelai suggests she can “pull aMenendez” on the way home. When the town’s sluggish postman wonders if aneighbor died, Lorelai asks, “[You mean] while you were delivering her mail?”

“We [also] have a whole run about Lorelai saying she’s goingto get a tattoo of Mel Brooks on her a–,” says Sherman-Palladino, whoseraucous, Borscht Belt humor contrasts with her petite frame. “Part of what’s sofun about the series is putting words in people’s mouths that normally wouldn’tcome out of [them].”

As a result, she says she’s been told “The show sometimessounds like it’s written by an 80-year-old Jewish man.”

“Gilmore’s” Mel Brooksian dialogue, along with its healthybut unusual parent-child relationship, has drawn increasingly scarce”multigenerational” family viewers. Since almost one-third of U.S. familieswith children are headed by single parents, “the non-normal family [hasincreasingly become] the norm” on television, according to Time.”Gilmore” isconsidered among the cream of a TV crop that also includes WB’s “Everwood,”about a single dad in small-town Colorado, and HBO’s mortician-family saga,”Six Feet Under.”

Sherman-Palladino, for her part, grew up in Van Nuys with amom and a dad and a living room full of ex-Catskills comics.

“There were six or seven of them at my house at all times,all trying to outdo each other,” she says on a recent afternoon in herbordello-red office. “It was like the circle of comics in Woody Allen’s’Broadway Danny Rose,’ but … with Shecky Green, Jackie Mason and JanMurray…. They had a rhythm, an energy, a fatalistic way of looking at life –‘so you’re gonna die, have a sandwich!’ — that eventually seeped into mywriting.”

But since Sherman-Palladino’s mother was an ex-dancer, shesays she was supposed to be a “hoofer in a Broadway musical.” She didn’t segueinto writing until she chanced to take an improvisational comedy class at TheGroundlings and hooked up with fellow student Jennifer Heath around 1990.

“We were two short, Jewish, annoying women that no onewanted to deal with, so we dealt with each other,” she told Written Bymagazine.

“But I didn’t want to be a writer, I wanted to beRumpleteaser in ‘Cats,'” she told The Journal.

Heath had another idea. She convinced the reluctantSherman-Palladino to co-author a “Roseanne” script, which promptly landed thenovice writers staff jobs on Roseanne’s hit show. The temperamental star hadfired her entire staff.

“She needed female writers and we were cheap,” saysSherman-Palladino.

She was 24 and learning the sitcom ropes on TV’s hottestcomedy. But her mother wasn’t impressed.

“Even after I was nominated for an Emmy, mom would call andsay, “They’re auditioning for ‘Cats’ over at the church on Highland andFranklin, and can’t you get away for an hour?'”

Four “Roseanne” seasons and several failed sitcom pilotslater, a WB executive urged Sherman-Palladino to pitch an hour-long show to thenetwork. Her response was “Gilmore Girls,” whose pilot featured dialogue shehad scribbled during that fateful trip to Washington Depot.

While Sherman-Palladino is about the same age as thefictional Lorelai, the only similarity she can see between her and thecharacters, is that, like Rory, she didn’t care about being popular in highschool. The rest is fiction; she says she created Lorelai, in part, to have “asingle mother who gave birth at 16 but is not living in a trailer park.”

She created Rory to counter the prevalent TV image of teenagegirls as “either popular or longing to be in the in-crowd.

“Rory, by way of contrast, is comfortable in her own skin,”she says. “She has her mom and her one friend and she’s too busy readingFlaubert to think about having sex.”

For her efforts, the writer-producer was included in Emmymagazine’s 2002 list of the “25 best in the business.”

Now in its third season, the series and its dialoguecontinues to reflect Sherman-Palladino’s Catskills-flavored childhood. Becauseshe believes “comedy must be fast — If it’s slow, it’s not funny” — “Gilmore”scripts feature more than twice the dialogue per page as standard screenplays.Sherman-Palladino even hired a vocal coach to help the actors with their lines:”I try to channel Amy,” Graham said, at a press conference, of her approach toLorelai.

The other characters are as quirky as those on the 1990s CBSseries, “Northern Exposure.” There is a sniffy hotel desk clerk; a klutzy,perfectionist cook; a Korean American antique dealer whose shop is so clutteredpatrons can’t find her, and a rabbi who pals around with the town minister.

Sherman-Palladino says she named the rabbi David Baron,after the Los Angeles clergyman who performed her wedding to “Gilmore”executive producer Daniel Palladino (“Family Guy”) five years ago. Sheintroduced the character in an episode last season to establish that “he andthe minister share church space; it’s the Jews on Saturday and the Christianson Sunday.”

It’s part of her effort to make picture-perfect Stars Hollow”not so uberWASPy,” she says. So does Sherman-Palladino intend to introducemore Jewish characters on the show? She laughs, then lapses intoCatskills-style shtick.

“By year seven, everyone on the show will be Jewish,” shesays. “Believe me, it’s going to be the Chabad telethon.”

“Gilmore Girls” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on the WB.

Out of ‘Africa’


When German filmmaker Caroline Link read Stefanie Zweig’s1995 autobiographical novel, “Nowhere in Africa,” she was riveted by theunusual Holocaust story. The book describes how 5-year-old Zweig and herparents fled the Nazis to Kenya, where the girl fell in love with the harshlybeautiful land.

“In Germany, we have so many Holocaust films, there isdanger of audience fatigue if you repeatedly show the same stories,” Link, 38,said by phone from her Munich home. “But people don’t know much about what happenedto Jews who managed to leave the country in time. For many, the tragedy startedfar away from Nazi Germany, and I wanted to explore this different aspect ofthe [Shoah].”

Her visually lush “Nowhere in Africa,” joins a growing bodyof cinema about Holocaust refugees, including the acclaimed 2002 documentary,”Shanghai Ghetto,” and trek where few such films have gone before. In themovie, spoiled hausfrau Jettel (Juliane Kohler) reluctantly joins her attorneyhusband, Walter, on a sun-scorched Kenyan farm with their daughter, Regina, intow.

“I think it’s fascinating that this sheltered, unadventurousGerman family suddenly found themselves in the middle of the African desert andwas told, ‘This is where you live now,'” the director said.

Like all of Link’s films, “Nowhere in Africa” is also apoignant study of an offbeat kind of childhood. Her Oscar nominated “BeyondSilence” (1996) was prompted by a newspaper story about a hearing girl whointerprets for her deaf parent, “like a foreign minister for the family,”according to the director. That film, along with “Africa,” features acomplicated father-daughter relationship, partly inspired by Link’s own bondwith her loving, strong-willed father, a retired restaurateur.     

But unlike Zweig’s best-selling novel, which is mostly toldfrom the child’s point of view, “Nowhere in Africa” focuses in large part onthe parents’ strained marriage.

“I wanted to explore what makes a man and a woman staytogether, particularly in impossible times,” Link said. “For me, the mostinteresting character is Jettel because I imagined how a pampered woman couldtransform into a [pioneer].”

Zweig, 70, said that while she loved the movie, she wasamused by the liberties taken with her parents’ story.

“My mother was very spoiled, and didn’t change from themoment she stepped off the boat to the moment she returned to Germany,” shetold The Journal from her Frankfurt home.

She said the scene that best describes her mother was theone in which Jettel recounts purchasing an evening gown with money Walter gaveher to buy an ice chest.

“If you escape Nazi Germany,” Zweig added, “do you think youworry so much about your marriage?”

Nevertheless, the author suggested only minor changes whenLink, who is not Jewish, sent her a draft of her script around 1999. By January2001, the filmmaker was off to Kenya for the grueling, four-month shoot.

On location near the remote village of Mukutani, lifemirrored art as torrential rains threatened to wash away the production’s tentcamp. “The mud was 3 feet deep,” 37-year-old Kohler (“Aimee & Jaguar”) saidduring an interview at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica.

“It was hot; there were malaria mosquitoes and big,poisonous snakes, like black mambas, and we couldn’t leave the camp without guardsbecause of the lions.”

Nevertheless, she said, “Everything was like what thecharacter had experienced, which made the role much easier for me.”

The cast and crew were rewarded when the movie won fiveGerman Film Awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar, althoughLink suspects the reason — at least in part — is that the story touches on theShoah.

“It seems like the Academy favors the Holocaust,” she said.”And the foreign film category, in particular, goes for that kind of big,emotional subject matter. I certainly don’t want to complain about thenomination, but it’s too bad they don’t go for more innovative, radical kindsof films.”

“Nowhere in Africa” opens today in Los Angeles.

Is There Love After Marriage?


Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven
announces: “The daughter of this person is destined for [so-and-so].” —
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 2a

We want company. We don’t want to be alone. This is the
beginning of everything. God made a companion for Adam.

If you look at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times
online, there’s a hotlink to personals. Pick the most obscure zip code in
Vermont, or the center of Manhattan, and see how many people are looking for
someone, anyone, and how simple, how modest are the ambitions for love.
Walking, talking, sharing movies, sharing breakfast, reading the paper, going
for a hike — and for these simple daily activities, men and women put their
faces in view of strangers and those who might know them. They do it because in
their own circle, or just in the accidental crossings of the day, no one dares
come out of the fog to say, “It’s you that I want. You for all the reasons you
want me.”

The rule of the screwball comedies is that the boy and girl
meet, have an early affection which familiarity destroys, each then sees the
other at his or her worst and then, knowing the truth about themselves and the
other — and with the victory of awareness — they consecrate a new vow. In the
screwball comedy of Genesis, it is only after eating from the tree that Adam
and Eve can be a real couple, have a real marriage.

Marriages, like movies, have a structure. In my
psychotherapy practice, I have heard many scripts that went like this:

Act One:

You’ve Found Your Beshert

SHE: (Liltingly) You like hard pears too?! That’s amazing!

HE: You want me to pick you up at the airport at 3 a.m.? How fun!

SHE: Sex for the third time tonight? Absolutely!

HE: I love the way she speaks so slowly!

SHE: I just love the way he clears his throat all the time!

HE: I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life without
snorkeling!

TOGETHER: I can’t believe we might never have found each
other!

Act One is both cosmic and chemical. Like your own baby,
your beloved is uniquely alluring, beautiful, charming, pure of soul. This is
not rational. The phrase is “falling in love” for a reason. Your reaction is
like a drug, a chemical action to ensure continuation of the species and the
tribe. You believe that you’ve known this person all your life because, in a
sense, you have. The idealized loved one embodies the best of what you’ve had —
in a parent, a beloved tanta or a sixth-grade English teacher who cherished
you, who gloried in your specialness — and all you ever longed and wished for
from a critical, cold or clueless parent. Your partner is on a pedestal, and
you are in a giving mode. Your similarities are magnified, you delight in your
differences.

Act Two:

The Drug Wears Off

Or, as the psychologists say, “Recognition of differences
sets in.”

SHE: You voted for that evil man? You stopped at McDonald’s
on the way home before dinner? You ate a cheeseburger there? That throat
clearing is getting a little annoying. You call your parents every day? Those
are your friends? Those are your parents?

HE: Could you say that a little faster? You’ve never read
“Doonsbury?” You never call your parents? Taxi drivers are meant to do 10 p.m.
airport pick-ups, not boyfriends. If humans were meant to swim underwater, God
would have designed them with little plastic breathing tubes already attached.

All right, so it’s not as perfect as it seemed at first, but
there’s hope. Together, you can create a new little perfect person, someone to
love without reservation. Someone who likes any kind of pears you feed him.

Act Three:

We Are Parents

SHE: (Scornful, impatient) You let her go to the park in her
party shoes? You want to have sex when we could be getting some sleep? You got
all those groceries and you forgot the one thing I sent you for? And this is 2
percent milk, not 1 percent milk. What do you mean she said she didn’t need a
jacket so you let her go without one? She is 4 years old and you are 40.

HE: You keep saying you want me to be involved in raising
Nicole and Sam, but you criticize every decision I make. Just forget it.

Like Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” you’ve awakened
to see that Bottom is an ass.

Act Four:

You Write the Ending

Yes, 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. But 50
percent don’t. What do we know about those that make it through? Living in
reality is hard, but living in fantasy is worse. The movies really trip us up.
Our culture oozes seductive popular myths about marriages. If you want a shot
at not being part of the half that doesn’t make it, beware — be very aware — of
falling for these myths:

1. We should always think alike, enjoy the same things and
be happy together. Romance should last forever. Intimacy is warm and fuzzy.

2. If you really loved me, you would know what I think
without me having to say it. If I take a risk and tell you what I want and
feel, I’m entitled to get what I want from you.

3. You should know what I like sexually without me telling
you. You should never fantasize about anyone else. We should have the same
level of sexual desire at the same time.

4. Our children are more important than our marriage.

5. You should make up for everything I never had in
childhood, rid me of existential doubts and provide all meaning of life.

Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. Rather than grand
declarations of love we are encouraged — in fact commanded — to work hard to
create shalom bayit (peace in the home). But how?

Moses Maimonides knows that we can only form a union if we
first separate from our own parents. In his 12th-century work, “Laws of
Marriage,” he writes, “A husband can prevent his wife’s family from entering
the house if it bothers him. She can make the same demand on him.”

But beyond that first crucial separation, shalom bayit must
come through deeds. We show our love through small, daily acts of respect and
enthusiasm. We don’t necessarily do for our spouse what we want our spouse to
do for us. Instead, we do what honors our spouse most.

Torah teacher Shira Smiles recommends that you get off the
telephone when your spouse enters the house or the room you’re in. If you’re at
home when your spouse arrives, go to the front door to greet him or her.
Instead of turning on the television, take your spouse for a walk around the
block.

Marriage has great potential for boredom, chronic resentment
and misery. It also has a greater potential for deep satisfaction, intimate
friendship and sexual pleasure than any other adult relationship. Consider your
marriage as another child. It, too, needs care. You started out together, and
after the children leave you’ll be alone together again.

The movies tell us to believe in love. But the Hebrew word
emunah, Smiles teaches us, is not merely “belief” or “blind faith,” but a
commitment or faithfulness based on actual knowledge.

The best way to keep marriage from being too hard is not to
believe for a second that it’s easy. Take time, act wisely, guard your words,
get help before you need it: You write the ending.

Ask Wendy


An Unreasonable
Invite?

Dear Wendy,

My wife and I recently had a falling out with very close
friends whom we’ve known for over 40 years. When their daughter became engaged,
they told us early on that, for budgetary reasons, our children would not be
invited to the wedding. We said, at that time, that unless our youngest was
invited, we would not be able to attend. That child, age 10, was born after we
lost our 17-year-old daughter in a car accident. He is therefore very special
to us and everyone in our family knows as much. We have also never left him
with a babysitter. Our son was not invited to the wedding. My wife believes
that if our friends valued our friendship they would have granted our request.
Our friends explained that they were not comfortable inviting our son given
that no other children were being included. They called three times the month
before the wedding, and have called several times since, to say that they did
not want the friendship to suffer. Who is in the wrong?

Friend in Need

Dear Friend,

I don’t know how anyone survives the loss of a child. But
people do. And somehow you have. By your own admission, your youngest child is
dearer to you for having been born after a tragic loss, but the rest of the
world cannot be expected to grant your son similar special status. I would add
that your son would probably be bored senseless at an event where he is the
only child. You have jeopardized a valuable and longstanding relationship
because your friends failed to play by your rules at a time when the only
people who really mattered were the bride and groom. Friendships are not
predicated on unwavering submission; disagreements, no matter how serious or
hurtful, are not grounds for termination. Your feelings were hurt; your friends
have acknowledged this by calling numerous times. Call them back today. If you
feel the need to rehash the issue one more time then do so and put it behind
you. Your friendship survived the loss of your daughter. Don’t let it fall
apart over a simcha.

To Kosher or Not to
Kosher?

Dear Wendy,

I am getting married and would like to accommodate my
fiancé’s family. They are insisting on a strictly kosher wedding reception. If
we serve a dairy meal, several of my relatives with dietary restrictions who
are not Jewish or observant will have little to eat; if we serve both meat and
dairy, many of his relatives will be very upset. I am desperate to find a
compromise.

Blushing Bride

Dear Blushing,

Strict adherence to the laws of kashrut does not allow for
compromise. This is just one of the many things you will learn if you marry
into a religious family — and it is one of the easier lessons. When it comes to
the do’s and don’ts of Sabbath observance, your learning curve will be much
steeper. As long as you and your fiancé are on the same page, and his family is
patient and tolerant, you will find your way. The good news is that a gifted
Jewish caterer can deliver a delicious meal that speaks to all of your
concerns: would you believe velvety chocolate cake with nondairy whipped cream?
Your in-laws will be able to attend; your guests will never know. As for the
main course, why not a rare filet with (nondairy) hollandaise sauce? For those
vegetarians among your guests, I have yet to meet a caterer who does not offer
an alternative meal for those with dietary restrictions.

Where Do We Go From
Here?

Dear Wendy,

I have been dating the same man for two years. Three months
into our relationship he started talking about getting married. We decided then
that we were moving too quickly. Now, I find that we are “stuck” in the dating
phase and that my boyfriend refuses to discuss marriage. My best friend tells
me to be patient. Should I move on?

Lady in Waiting

Dear Lady,

I’d say that your aim is closer to the mark. Two years is a
respectable amount of time for any two people to decide if they are meant for
each other. Especially if you had discussed marriage in the early days of the
relationship, it is all the more bizarre that your boyfriend can’t stomach the
issue now. Time to tell your boyfriend that you need to know if the
relationship is heading in the direction of the altar. Do give him a chance to
defend himself before you flatten him on your way out the door.