Road to Freedom Is Paved With Relationships


My father grew up in Buenos Aires, and he maintained close ties with a circle of friends from his Jewish neighborhood until his death a few years ago. His name was Marcos,
but to his friends he was Mote.

Around 1960 he entered into an appliance import business with a friend from the neighborhood, and they made good money together. My family was one of the first to have a refrigerator and television, and we took some of the first jet flights out of Argentina to Europe and Israel. My father’s friends would gather at the airport to send us off and greet us when we returned.

When I was about 5 years old, the business’ merchandise vanished. My father suspected his partner defrauded him, but could never prove it. He was left with nothing — or so I thought.

My father went on to become an insurance agent, and it took us some time to get back on our feet. While my family never recaptured the wealth we had enjoyed, there was always food on the family table.

“It’s terrible that this man has taken everything we had,” I said.

“No, he did not take everything,” my father said. “We are keeping all the friends.”

More than 40 years later, all of those friends from the neighborhood and their children are still some of our dearest friends. My father always knew what was most essential.

When we put material things ahead of our spiritual selves and our relationships, then we are on the path to idolatry, a practice that has changed only superficially in the last few millennia.

The lesson of the Torah is one of freedom from idolatry, rejecting any worship that is material. When Moses asked Pharaoh to let God’s people go and worship in the desert, his plea was focused on the One God and rejecting idolatry.

If there were one material thing that could have been considered holy, it would have been the first set of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. And what happened to those tablets? When Moses saw the Golden Calf, to his credit, he threw them down and smashed them to bits. Moses dramatically demonstrated that even the tablets, the product of God’s “hands,” were mere objects. They were not sacred in and of themselves.

When we celebrate Passover, we must put ourselves in the very same place the Israelites were when they rushed away from bondage. Every year we have the obligation, as we read in the haggadah, to see ourselves as if each one of us individually left bondage. Bechol dor va’dor, in every generation, each individual must think of himself or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt.

The miracle, the rabbis teach, was not that God took the Israelites out of Egypt, but rather that God took Egypt out of the Israelites. And that is the message.

Our world hasn’t changed all that much. Wars, hatred and conflict enslave us in every generation. Each individual in every generation has the obligation to set himself free, along with his fellow human beings.

This message is a universal one. Even in our own history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s narrative was that of the Exodus. In his beautiful sermons, the message that guided the civil rights movement, “free at last,” is the message of Passover.

On Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat that precedes Passover, we read a special section from the Prophets that contains the following words: “And children will come back to their parents, and parents will return to their children.”

In preparation for the seder, we must make an effort to reconcile with those who are estranged from us. That reminder before the holiday is a challenge and an opportunity, given to us so we can find a way back to those who once were close to us. If there is somebody in our life with whom we have lost contact, willingly or unwillingly, this is our chance to call and renew the relationship. And if there is someone who will be with us at the seder with whom we haven’t been on the best of terms, the seder is the place to make things better and to refrain from renewing the feud.

While my father never reconciled with his former partner, he didn’t let the sense of betrayal stand in his way of attending the funeral of the partner’s wife. In fact, Mote was the only friend from the neighborhood to show up.

When we prepare for Passover we clean our dwellings of chametz, leavened foods. Matzah is the essence of bread: flour and water. When we rid our houses of chametz, we must likewise rid our lives of that which is not essential. We want to find our essential selves.

At the end of the day we find ourselves, and God, in one another, especially in those who are most dear to us. As Passover comes, let us free ourselves from the yoke of materialism. We must understand that the essence of life is in relationships. When we touch another soul we transcend our material selves. It is the way in which we become eternal.

My father was a man who was not tied to money. Most important in life, he taught me, are our relationships. When we care about others, we will then find the essence of who we are.

Daniel Mehlman is the rabbi at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and teaches the Introduction to Judaism class in Spanish at American Jewish University.

Films: The ‘Little Miss’ that could maybe hopefully


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Ramah marks 50 years


As Camp Ramah celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the list of camper and counselor alumni who once passed through its Ojai grounds grows ever more lengthy and impressive, becoming virtually a who’s who of Los Angeles machers.

Among the alumni: Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter, Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel, composer and Sinai Temple Friday Night Live impressario Craig Taubman and Bureau of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff, just to name a few.

Having reached all of these future leaders in their formative years, Ramah can take some credit for the face of today’s L.A. Jewish leadership. Spiritual leaders, social justice advocates, educators and community board members all proudly trace their strong Jewish values and current commitment to Judaism to their summers at Ramah.

“Ramah is a place where campers and counselors have their first experience in not only participating in, but helping to form and lead the Jewish community in which they find themselves,” said Camp Ramah of California Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

As it has throughout its history, the camp’s programming team sees as its mission to create dynamic ways to blend recreational summertime fun with specifically Jewish lessons on values and life. The campers’ days are divided into seven time slots allowing time for electives like drama, soccer or photography, as well as required classes like Judaic studies, Jewish music and Israeli culture.

Some activities are more recreational, others are more clearly Jewish, but the goal is that every activity shares a little of both. Sports, for example, teaches the Jewish values of respect, community, and taking care of one’s body. Judaic studies classes offer campers concrete lessons in principles.

At Ramah, tefillah is also meant to strike a balance between inspiring kids to want to pray and giving them the skills and literacy they need to pray. Daily services take place outdoors and usually follow a traditional format. Once or twice a week, counselors design creative services meant to emphasize the inspirational side of prayer. These services might be held on a hike, as a scavenger hunt, or carried out as an art project. Ramah’s weekly Shabbat afternoon Mincha services also famously overflow with spirit and song.

It’s this brand of spirituality that inspired VBS’s Feinstein. Having served as camp counselor and division head in the ’70s and camp director in the 1990s, Feinstein believes a balance of fun and spirituality is key to the camp’s success. It’s also key to his work at VBS.

“I run the synagogue a lot like I used to run the camp,” he says. “It’s got to be a joyful community.”

He believes summer camp is the most powerful Jewish experience, next to visiting Israel.

“Too often we forget that joy is a constituent element to all Jewish life,” Feinstein said. “It’s just so important to make joy the central part of Jewish living. That’s the most important thing I got from Ramah.”

Steven Spiegel, UCLA professor of political science, relishes Ramah’s combined intellectual and social environments. One of 92 youths to participate in the 1955 Ramah pilot program, Spiegel returned as a camper, then counselor, program director, and ultimately teacher.

Ramah afforded Spiegel the opportunity to work and study in close proximity to Jewish teachers like David Lieber, Chaim Potok, Walter Ackerman and Jack Pressman. For him, Camp Ramah of California was an educational awakening.

“I couldn’t be the kind of professor I am and do the kind of things I do without the Ramah experience,” said Speigel, who acts as the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA’s Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. “Bringing people together and trying to resolve conflict, as well as working with students and colleagues, many of those patterns that I pursue I really first experienced at camp.”

Similarly, Ron Reynolds, a camper from 1959 to 1964 and a counselor from 1965 to 1967, credits Ramah with sparking his interest in education.

“At camp, I realized the incredible power of education in all its modalities. Not just formal studies, but experimental learning and informal education,” said Reynolds, who now acts as executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, an umbrella group that serves 1,750 private schools and 500,000 students,

Camp Ramah also emphasizes tikkun olam (heal the world) and engages campers and counselors in Jewish education. They are encouraged to debate, discuss and intellectually explore their Jewish world. They’re offered classes in topics like Israeli current events, social justice, the Holocaust, Jews in comedy and how to make choices guided by Jewish principles.

Throughout the years, Ramah has always encouraged campers to be aware of the world outside their Ojai utopia. Last summer, in association with Friends of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Ramah hosted Israeli youths who had lost a family member in service to the IDF. In getting to know these youths, the camp community was able to personalize the current events in Israel. In association with The Jewish Federation, the camp also hosted several youths from bourgeoning Jewish communities in the Baltic area.

“When we’re in camp, we’re keeping an eye towards the outside world, and ask ourselves in what way can what happens at camp help the world and the Jewish community at large?” Greyber said.

Tzvia Schwartz-Getzug attended Ramah in the late ’70s and early ’80s and recalls a day when she and others brought residents from the Ojai Home for the Aging outside to watch a parade, enjoy the sunshine and be part of the festivities. It was something, she says, “which they never would have been able to do if we weren’t there to take responsibility for them.”

“That was definitely part of what I learned and what I began in my Ramah days,” Schwartz-Getzug said.

An open letter to the rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary


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

Dear Mr. Eisen,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,
Pamela Witt

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

Single, 60, and invisible no more


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I say but the beat goes on.

He’s a nice person with a good heart.

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

You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom


The following excerpt is the prologue to “You’re Lucky You’re Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom,” (Viking, 2006) a memoir by Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Buona Sera Productions, Inc.

My brother, Richard, got married on September 5, 1993. I was the best man, and with that honor comes the giving of the toast. I had been earning a living as a writer on an assortment of television sitcoms for about four years at this point, and so I felt there was an expectation to be humorous whenever forced to speak in public — a self-imposed pressure, but real nonetheless, as if I deeply needed to communicate to people, “See, I can be funny, it’s not my fault the shows are terrible.”

And so I racked my brain for material. Material at family functions often focused on the family at hand, and my particular family had served me well in the past — years earlier I wrote a little poem at my parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary party (at their nonstop insistence) that seemed to be hilarious to the relatives and friends. “Better than Broadway!” I had been told. But now, at this wedding, I was thirty-three, and there were people there who didn’t know the family, and worse, didn’t know me — but here he is: the Hollywood toastmaster. This could be a bad wedding, meaning I could bomb. And then it hit me, an anecdote that had actually happened, that I had suppressed for several years, that drove me nuts then and thinking about it again now rekindled the nuts, and that illustrated the insanity in our family and would serve as a warning to Richard’s bride, Karen, as to why she should perhaps reconsider marrying into this psycho ward. Why she should run screaming into the hills rather than subject herself to a life of unrelenting complaining and unbearable frustration, petty domestic politics and life under maternal rule. The more I thought about this story, I realized it wasn’t funny at all, but that didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell it as a purely cautionary tale. The fact that the toast would come at the wedding reception and that my brother and his wife would be already married didn’t change the urgency of my warning.
“Karen,” I started. “There is still time to run.”

I explained: When I first started to make a little money in Hollywood, I bought my mom, for Hanukkah, a gift of the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.

And then came the phone call from my mother in Rockland County, New York: “Philip, we got the pears.”

“Oh, that’s good, Ma. You like them?”

“Yes, they’re very nice, but please . . . it’s an entire box of pears. There must be twelve or fourteen pears here. There’re so many pears. Please, Philip, do me a favor. Don’t ever send us any more food again, okay?”

I said, “Well, Ma . . . another box is coming next month.”

She said, “What? More pears?”

I said, “No, Ma, a different fruit every month.”

“EVERY MONTH? My God, Max, he got us in some kind of cult. What am I supposed to do with all this fruit?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Most people like it. You eat it … You share it with your friends.”
“Which friends?!”

“I don’t know … Lee and Stan.”

“Lee and Stan buy their own fruit!”

“Oh my God, Ma…”

“Why did you do this to me?”

“What is happening?”

“I can’t talk anymore, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

I went on to describe my father’s misery as well at this misfortune that had befallen them. (“You think we’re invalids? We can’t get our own fruit?”) The wedding guests laughed. No one laughed harder than my parents, who really did treat the gift of fruit from their son as if they’d received a box of heads from a murderer. Richard and Karen remain married to this day and have even brought two children into the world.

My warning didn’t take. Nobody listens to me. Maybe you will.

I guess if we have to classify this book, it is a memoir of sorts. (That’s right, Oprah, and I’ll swear it’s all true even if you make the mean face at me on the couch.) We’ll also, if you’re interested, get into how to make a show, specifically the show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” We’ll see how it came to be, how “writing what you know” is not just a saying but essential, and how almost anyone’s life can be turned into fuel for comedy. We’ll use, for example, my life — where I’m from, the other jobs and other shows I toiled on, my relationships with family, with women, with The Writers’ Room, with show business, and how all of it found its way into the work, became the work, to the point where it wasn’t work anymore. And all of it is here — in the hope that you’ll be entertained, and maybe learn a thing or two that could help you in your own career, your life, your diet. You’ll learn a little about how to write, cast, edit, direct, run, cater, and, most of all, enjoy the gift of a hit show.

I was crazy lucky to get such a gift, and for nine years, I savored it; I loved it; I was tremendously thankful for it. It would not have occurred to me to return it or leave it or be unhappy with it, let alone complain about the gift to whoever gave it to me that it was all “too much.”

You still there, Ma?

On Oct. 24 from 7-8:30 p.m., Phil Rosenthal will be at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

For more information, call (800) 764-2665 or visit

Six Habits of Happily Married Couples


Habit 1: Give Each Other Pleasure

Happily married couples are committed to the goal of giving each other pleasure. You must stay focused on the ultimate goal, which is to give each other pleasure and not cause pain. It sounds simple enough, but can be very hard in practice.
For just one day, try to maintain a consciousness with everything you do, by asking yourself, “Is what I’m about to do or say going to cause my spouse pain or pleasure?”

To monitor how you’re doing, each of you should make two lists: One for all the things your spouse does to cause you pain, and another which identifies what you would like your spouse to do to give you pleasure. Swap lists, and now you know exactly what to do and what not to do. No more mind reading!

Habit 2: Create Mutually Satisfying Love and Friendship Rituals

Rituals are habits that build and strengthen a relationship. How are your greeting and goodbye rituals?

  • Daily e-mailing each other with a compliment.

  • Daily phone call (especially important for husbands to do).
  • Anniversaries deserve special attention. Plan to do something both of you really enjoy, rather than feeling stuck two days before your anniversary arrives and then running out to get some flowers.
  • Before you turn in for the night, try saying two compliments to each other. This means coming up with something new each night.
  • It is essential to have a “date night” at least every other week.

Habit 3: Create a Safe Place to Discuss Issues Openly and Honestly

Abusive relationships are ones in which you are afraid to express feelings and opinions. Happily married couples create a sense of safety that allows each person to feel comfortable expressing his/her feelings, problems and dissatisfactions. This sense of safety is the foundation upon which a couple negotiates things that are bothering them.

It’s common for each person to come into a relationship with certain expectations about how things will be. But without the ability to communicate and negotiate, these issues become sources for power struggles that almost always damage the relationship.

Habit 4: Use Good Communication Skills to Resolve Hot Issues

Every couple must learn the listener-speaker technique. The problem with the way most couples argue is that they try to find solutions before fully giving each other the chance to say what they need to say. The speaker-listener technique ensures that before you can engage in solution talk, each person feels they have been fully heard.

Here’s how it works: One person holds an object in their hand that symbolizes that he or she has the floor. While one person has the floor, the other person can only listen by repeating back or paraphrasing what the other person said. The listener can stop the speaker if she/he is saying too much for the listener to repeat back.

When couples use this technique, it automatically ensures that each person will be able to say everything she/he needs to say without interruption, rebuttals, criticism or attack. Only after each person has been fully heard, do you then proceed to problem solving.

Habit 5: Constantly Turn Toward Each Other, Rather Than Away

When you pass your spouse sitting at her desk doing some work, do you stop and rub her shoulders, give her a kiss on the cheek and whisper something nice in her ear — or do you just walk on by? This is the meaning of turning toward as opposed to turning away.

Marriage research shows that happily married couples do a lot of turning toward each other whenever they get the chance. They look for ways to be physically and emotionally close to each other. Turning toward each other means making each other your number-one priority.

Another important aspect of turning toward each other is doing things together that you both enjoy. Taking walks together, drinking coffee together after dinner, learning Torah together and listening to music together are all examples of how couples turn toward each other.

Couples who turn away from each other don’t develop closeness. It’s a basic principle stated in the Talmud, “A good deed begets another good deed. A bad deed begets another bad deed.”

Habit 6: Infuse Your Lives With
Shared Meaning

I often ask singles the following question: “After you’re married, what do you plan to do for the next 40 years?” And I usually follow up by saying, “And besides having fun, what else will you do with each other?”

Human beings need meaning as much as we need water. Happily married couples enrich their relationship by sharing meaningful experiences with each other. The ultimate in meaning is to share a common philosophy of life and life purpose. This is why couples who observe Shabbat together and learn Torah together have great sources of meaning built into their lives.

Some other specific ways of infusing your relationship with meaning are visiting the sick together, making a shiva call together or preparing a meal together for a mother who just gave birth.

When couples share truly meaningful experiences, they bond on a deeper level.
These six habits may seem small, but when practiced intentionally and consistently, they will form the backbone of a deeply fulfilling marriage.

Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

Age Apparent


Of all the May-to-December romances that were not meant to be, mine must top the list.

For starters, I met Rick in a hot tub — a cliché I was sure we could never get over. We found ourselves at the same party, where he was being accosted by a woman who kept sidling close to him and saying, “When I was at Harvard…” and “At Harvard, my friends and I would blah-blah-blah…”

Finally, I went in for the rescue: “When I was at Florida International University, we took classes in trailers,” I said, trying to mimic her smug tone and referring to a school so new that it barely had walls, much less Ivy-covered ones.

He was so grateful that, as we climbed out of the water, he thanked me and began to make conversation. Somehow, it came up that the following week was my birthday. “How old will you be?” he asked.

“Thirty-two,” I answered.

“Wow, you look way too young to be in your 30s,” he said.

“And you?” I inquired.

“Twenty-three,” he said.

Rick was visiting South Florida because he and his fiancé had recently called it quits. A mutual friend of ours had sent him a plane ticket to break the cycle of self-pity and draft ale that had been taking place in a bar in Pittsburgh, the city where he lived and worked.

In the days that followed, Rick and I spent quite a bit of time together. I worked nights as a reporter, so our friend asked if I’d entertain him during the day while she was stuck in the office. We had lunch, went for walks, visited museums.

He was charming but not the kind of guy I usually went for, with his Coke-bottle glasses and geeky clothes.

And yet before Rick’s weeklong visit was over, we found ourselves in the midst of a flirtation — even if it was one I wasn’t taking seriously. After all, Rick was on the rebound. He lived 1,200 miles away. And, most frightening of all, he was nine years younger than me.

At the time, I knew no one involved with a man that much younger. I had heard, of course, of some celebrity pairings: Cher was famous for dating men half her age, and Susan Sarandon had been with Tim Robbins, 12 years her junior, for quite a while.

But in my mind a match between an older woman and a younger man conjured up little more than “The Graduate.” I wanted none of it.

In fact, I indulged in the flirtation in large part because I believed it wouldn’t go anywhere. It was a mild distraction, safe and fun.

But Rick had other plans. After heading back to Pittsburgh, he began a long-distance courtship. He called. He wrote beautiful letters. And he kept his local florist incredibly busy.

One day, I walked into my office to find a dozen red roses sitting on my desk. The card read, “When you’re 109 and I’m 100, it won’t matter.”

Slowly, the unthinkable began to happen: I was falling for Rick. But I was also nervous — very nervous.

Were we moving too quickly? What about the geographic distance between us? And then there was the toughest hurdle of all, at least for me: our ages.

It wasn’t the inevitable cradle-robbing jokes that bothered me. I was more worried about the day-to-day realities of such a match. If this were the real thing, what would we do about having children? I was ready. Was he?

Then there was my vanity. Sure, a nine-year spread was no problem while I still looked youthful. But what about later, when my age would begin to show?

And that’s when my mother — a perfect mix of pragmatist and romantic — reminded me of something: Men have forever been leaving women for younger women.

“Dating a man your own age is no guarantee that it will work out,” she said. “He’s either a mensch or he’s not.”

While I couldn’t yet fully attest to Rick’s character, I knew deep down that he was nothing if not a mensch.

In a matter of months, Rick and I decided to start a life together in Los Angeles. Before we left for Los Angeles, we visited his parents in Baltimore. It had not been long since his former fiancé had vanished with the string of pearls they had given her to mark her engagement to their son. And now here I was at her heels — and nine years older. What could they be thinking?

“Are you kidding me?” an old friend of Rick’s said. “They won’t care if you’re the same age as his Aunt Lil. They’ll be so happy that he finally found a woman who is Jewish, they’ll be dancing ‘Hava Nagila’ on the dining room table.”

I’m not sure about “Hava Nagila” on the dining room table. But 18 months later, they danced the hora at our wedding. And now, 15 years and two children after that, I am sure Rick was right: When you’ve found the right person, age is beside the point — whether you’re 109 or 32, or somewhere in between.

Randye Hoder is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

 

ADL Youth DREAM of Promoting Tolerance


At Claremont High School, there is a boy named Matthew Shepard — the same name as the Wyoming college student killed seven years ago in a brutal anti-gay hate crime. Senior Adam Primack often saw his schoolmate get teased, and he also witnessed students chant homophobic slurs during games against their rival school — an all-boys campus.

Rather than watch silently, however, Primack turned to the skills and insights he’s gained as part of DREAM Dialogue, a multiethnic group of teenagers brought together by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to learn to appreciate and respect people’s differences and to take action to promote tolerance.

DREAM is an acronym for Developing diverse, Respectful relationships, Empathy and Action with Meaning through dialogue. The program is a youth leadership project of the ADL’s World of Difference Institute, run by the ADL’s West Coast office.

About 40 teens take part in quarterly meetings, travel to leadership training retreats and design and execute social action projects to promote tolerance. Students have created a mural; a photo exhibition called, “Faces of L.A.,” and a book to facilitate discussion among elementary school children about bullying called, “What Would You Do?”

When Primack saw the homophobia in his own school, he knew what to do. He got permission from school administrators to show an interactive movie to Shepard’s class called “Hate Comes Home,” produced by ADL. The CD-ROM features a dramatization of events leading up to an anti-gay murder at a high school homecoming dance and asks students to go back and make different choices for the characters to try to prevent what happened.

Primack said the whole classroom became involved in the story, asking questions and making choices that determined whether the student would live or be killed. After that day, the teacher who had not taken steps to stop the students from teasing Claremont High’s Matthew Shepard wrote a letter of apology for being a bystander.

Participants say DREAM Dialogue gives them the strength to break through the isolation they feel in a culture where prejudice often goes unquestioned.

“There are so few people who have these ideas, so to meet them is amazing,” said Shirley Eshaghian, who took part in DREAM Dialogue from 2001 to 2005 and is now a UCLA freshman.

Aside from the local meetings, some students also travel to Washington, D.C., joining up with young people from other ADL chapters, visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and meeting with civil rights activists.

“It’s great to be with kids who are like you, who want to make a difference but wonder how one person can make a difference,” said Talia Savren, who went to the nation’s capital as a DREAM Dialogue member in 2000 and now helps facilitate younger students’ meetings. “There are a lot of young minds open to making the world a better place.”

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of about 30 participants gathered at the ADL’s local headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. During an ice-breaker exercise, students were asked to cluster by race and then by ethnicity. One young woman, a multiracial blend of African American, British and Filipino, called out, “Human race.” All the others joined her.

Jenny Betz, the ADL staffer running the meeting, appeared a little bit exasperated — after all, the exercise was designed to explore self-conceptions about difference — but she was also a little proud.

Betz led a discussion exploring both the useful aspects of categorizing people by race and ethnicity — a way to define identity, heritage and historical connection — and the pitfalls, such as a way to unfairly exercise privilege.

Later in the afternoon, the students and some of their parents watched a one-man, nine-character play that traced the efforts of a Salvadoran American teenager to get a driver’s license. The actor donned different props to depict different characters, including a Polish-accented Statue of Liberty working as a DMV clerk — each conveying their views of immigrants and immigration.

Both before and after the play, a facilitator probed the students’ attitudes toward race and immigration, drawing out family histories of leaving the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Mexico and Iran for the United States. Throughout the day, the students expressed their views forthrightly, uninhibited about stating views that might be unpopular and open to others’ opinions.

The self-knowledge is a crucial pre-requisite to doing the work of spreading tolerance, program alumni say.

“We teach ourselves, then we teach others,” said Neda Farzan, an 18-year-old USC freshman. She was a DREAM Dialogue member four years ago and took part in the “Faces of L.A.” photo project. The images include tattooed white hipsters with guitars, visitors to Olvera Street, merchants in Little Ethiopia, homeless men in Venice and Orthodox children wearing kippot and tzitzit.

Farzan, whose family fled Iran, said DREAM Dialogue has helped her “value our diverse and free society, where people are encouraged to be individuals and cultural identities are preserved.”

“I grew up in Beverly Hills, which is such a bubble,” she said. “If you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you’re in a different world.”

 

Spectator – Two Worlds, Two Girls, One Dream


“This isn’t the kind of musical where it’s ‘OK, we’re going to have a production number now,'” said Herb Isaacs, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, about the upcoming world premiere of “American Klezmer.” “Every song is integrated into the plot.”

If “American Klezmer,” whose book was co-written by Joanne Koch (pronounced “Cook”) and Sarah Blacher Cohen, defies the common narrative flaw of many musicals, it adheres to the musical template by having a young ingenue, in this case a Russian Jewish immigrant named Leah (Teressa Byrne), who wants to sing — a form of leisure not permitted women in the Old Country. As theatergoers have understood since the dawn of musicals like “A Star Is Born,” by the end of Act III (Act II, in this case) Leah will be a star.

Although living in Russia and America circa 1910, Leah has a thoroughly modern sensibility, making her reminiscent not only of Millie from the eponymous musical, but also of Rosalind from “As You Like It.” Like Rosalind, Leah is reluctant initially to wed. While Leah does not deck herself out in gender-bending attire like Shakespeare’s famous heroine, she and her sister, Shulamis, follow Rosalind and boon companion Celia, a surrogate sister, by dressing in disguise and ending up with the right men by the play’s conclusion. Along the way, they are both willing to make sacrifices, enter into marriages of convenience and even divorce, a rather radical notion in 1910.

Koch says she was influenced by sacrifices her mother and grandmother made, saying that for “a sister to consider putting aside her happiness for the benefit of another family member would be rare today.”

Koch and Cohen, whose joint anthology of plays titled “Shared Stages: The Drama of Blacks and Jews” will be published by SUNY Press later this year, both grew up with “singing mothers, Yiddish mothers,” said Koch, whose 14 produced plays include six musicals.

While neither composer Ilya Levinson nor lyricist Owen Kalt conceptualized the actual storyline of the musical, Levinson inspired Koch and Cohen when he played them his musical composition, “Klezmer Rhapsody.”

“It captured the energy of Klezmer tradition but had melodic aspects to it,” Koch said. “It was extremely varied.”

From there, Koch and Cohen, who have collaborated on a number of plays including the musical “Sophie, Totie & Belle,” began sketching out ideas for the story of a free spirit, who sneaks into steerage so she can sing in America where “women can be free.”

Even if women did not gain suffrage until 1920, anything beats pogroms and a world without song.

“American Klezmer” runs now through Sunday, March 19, at the Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. (323) 860-6620.

 

Who Are You?


Even in the best of families, relationships are enormously complicated. Some of the stories rabbis hear, all too frequently, of families in crisis are excruciatingly painful: parents who disown their children because of radical disappointment with the life choices their children have made; siblings who refuse to be in the same room with each other because their anger is irreconcilable; courts clogged with family members fighting over contested wills, and so forth. The possibilities for family chaos are almost endless. When things go wrong, they often go very wrong.

That is just simply a given of social life and structure, and even our patriarchal ancestors were not immune from the challenges of keeping families together, as we have been reading in the Genesis narratives these past few weeks: Abraham sends away his concubine wife and his son with her, and the family separates after the episode of the Akedah. Isaac sees his twin sons in a homicidal fight over the birthright, and one of his sons has to leave home. Jacob loses his favorite son to a diabolical plot launched by his sons against their brother. These are hardly thes tale of a happy, well-adjusted family.

But in this week’s parsha, there is the beginning of a reconciliation among the sons of Jacob; a glimpse of hope for future family life. The brothers are to be reunited in Egypt. Ten sons of Jacob come to Egypt in search of food; they meet their younger brother Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, and the second-most powerful man in the known world.

When the brothers are brought before Joseph, in what seems like a throwaway line, the Torah gives us a glimpse into what is arguably the most important verse in the entire Joseph narrative, in what is a key to understanding the source of the tension in this family dynamic — and the key to strengthening the dynamic in every family:

“For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). How is it possible they didn’t recognize their own flesh and blood, the object of their earlier jealousy and their resentment and their homicidal rage?

One answer, perhaps, is that Joseph recognized his brothers because they had not changed, but they did not recognize Joseph because he had. The 11th century commentator, Rashi, indicates as much, as he quotes the Midrash in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 69b) that states that when Joseph left home as a 17-year-old kid, he was clean-shaven. Now, more than 20 years later, Joseph was standing before them as a grown man with a full beard, and he was unrecognizable to his brothers. But more than just the beard, I suspect, had changed in Joseph; the brothers, on the other hand, had not changed at all from the time they were young men. None of the experiences of life had much of an effect on them. They talked about the same things they had always talked about. They dressed the same. They looked the same. It was easy to recognize them.

Joseph, on the other hand, had seized every opportunity he could to grow. He accepted every challenge put before him as a way to learn life’s lessons, as a way to develop skills and wisdom and to grow into a mature adult. The man standing in front of these shepherds from the hill country of Israel was not, by any definition, the same young man who was thrown into the snake pit so many years ago.

Some two centuries after Rashi, the 13th century commentator, Ramban, is skeptical of this answer. He notes that Issachar and Zevulun were not that much older than Joseph; if the difference in age between them was not that great, the difference in a beard would not have made that much of a difference. How could they not recognize him?

A second answer is suggested, one more troubling than the first, an answer that has to do with a basic character flaw we see in each of us: an innate inability to recognize our brothers, to see them separate from us, in their own autonomy, with their own matrix of needs, desires, hopes and motivations. That was the problem in Jacob’s family all along: the inability of brothers to recognize each other’s humanity.

When Joseph was 17, all he was to them was an exasperating nuisance. Their jealousy, anger and rage at his adolescent arrogance blinded them to who he really was, and allowed them to behave with violence. If they had been able to see Joseph for who he truly was, the way the Torah and God see him, it is highly unlikely they would have sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites.

And so it is with us. When we are able to see each other’s humanity and recognize the dignity in each other, holiness and kindness prevail. Families have the chance of staying together, where everyone nurtures each other, and love dominates. The inability to recognize our brothers (and sisters, of course) is the beginning of enmity and strife, often times leading to family divisions.

And if we can do this in our own families, can we not do this as well with our communal families? Have we not all one Father?

Prickly Fathers, Rebellious Sons


Prickly relationships between fathers and sons, messy divorces and radical personal awakenings. All are subjects tackled by two searing, semiautobiographical films by Jewish directors now playing in Los Angeles. Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” and Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue” both won top prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — and both are generating Oscar buzz. They also have another thing in common: Each film reflects the current cultural obsession with the unflinching family memoir.

Baumbach and Sachs, both in their 30s, live blocks from each other in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan. But The Journal caught up with them last week in Los Angeles as they peddled their films to the press. In separate interviews, the directors described how psychotherapy spurred these highly personal, if fictionalized works. They also talked about their real fathers, and how Judaism influences their world view.

The title of Baumbach’s blistering, darkly comic film, “The Squid and the Whale,” alludes to “The Clash of the Titans” diorama at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. But it also becomes a metaphor for the battle between a confused Jewish teenager and his hypercritical, intellectual father, played by Jeff Daniels. Initially, the fictional Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) acts as his father’s disciple, parroting dad’s imperious dismissals of books such as “This Side of Paradise” as “minor’ Fitzgerald.” But after his parents’ divorce, traumatic events sour Walt’s father-worship, allowing the boy to become his own person.

The characters are inspired by Baumbach’s life with his father (and mother), both lauded writers, in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Although his mother is Protestant, young Noah identified as Jewish because he felt a connection to the People of the Book. Family discussions abounded about “major” and “minor” Dickens, metafiction and why one should not bother to read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

“On the one hand, it was incredibly valuable — and very Jewish — to be introduced to so many classics,” the 35-year-old director said in the lobby of the Le Mondrian hotel. “But on the other, I was rejecting a lot of books I hadn’t even read, like the character of Walt in the movie. I dismissed ‘On the Road,’ as juvenile, when in fact I was a juvenile and probably should have had the experience of reading it.

“I was running around and pretending I was some brilliant person,” he added. “But I wasn’t doing well in school because I wasn’t doing the work. It can be intimidating when you’re assigned to read a classic and you know it’s good for you but [difficult]. You feel like, ‘What’s wrong with me,’ and you bag off of it.”

When his parents divorced, suddenly the family he had viewed as superior collapsed, and he worried the neighbors would discover the Baumbachs weren’t so great.

Young Noah survived and grew up to collaborate with director Wes Anderson and to make three films — including 1995’s art house success, “Kicking and Screaming” — while still in his 20s. Yet he remained dissatisfied with these clever comedies of manners, because he felt he was “writing from the outside in.” It was only psychotherapy and the maturity of reaching age 30 that allowed him to confront rawer subjects.

His thoughts turned to his adolescence, and he initially toyed with writing about two brothers in their 30s who deal retroactively with their parents’ divorce. Then by chance, he saw Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart,” which inspired him to focus on the children’s point of view.

“I went directly to that time in my life and told the story from there,” he said. “By starting from a very real place I was able to fictionalize in a much more effective way.”

Wearing longish, styled hair and a chic suit, Baumbach looks nothing like the scruffy Brooklynites in his film. He speaks softly except when describing the reviews that say “Squid” lambastes his real father, who was keenly aware of the movie project.

“I feel protected by the film because it is a fiction, an artistic achievement,” he said. “If I really was intending to eviscerate my father, I would feel much more vulnerable.”

Even so, actor Daniels noted similarities between Baumbach’s father and his character during a visit to the writer’s Brooklyn home.

“It was his enjoyment of finding a word and using it to describe something that only he would say,” Daniels told The Journal. “He would use terms like, ‘fillet’ of the neighborhood, or how his beard was looking ‘a little feral.’ And then there would be a little flash of the eyes, looking at the person he just said that to, wondering if they’re as impressed with what he just did as he was.”

Actor Eisenberg was more starry-eyed when Baumbach senior visited the set, responding as his character would have to Daniels’ character.

“I felt reverential because I had read one of his books and I had really liked it,” he said.

Baumbach, meanwhile, insists that his father loves the film — and that there is no squid and whale fight here. He said his dad is proud of his achievements. And so is the director.

“I have learned the value of an emotional approach to filmmaking,” he said.

The film “Forty Shades of Blue” arises emotionally out of the 1968 split-up of Ira Sachs’ parents and its aftermath. At age 5, Ira began accompanying his father on his bachelor outings in a Cadillac convertible in the environs of Memphis, Tenn. Sachs senior, a real estate mogul, “was a man about town, and he had lots of women in his life,” the 39-year-old director recalled. Young Ira spent many evenings at bars and parties or riding in the back of the Cadillac with one of his father’s much-younger girlfriends.

“Initially I felt antagonism for these women, because they were so different from me in terms of culture, education and class,” the director said. “But once I got to know them, I saw that they had their own innate intelligence, just a different set of economic possibilities. For many of these women, being with a charismatic, wealthy older man offered financial security, and access to clout and power. I also sensed a repressed anger because there was so much at stake for these women. And I became more sympathetic to the notion of how class effects character.”

The concept eventually led to “Blue,” about a sleek Muscovite (Dina Korzun) who appears to be the vapid trophy girlfriend of a hot-tempered Memphis music producer (Rip Torn). The intimate drama follows the character as she awakens to her own needs, prompted by her affair with her lover’s prodigal son.

“My character is a woman who has illusions and wrong ideas about life, and this love story gives her a reason to wake up and start to ask questions,” actress Korzun said.

On a recent Friday at the Chateau Marmont hotel, the affable Sachs, who was dressed like a preppie, looked around the opulent lobby and noted only white faces in sight. He went on to trace his obsession with character and class not only to the backseat of his father’s Cadillac, but to his Reform temple in Memphis. The synagogue emphasized social action over ritual and empathy for society’s outcasts and have-nots. While he was one of the “haves,” Sachs identified because he, too, felt marginalized as a Southern Jew.

“I was popular at my all-boys prep school, but I knew I’d have pennies thrown at me if I walked down a certain hall,” he said. Sachs was also gay and closeted at the time.

Growing up, he strongly identified with a radical Jewish tradition that was based on social dissent. He served as a labor activist at Yale and, after graduation, began making films about people on society’s margins. His acclaimed 1997 movie, “The Delta,” for example, revolved around a half-black, half-Vietnamese gay man in Memphis.

Sachs describes himself as an “utterly Jewish artist,” not only because of his economic perspective but also because of his devotion to “the Jewish discipline” of psychoanalysis: “My film explores, ‘What do you lose in the choices you make and how can you regain what is lost through self-understanding?'”

Nine intensive years on the couch also helped him resolve issues with Sachs senior (bachelor outings included), who now lives in Park City, Utah.

“My father was not volatile like Rip Torn’s character, but he had a similar strength and position and created a shadow I needed to emerge from,” Sachs said.

While his analysis may have helped him create exquisitely nuanced protagonists, some psychiatrists at a New York Psychoanalytic Institute screening were more interested in the director.

“They pointed out,” Sachs said, “that the structure of the story is mythologically Oedipal.”

“Squid and the Whale” opens Friday; “Forty Shades of Blue” is now in theaters.

 

New Reality Show Is a Shore Thing


Well-traveled comedian Pauly Shore has taken his act on the reality show highway, and his father, Sammy, a fellow comedian and family patriarch, is riding alongside as his co-star. The new TBS show, “Minding the Store,” is an up-close look at Pauly’s life and his attempts to recharge the batteries of the Comedy Store, the famed comedy club on Sunset Boulevard.

The show’s focus is the intervention of 37-year-old Pauly into the running of the Sunset Strip club, which his mother has managed for years. This ongoing plot element is interlaced with road gigs, “hot-girl” auditions and Pauly’s conversations with his therapist.

Pauly Shore probably has more name recognition today, but Sammy, the vigorous 70-something Shore patriarch, has a long show business career that includes opening for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

“I have a whole new career starting now,” said the elder Shore. “I love that there are so many new opportunities opening for me.”

The reality TV series was a logical next step for Pauly Shore, given that he also played himself in his most recent movie, even though the independent film itself was fiction. In “Pauly Shore Is Dead,” he faked his own death to regain fame.

A running theme of the new show is Pauly’s love life: “I want someone who has already come into herself, not immature and searching or looking for me to complete her.”

Pauly said it’s difficult to forge lasting relationships on the road, and that he rejects casual encounters in lieu of something more meaningful.

“I don’t think he’ll ever get married,” father Sammy interjected during their father-son interview with The Journal. “I should never have gotten married. I’m too much of a free spirit, and there are too many temptations on the road.”

Both readily agree that humor is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Pauly is adamant that he won’t settle for a less-than-honest relationship and marrying a Jewish girl is not out of the question.

“I can’t live feeling guilty because I have two lifestyles,” he said. “I’d rather not have a girlfriend than be part of a dishonest relationship. It doesn’t work for me, and that’s why I’ve been alone for the last four years.”

These days, Sammy is happily married to second wife Suzanne, but Pauly, as a child, had to live through the bitter show business divorce of his father and Mitzi Shore, his mother. For years, Mitzi has been the iron hand behind the management of The Comedy Store, where Pauly did much of his growing up.

He is clear about what he learned from such comedy icons as Sam Kinison and John Belushi.

“I believe I benefited from watching the self-destructive tendencies of others,” he said. “It’s OK to dance with the devil, as long as you don’t become the devil.”

Sometimes the comedians had a laugh at his expense. “I used to hate it when they would make me get out of the car in the middle of the street and leave me there,” Pauly said.

“I never knew they did that to you,” Sammy said, leaning in closer.

“They would drive around the block and pick me up,” Pauly continued. “But I would be standing there in the middle of the street crying.”

Sammy shook his head, disturbed at the recollection: “I was always available for my kids. All they ever had to do was call me.”

Pauly’s memory of his father’s involvement is more nuanced, though largely positive.

“It was pretty typical crazy,” he said. “My dad would come to my soccer games on the weekend dressed in spandex, screaming at me to hit the ball. While the comics would stand around hitting on all the soccer moms.”

Sammy said he spent as much time with Pauly and his siblings as possible, because ex-wife Mitzi worked long hours building The Comedy Store.

Pauly said his time spent with each parent was invaluable. “I always knew they loved me, even if they didn’t say it all the time.”

But Pauly added that he got no special perks nor opened doors. “I bombed at the Store early on, and I had to go to other clubs to work on my act. I received no advice from my mom, and I had to sink or swim on my own.”

Sammy, however, said he helped Pauly by taking him “with me on the road.”

“But he hasn’t had me in any of his movies,” Sammy quipped. “I would have put him in mine — make me an offer,” he joked, eyeing Pauly across the table.

In the meantime, both Shores are enjoying the notoriety the new show has brought and focusing on next season.

Although there wasn’t much Jewishness in their home growing up, Pauly said he does contemplate having a bar mitzvah some day. Another long-term goal reveals a culinary bent.

“I’d like to open a fish restaurant in Maui and serve fresh fish every day,” Pauly said.

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You Are Not Alone


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read the opening words of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I closed the book to wonder if it was true. Were all happy families alike and unhappy families unique? So many years later, as a pulpit rabbi, I still disagree.

In parshat Naso, we are introduced to the rituals concerning the sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. If a husband becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, he is to bring her to the priest who concocts a truth serum mixing dust from the sanctuary floor, water and a few dissolved curses. If the wife is innocent, she remains healthy after drinking the bitter water. If she is guilty, she suffers a miscarriage.

At first, the practice seems uncomfortably similar to the trials of seventeenth century Salem. However, one wonders if the ritual, which appears to humiliate a woman publicly, is also in a quiet way trying to protect her. Reading it, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy’s myth that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are each desperately lost and alone.

The sotah ritual takes an unhappy family, one where there is great potential for anger and abuse, and draws them out of their private homes into a sacred and safe space. The message is that the husband is not to take matters into his own hands. In verse 12 we read: “If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him….”

Rashi understands the “him” in this verse to refer to God. With this insight, suddenly, the infidelity becomes a crisis between the adulterer and God as opposed to husband and wife. It is not about the spouse.

In verse 14 it is written that a spirit of jealousy comes over the husband, as if the jealousy came from an outside source, and is out of his control. Rather than allow the situation to escalate more and more out of control within the walls of their home, the husband’s suspicions become a public concern, and how it is handled becomes a priestly matter. Their pain is taken out of their house, and brought into God’s. The husband is not alone in his jealousy.

The wife, also, is not alone. The Talmud explains that before giving her the waters to drink, the priest tries to find excuses for her, saying: “Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much…. He tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah, and the affair of Judah with Tamar. Both of them, he tells her, had confessed their deeds and were not ashamed. What happened to them in the end? They inherited life in the next world” (Midrash Raba).

Often a congregant comes to me when their family is in crisis. Perhaps there is jealousy, anger, sickness, infidelity, and/or abuse. I find that so much time and energy is spent being stunned that this could happen. Little if any strength is left for building a healthy future. I find people have more trouble forgiving their partner for breaking the illusion of happiness than forgiving for whatever actually happened. When sadness strikes, people feel as if it is only happening to them, when, in truth, a rabbi may have heard similar stories from a number of families — each traveling with their own private well of deep, deep pain.

On Friday nights, the bimah is often filled with people receiving blessings for a wedding, a birth, birthdays or anniversaries. However, never would a couple come before the ark, in front of their congregation, to receive a blessing of guidance when their marriage is suffering. How humiliating. We rarely ritualize bringing our pain to God. We bring our families’ happiness, but pain is kept dangerously to ourselves.

In Jewish Women International’s Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, it is written: “The myth that Jewish families are immune from abuse enables a system of missed cues, thereby preventing appropriate intervention. Jewish women themselves often delay seeking help or more often never seek help at all.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 25 percent of women have been raped or abused. The American Journal of Public Health said that one-third of all teens report experiencing some type of abuse in their romantic relationships including verbal and emotional. The Jewish community invests so much into the making or wanting shidduchs, however we invest terribly little in infusing holiness into the daily labor of maintaining those coveted relationships. It is true that we cannot go into people’s houses like the priests of old who would be invited to inspect plagues on the walls. However, we can invite people into our house, into the synagogue, by acknowledging that pain exists, and by creating avenues by which families can bring not only their joy, but also their most burdensome sorrow.

All happy families are not alike, living in Camp Happy, while the rest are on the outside all alone. Pain is inevitable to every family, and so to remain healthy, try to stop being surprised by your sadness. Stop thinking, “Why did this happen to me?” and instead think, “I guess now is when this happens to me.”

Use that same energy to think creatively. Use that same strength to invite God to turn your bitter waters sweet and curses into blessings.

Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

 

Writing Well Is the ‘Best Revenge’


It’s 7 p.m. on a recent Monday at Samuel French book store in Studio City, and Stephen Fife is hanging out, waiting for more people to show up for a reading of his new memoir, “Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life (And Has Been Killing Me Ever Since).”

The person responsible for promoting such events is abroad, he says, creating a publicity glitch that’s resulted in, well, hardly anyone turning out to the reading, save for eight friends and fans. It’s a fitting snafu, given that Fife’s hilariously caustic memoir covers everything that can go wrong with anything to do with the theater — and why he perseveres.

“Revenge” revolves around a 1998 staging of his acclaimed adaptation of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish classic, “God of Vengeance,” directed by his idol, the legendary Joseph Chaikin. The book recounts Fife’s misadventures during that Atlanta production — such as his frantic attempts to find free places to crash — between astute insights into the play, the American theater and his colorful past.

Fife, 51, describes growing up an “upper-West-Side-private-school Jew,” the proverbial “black sheep” of his privileged family. He recalls earning good reviews and no money for plays such as his Pinteresque Holocaust saga, “Mickey’s Home”; suffering criticism while adapting “Vengeance” for Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1992 and his unabashed envy of successful playwrights. (During the reading, he asks at least two people if they’ve read Donald Margulies’ adaptation of “Vengeance,” which — as he gleefully notes in his memoir — Chaikin disliked.)

In an era in which showbusiness autobiographies often present the author as hero (think Neil Simon’s “Rewrites”), Fife “carves out a niche for the less-than-gorgeous dramatists of the world,” according to American Theatre magazine. “[He] is unafraid to tell the unattractive truth from the worm’s eye view, to reveal his own schadenfreude, to swipe at colleagues for real and imagined slights.”

“Fife offers a dirty-thoughts-and-all self-portrait in extreme close-up, in the model of early Philip Roth,” another publication, Creative Loafing, said.

Looking artsily rumpled in black jeans and a T-shirt at the reading, the playwright comes off more like an affable, self-deprecating cynic; he smiles politely when a woman gushes, “You have wonderful, self-effacing humor, kind of Larry David-ish.”

Fife is less prickly than David, but he does take umbrage with American Theatre’s claim that his “Revenge” digs at people to get even.

He wrote the book for different reasons, he says during an interview in his sunny, cluttered Santa Monica apartment. He got the idea back in 1998 when, while reeling from a difficult divorce, he unexpectedly realized his 18-year-old dream of working with Chaikin.

“I had in mind a memoir that would deal with the actual experience of theater and would convey a visceral sense of dedicating yourself to an art form you love, regardless of whether you are successful,” he says.

Fife began scribbling notes during rehearsals of Asch’s 1905 drama, about a shtetl pimp who raises his daughter “purely” upstairs while getting rich off the brothel below. The inevitable production problems ensued: Fife says he was appalled, for example, when a promotional poster depicted a drawing of a naked woman dangling from a Star of David (to add insult to injury, the woman didn’t even look Jewish). Then, a community leader denounced the play as “an attack on Jewish businessmen” and the production hung in the balance until the leader attended a rehearsal and approved the show, Fife says.

Behind the scenes, the playwright continued to fight with his girlfriend, who had helped him find a place to stay in Atlanta but was chagrined when he refused to buy his host a thank-you gift.

OK, so he may have burned some bridges in Atlanta, and “Revenge’s” tell-all stories aren’t pretty, but then again, “Blood has to be spilled for comedy to be truly funny,” he says.

“People like to gloss over the nastier sides of things,” he adds. “But I wanted to present the truth about the journey of the playwright, warts and all.”

He doesn’t spare himself: “I think I come across as a pathetic character, for the most part,” he says. “I show my professional insecurities and my rocky history in my relationships, including a number of e-mails that were quite unflattering, in which my girlfriend speaks of me as a ‘constantly rebelling little boy.'”

The playwright appears to have made progress, since he currently shares his apartment with said girlfriend, now his “life partner,” and their 5-year-old daughter. He’s also become the literary director of a new Los Angeles area theater, Pacific Stages, whose debut production is his own black comedy about dating, “This is Not What I Ordered.” Thus far the production has had at least one crisis, a problem with an actor who, in Fife’s words, was “just mugging like crazy.”

So the theater is continuing to save his life, and to kill him.

“I have a play opening this week,” as he told participants at his reading. “So obviously, I’ve learned nothing.”

“This is Not What I Ordered” runs May 28-June 27 at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets, $20, call (323) 655-TKTS. “Revenge” readings are scheduled for June 6 at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, (310) 822-8392; June 9 at Book Soup in West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110; and June 12 at Borders Books and Music in Hollywood, (310) 659-4045.


Excerpt from Stephen Fife’s "Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since":

Not that it was a pleasant thing to admit, but there comes a point when many of us stop being good sports and start wishing some ill-will on our more favored peers, no matter how talented they are. And Donald Margulies was a talented playwright, whose play "Sight Unseen" had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he had been dubbed the official "Jewish-American Playwright" in some press-sanctioned ceremony to which (as usual) I had not been invited. My own Jewish play "Mickey’s Home" had been beaten out several times by his plays, in one case actually getting knocked off a theater’s roster when a new play of his suddenly became available. (That theater’s artistic director, the very picture of WASP gentility, had actually said to me: "Well, you couldn’t expect us to do two Jewish plays in one season, could you? We have subscribers.")

But now Margulies had crossed the line, he had climbed into my wheelhouse and made it personal. Five years after my version of "God of Vengeance" had been produced at Playhouse 91 on New York’s upper East Side — receiving 17 rave reviews and selling out the last few weeks, despite losing our big-name star during rehearsal — I received a call from a literary associate at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, offering me 30 pieces of silver (alright, 20), to be on a panel discussing a production of The Donald Margulies version of "God of Vengeance."

I had put down the receiver and silently screamed at the playwright’s decibel (which not even dogs can hear) and then phoned a friend of mine who worked at Long Wharf. She had smuggled out a script, meeting me in the parking lot of a large shopping center, where I had to read the 200-plus page script on the spot, as if I was Julius Rosenberg memorizing state secrets. In the end, that production was canceled (another 20 pieces of silver down the drain), but his version was out there, hanging over my head. So what if it had 25 characters and included a full klezmer concert? I mean, he was Donald Margulies, the darling of regional theater, the state-sanctioned "Jewish American Playwright" — so what chance did my script have, right? Except Joe Chaikin liked my version better. Yeah. He loved my version, and he was going to direct it. The Joe Chaikin.

Missing Family


My weekly phone call with my parents brought some sad news recently. "We’re going to have to move G.M. to a different nursing home," my mother said to me of my grandmother. "They just don’t have the facilities to take care of someone with her level of dementia."

I knew my grandmother had not been doing well lately, but this seemed like a serious escalation in her condition.

The wonders of modern technology let me hear the sadness in my mother’s voice halfway across the globe, but I can feel the distance between us. My grandmother is fading away, and the only thing I can do is sit on my cell phone and listen as the Jerusalem bus makes its way past the walls of the Old City.

No matter how much I speak with my family on the phone, or how much I pray for my grandmother’s well-being, I’m just not physically there to help in this time of need.

This family crisis is making me realize now more than ever the full impact of my choice to make aliyah.

In choosing Israel, I have excluded America. Of course I can go back to visit, but the opportunities to make quick impromptu visits are gone due to the expense, time and drain of overseas travel.

I feel as though I’ve partially severed the connection between my family and me.

I’m so caught up in my dreams of being the first in my family to replant our roots back in Israel that I almost forgot that I’m making this journey alone, without any family at all.

I understood the implications this move would have on my family before I left, but since we only saw each other about once a year anyway — even when I was living in New York — it didn’t seem like such an issue.

But now my decision feels almost selfish — it’s all about my dreams, my need to live on Jewish soil, my need to live out my ideals.

Thankfully, this feeling of selfishness is not coming from my parents.

They have done nothing but support my move, be it through words, greeting cards or e-mails, reiterating their pride in my decision to be in Israel.

Despite their support — or maybe because of it — for the first time I’m tasting the bitter drawbacks of my decision. I’m seeing how valuable the people are that I’ve left behind.

There have been other moments recently when I’ve started to feel this sting.

A few months back my Aunt Hedy was telling me all about a cousin’s bar mitzvah that I had missed. She told me about how the family all sat together that evening, schmoozing about the old days: the small variety store that my grandmother and grandfather used to run; summer trips they took to the beach in South Haven, Mich.; her grandmother, who came over from Russia, who was blind and always bitter.

As she spoke, I felt at a loss — not so much for the bar mitzvah itself, but for the missed chance to grab onto those slivers of family history I know so little about.

Meanwhile, I’m here in Jerusalem writing my own history.

This chapter in my book would seem to tell the story of passionate yet stubborn character, one who is satisfied with ideals, repercussions notwithstanding.

Of course, leaving the United States was never my intention — it was to come closer to Israel. But that seems to be the irony of the story: In my deep desire to reconnect to my roots, somehow I have disconnected from some of them.

I’ve also felt the loss of connection with my close friends in the United States. So many of the relationships that I put so much energy into have just fallen by the wayside, and I see that making the dream of Israel a reality has unwittingly cut important people out of my life. Of course, when I visit there will be a warm reception, and we will eat sushi and laugh and catch up. My friends have been very supportive, even those who are not Jewish and have no understanding of what Israel means.

But once a year isn’t enough to maintain a real relationship.

The other day, my friend Valerie wrote me a short e-mail: "I got my results back from Sloan-Kettering and I don’t need to come for twice-yearly checkups anymore!"

Even since Valerie’s cancer went into remission, I remember how she used to get so panicky when the time for her checkups would come around. So we always would speak on the phone several times leading up to her appointment, and usually we would sit in some New York restaurant the week of the examination, eating something with chopsticks, while she voiced her fears. It was a small duty, but one that I was happy to take on.

Now, when I write her back a big "Congratulations" — even when it’s all in capital letters and followed by a series of exclamation points — my words lack the personal touch our meetings had.

I can’t help feeling like I’m not there like I used to be.

I go on writing e-mails and sending letters and calling, hoping to strengthen the connection between my family and friends as much as possible.

But there always is that void. I hope that someday having my own family will help fill that space.

For now, however, I realize that every dream has its price, and this distance from family and friends may be the biggest drawback of making aliyah.

I guess that’s the nature of dreams — that when they the come out of the clouds and become reality there always are challenges that come with them.

I’ve chosen with my heart to be in Jerusalem. On one hand, my heart is filled with hope for my present and future here, as well as for all the generations that will hopefully be after me in Israel. But on the other hand, my heart also is broken, because I’m so far from the people that love me the most.

Stronger Relations


If Yeshiva University (YU) wants to be a vibrant presence in
the United States, it has to create stronger relationships with the Modern
Orthodox community, so said YU President Richard Joel during his keynote
address at the Orthodox Union’s (OU) 13th annual West Coast Torah Convention,
which was held Dec. 11-15 in Los Angeles. The theme of this year’s convention
was “The Secret to Jewish Survival: The Jewish Family.”

The OU is the central coordinating organization for Orthodox
communities in the United States and Canada. In Los Angeles, the OU has 14
member congregations. While it is well known for its kashrut supervision and
its youth organization, the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the OU has
recently started to focus on strengthening the Jewish family.

 Convention sessions took place at local synagogues and at
the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The sessions ranged from talks by psychologists on
“Keeping Our Marriages Spicy” and maintaining the balance between family
relationships and religion, to lectures by rabbis on the halachic (Jewish Law)
obligations of husbands, wives, parents and children.

In his speech, Joel said that in order for families to
survive, they need an environment of a community that defines itself as a
family of families.

“It can’t be cold, forbidding or exclusionary,” Joel said.
“It can’t build walls and needs to reinforce values and offer services to the
family.”

“I’m saying that we have a lot of work to do,” Joel
continued. “I am here to say that YU must fulfill a role of being in partnership
with the communities with a passion for our world view and our passion for
Torah.”

After his speech, Joel clarified his vision to The Journal,
saying that YU needs more community-based programs, because the Modern Orthodox
community feels under siege.

“They see a vigorous left and a vigorous right, and they are
feeling defensive, even though they know that the lifestyle that they have and
the life values that they have are relevant and strong, but they don’t
understand why,” he said.

“YU needs a speaker’s bureau,” he added. “We don’t have
organized ways to provide services to the day schools. We haven’t galvanized
the rabbis and the educators we have trained as a strike force.”

“We need to provide an engine to the broad Jewish community
for continuing training for Jewish professionals, for being a cauldron for
educational planning for people from all the day schools,” he said. “The vision
that we have to have is that we have to take some responsibility for the Jewish
future.”

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a YU biology professor and the rosh
yeshiva of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also spoke at the
convention. Tendler is known as an expert on medical ethics and halacha. He
spoke on two subjects: “The Genome and the Jews: Responding to New Discoveries
and Tests” and “Providing Care/Withdrawing Care: Halacha in Conflict With
Changing Legal Doctrines.”

Tendler said that the Torah perspective is one that welcomes
genetic research. In an interview with The Journal, Tendler explained that stem
cell research is one of the most hopeful areas in disease therapy today. He
said President Bush’s intrusion in that area was tantamount to the destruction
of the separation of church and state, and the cause of the exodus of many U.S.
scientists.

“President Bush, under the influence of the fundamentalist
Christians, declared that humanhood begins at the time of fertilization,”
Tendler said. “Never in the history of humanity has that definition been
accepted.”

“Nobody could even think that something in a Petri [dish]
could be declared human, but President Bush did and then declared it abortion
at a time in America when abortion is your constitutional right [thus
prohibiting] all stem cell research,” he said. “In Torah law it is quite clear
what is humanhood and what is not humanhood.”

Tendler also criticized Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida
for disregarding the separation of the legislative and judicial branches of
government, when he interfered in the case of a comatose woman and ordered her
feeding tube replaced. However, Tendler did say that ethically, Bush did the
right thing, and that halacha would require the woman to be kept alive and
receive care.

“Now the secular God in America is ‘autonomy'” Tendler said.
“You can refuse therapy if it pleases you. In Jewish law, it is my obligation
to provide health care for everybody.”

“If someone wants to refuse therapy, then you would say that
they are in violation of halacha,” he said. “We are coercive in providing
medical care [because] we have a far greater concern for the sanctity of life.”
 

Life After ‘Sex’


DEJA VEWISH: When you meet yet another great Jewish woman who is so similar in either looks or personality that for all intents and purposes, she could be you (or so you wish).

Like Cindy Chupack, I’m “Between Boyfriends.” I’m also a single Jewish woman in my 30s in Los Angeles who knows a lot — and has written a lot — about relationships, although I can’t seem to form that everlasting one.

But unlike Chupack, I’m not a writer or executive producer for HBO’s “Sex and the City,” and I haven’t just come out with a terrific new book titled “The Between Boyfriends Book: A Collection of Cautiously Hopeful Essays” (St. Martin’s Press) based on my columns for Glamour magazine, headed by phrases I’ve coined such as “LONE RANGERED: To have had a relationship end in a mysterious and annoying way — with no goodbye, no answers, just the vague feeling that you have no idea who that man was.”

(Also, no one has ever called me “cautious” and few find me “hopeful,” and so maybe I’m not a sweet redhead from Tulsa, Okla., but on the other hand, we both look more like each other than like Sarah Jessica Parker.)

THE EVIL “NOT I”: When your life is going so swimmingly well that you try not to have too many expectations lest the ayin hora cause you to lose it all.

“I never expected this little book to be on the best-seller list,” Chupack said about the book’s recent ranking at 27 on the New York Times Bestseller List following her appearance on the “Today” show. “That was kind of exciting, even if that was it for it!” (As of press time, it was down to 35.) “My dream was that it would just get to the right people and they would give it to friends and it would take off that way,” she said.

Chupack expresses the same quiet wonder towards her successful TV career. After working on “Coach” and two seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” she moved to the burgeoning “Sex and the City,” which was only in its second season (this, despite her father’s admonition not to leave a successful show for an unknown). “Sex” is up for 13 Emmy nominations on Sept. 21 — including one for “I Love a Charade,” an episode Chupack co-wrote, and one for Best Comedy Series. “Just to be nominated — and I know that everyone says that — it is huge to me, because I really feel like a kid from Oklahoma; it’s really extraordinary.”

FREE TO BE JEW AND ME: When you come from a small town with very few Jews and think Judaism is something you should keep quiet — and then find yourself living bicoastally and working in comedy writing, where nearly everyone’s Jewish and you learn it’s something you don’t have to hide anymore.

Chupack grew up Reform in a city with some 2,000 Jews and two synagogues — one Reform and one Conservative. After attending college at Northwestern University, she moved to New York and then to Los Angeles to pursue TV writing.

“Once I started comedy writing, it was odd to be around so many Jews. I was more self-conscious about talking or bringing it up,” Chupack said. “I don’t know if I realized that to what extent until I got away from Oklahoma. I remember my teacher asking me to explain Chanukah to the class, and just wanting to fit in and not really stand out, so it’s odd to be working in Hollywood where being Jewish is almost the norm.” (There are “four and a half out of seven ” Jewish writerson the show, Chupack said.)

HOK ME A FAYGELEH: When your parents don’t bug you about getting married because the first time you did — to the greatest guy, a Jewish doctor from a fabulous family — he turned out to be gay.

It’s almost a decade since Chupak’s divorce (see Chapter 10: “IMPOSTER COMPLEX: What a relationship columnist might feel when she is not currently in a relationship, has not been able to maintain a relationship, does not have any prospects for a new relationship, nor does she even have a funny term for this predicament.”), and these days Chupack only dates Jewish men.

“I would prefer to marry someone who’s Jewish,” she said, because most Jews have a “built-in sense of humor, just because we’ve had to develop one; it’s one of our survival instincts or something.” She finds humor really sexy, and likes Jewish family values, “but we haven’t cornered the market on that,” she said.

Does she get parental pressure? “My parents wholeheartedly approved and loved the guy I married, so they’re real hands-off now,” she laughed.

How do they feel about their daughter working on such a risque show? Chupack said that they’re in on the joke, “but they’ve started to understand that some other people might be shocked, so they don’t blanketly tell everyone to watch.”

More disturbing, Chupack said, is that the show has opened up a dialogue she never wanted to have with her parents. “One time after the ‘Tuckus Lingus’ episode, which I wrote, my father said, ‘I hope you don’t actually go through everything you write about,’ and I told him ‘No!’ I don’t even want to discuss that kind of stuff [with him].”

J-DATEALOUSY: The envious feeling in others when they discover that you have a better experience on an internet dating Web site (even though it might be due to a better attitude).

Toward the end of the book (Chapter 34: “RETRODATING: Reconnecting with one of the first boys you ever kissed in order to get back in touch with your own dating innocence and joy.”), Chupack was dating Guy, her boyfriend from when she went on a teen tour to Israel. But alas, Chupack is “Between Boyfriends” again, and back on JDate.

“I [once] got very briefly on Nerve.com and somebody wanted to wrestle, and it scared me,” she said. “So I got off and went back on JDate, because I’ve never been scared on JDate. I might have been uninspired…” she joked, but says that the men on the site seem ready to have a real relationship. “So it’s kind of a relief.”

JDating was actually going to be an episode on “Sex” last season — but it got cut. “When Harry and Charlotte broke up, we thought she would go on JDate and get about 2,000 hits, and [executive producer] Michael Patrick King had a really funny draft of a script that had her on JDate and just feeling overwhelmed … but we ended up doing the scene with the three yentas instead.”

TALKING TACHLIS: The process of eventually getting through all the things you have to talk about to get to what you really want to talk about.

Speaking of Harry and Charlotte, Chupack said they are currently writing the last season, which will air in January, and they are trying to figure out how much they will keep alive the Jewish issue for Charlotte.

“I think it will probably have some sort of presence, because when Charlotte does something, she goes all the way. It wasn’t a means to an end for her; she really fell in love with the religion, and we wanted to make it seem genuine, because that’s what happens so often when people convert. I’ve known so many people who convert, and they’re often more devoted than the rest of us who grew up with it and might take Judaism for granted,” Chupack said.

As to the important question of what’s going to happen to Carrie and soon-to-be beau Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chupack is keeping mum.

“We know basically what we think should happen at the end, but that’s what we’re doing right now, checking it against what we feel like is happening onscreen.”

And as to the biggest heartbreaker of them all — Mr. Big — Chupack said he’ll be back.

“You’ll see him a little bit, probably. You can’t just dispose of Big,” she said. “We have been on long enough to test the theory, ‘Can people change?'” she said. “With Big, we’re testing, what can you believe about him, what’s he capable of, and would that ever change?”

FRAU FA’BITTERSWEET: That lump in the throat you experience when something great is about to end, even though something better might be in store for you.

“I’m feeling very bittersweet about [the show ending],” Chupack said, because “I’m very aware that I may never have a job I love this much and work with people that I love this much and be so proud of what we’re doing….But yet I feel proud of our decision to end it while it’s still on such a high note.”

While HBO has offered Chupack her own show, and she has a few romantic comedy scripts up her sleeve, she isn’t thinking about that just yet. She’s just enjoying her last season writing for “Sex and the City.”

“It just feels like one of those crazy moments in time where all the planets align and we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.”


Cindy Chupack will be reading “Between Boyfriends” on Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vincente Blvd., and Wednesday, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in The Grove.

Rock On


Getting engaged is a life-altering, mind-blowing, milestone event. It is the romantic equivalent of graduating from college and being thrown into the great unknown. We are transitioning here.

Getting engaged is also something you have to do. It doesn’t just happen on its own. At some point, amid all the anxiety, the expectation, the excitement, it is something that needs getting done. The question needs asking. Proposing marriage found its way onto a to-do list for Sat., April 26. Who says romance is dead?

10 a.m.: Drop off dry cleaning

Noon: Get stamps at post office

4 p.m.: Get engaged

Talk about a matzah ball on the calendar!

It requires jewelry — something about which I have managed to remain blissfully ignorant these many years. Alison’s family is "into" jewelry. She has one aunt whose apartment looks like Cartier’s vault. And, if I understand it correctly from Aunt Sylvia, where diamonds and romance intersect, size does matter.

Evidently, buying an engagement ring is not like ordering a book on Amazon.com. I spent a lot of time on the phone, designing the ring with my cousin Robbie The Jeweler in Detroit. (Who buys retail?) In my family, saying, "Did you talk to Detroit?" means that something shiny will soon be on its way. Rob taught me a valuable lesson — literally — about cut, clarity, color and carat.

I picked up the package at the post office. It came wrapped in plain brown paper and taped all the way around, completely discreet, but I felt like I was walking through the airport with a ticking bomb in my carry-on bag. I thought everyone must know that something suspicious was going on. No one let on if they did.

When I opened the box I still didn’t know what to think. The ring was so small I could lose this thing in my pocket, but I could also trade it in for a new model convertible car. That’s a whole lot of symbolism for one finger.

Now I just had to figure out the when and where of it. I chose the beach on a beautiful spring Saturday. The way I figured it, I’d take the ring, go for a walk with my girlfriend, ask a question, and come back with a fiancée. Talk about a rocket in my pocket — I must have patted down that pocket about a hundred times to make sure the ring hadn’t disappeared, like a stand-up comic checking his zipper before taking the stage.

As I was making plans to do the deed, she was outside, napping on a beach chair, blissfully unaware. I think she was expecting something sometime soon, but that’s where I had the edge. I knew the place and time. She knew what the answer was. I’d done everything I could to narrow the odds for a favorable response, including moving in together a few months earlier.

We went for our walk on the beach. Alison had some gunk called a "treatment" in her hair. She was wearing a big, floppy hat to keep the sun off her face, sunglasses and a jacket she borrowed that was two sizes too big. An outfit only a mother could love. I figured if I could ask her to marry me looking like that, it must be love.

To be fair, I didn’t look so hot either. I had a pimple on my chin. I don’t know who could look me in the eye and say yes to that. "Do you, Alison, take this pimple, ’til death do you part?" I wouldn’t want to marry a guy with a big pimple on his chin, but fortunately I won’t have to. Maybe I should have put it off until I could get in to see Arnie Klein. Maybe not.

I’ve never done this, never actually asked the question in so many words, so I wasn’t exactly sure where I ought to begin my sales pitch. I felt like I was going on a job interview. Should I remind her of my qualifications for the job? "As you know, I have an Ivy League education. My parents are nice people. I love children."

Actually, what I said was: "There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you," and she started crying almost before the words were out of my mouth. She was still crying a minute later.

"If you say ‘yes,’ you’ll get a really good prize," I said. Fortunately, I didn’t lose the ring in my pocket and its presentation was met with a resounding chorus of "Oh my Gods."

We’ll have to assume her answer was yes by the way she put the ring on that day and hasn’t taken it off since.

J.D. Smith can be further engaged at www.carteduvin.com.

The ‘Secret Lives’ of Shoah’s Hidden


In 1993, filmmaker Aviva Slesin traveled to Lithuania to meet Matilda Salenekas, the non-Jew who hid her from the Nazis when she was a small child. She had no memories of Salenekas, whom she had not seen since 1945, and the two women did not speak the same language.

"But the feeling between us was so powerful," Slesin said by phone from her Manhattan home. "We both wept, and I understood that in some strong way we were connected. I began wondering whether the experience was similar for other hidden children, and if they had memories of their rescuers, what the relationship was about."

Slesin’s curiosity led her to produce and direct a documentary, "Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers During World War II," which joins a particularly heartwrenching subgenre of Holocaust cinema: documentaries about child survivors by filmmakers with a family connection to the subject. Examples include Pierre Sauvage’s "Weapons of the Spirit" (1987) and Deborah Oppenheimer’s Oscar-winning "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" (2000). The films are especially poignant because only 10 percent of Jewish children survived the war.

Slesin’s affecting but unsentimental documentary focuses on the psychological aftermath of hiding, such as the sense of abandonment child survivors carried into adulthood and the difficulty rebonding with parents.

Alice Sondike, who was sheltered on a farm in Poland, describes the revulsion she felt when her mother, Julia Melcer, returned from Auschwitz.

"I was covered with lice, and she was trying to clean me up," Sondike says on camera. "What she looked like when she came back…. I didn’t believe she was my mother."

Melcer, sitting next to Sondike, nods and adds that her daughter said, "Don’t touch me with your Jewish hands."

Other relationships also proved strained.

"Hidden children are generally very adaptable, but for some of us, the bonding mechanisms are altered or broken," Slesin said. "I think that children have only so many bondings in them. At some point, they don’t ‘take’ anymore."

The filmmaker speaks from personal experience. Born Aviva Leibowitch in 1943, she was smuggled out of a Jewish ghetto in a suitcase before being placed with Salenekas and her husband, Juozas, when she was 9 months old. Slesin, who has never married or had children, vaguely remembers that when her mother returned from Stutthof concentration camp two years later, "she was a stranger and I didn’t want to go with her."

Like most survivors who had hidden their children, Slesin’s mother had been greatly altered by the war.

"Many of the returning parents were themselves orphans and they were grieving," the director said. "They looked like hell because they had been to hell and back."

Over the next decade, Slesin lived a nomad’s existence, relocating to Munich, New York and Montreal as her mother married, was widowed and remarried.

"It was not a happy time for me," she said of the years with her second stepfather. "That was one bonding too many I was asked to do, and it just didn’t work."

In 1965, Slesin moved to Manhattan, she said, "To start my grownup life in a place with no history or baggage from my family." Because of her refugee experience, she was "never a joiner," but she was a good observer — which in part led her to become a filmmaker.

Over the next 30 years, Slesin made movies that were anything but personal, winning the Oscar for her 1987 documentary, "The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table."

The change came after she attended a convention of hidden children in 1991; two years later, she set off for Salenekas’ Kovno, Lithuania, home with a translator.

"I wanted to see if I could get some memories or any kind of clues into my character," she said. I also wanted to find out why she risked her life to save me, but she just sighed a lot when I asked her that. She wasn’t really able to answer."

Slesin hoped to learn more by quizzing survivors who, like herself, had been hidden by rescuers without apparent ulterior motives.

"Her questions were penetrating," the film’s co-producer and writer, Toby Appleton Perl, recalled. "Aviva was very much driven by her need to understand certain things about her experience."

During interviews, conducted in Israel and Europe, Slesin said, she was deeply touched by a Dutch woman who also had been hidden as a small child. Erica Polak recounted the "difficult relationship" she had with her mother and the great joy she had experienced upon reuniting with her rescuer.

"She moved me enormously because she had no memory either of this woman, yet her feelings about her were so strong," the director said. Interviews like Polak’s were revealing for Slesin.

"What I have come to understand is that our rescuers were also our parents," she said. "When you are a child, the people who feed you, protect you and care for you in essence are your parents. That explains why the bonds are so emotional and lasting, even after more than 50 years."

"Secret Lives" opens June 20 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

Women Take Part in Ceremonies


When Leslie Landman and Aaron Feigelson began planning their wedding four years ago, they knew it would follow Jewish law. “Tradition is very important to both of us,” Landman says. But, unlike countless generations of brides before she says, “I wanted to have an active role.”

In the framework of public obligation and commandment, Jewish men are the central characters of wedding ceremonies, with women taking a more passive role. From the prenuptial festivities like the chatan’s tisch (groom’s table), to the signing of the marriage contract and the giving of the ring, the bride — when she is even present in the room — is surrounded by males who have all the speaking parts, while she remains silent.

But because women have not had roles in wedding ceremonies in the past doesn’t mean they can’t participate today, according to Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Jewish law “gives us a direction to go in but whatever is not assur [prohibited] is permissible. There is a lot of flexibility and the wedding should be an expression of the couple. It is good to include as many people in the ceremony who are close to the bride and groom, including the bride and groom themselves,” Lopatin says.

Jewish law requires a groom to “acquire” the bride through presenting a ring and proclaiming, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring under the laws of Moses and Israel.” Some rabbis discourage brides from giving rings under the chuppah to avoid the appearance of an exchange of property. “The kidusha [consecration], in the sense of acquiring, is the man’s responsibility,” says Rabbi Vernon Kurtz of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Ill.

For Landman and Feigelson, the challenge was to figure out how they could respect tradition but each have a significant role in the ceremony. “It was important for me to say something under the chuppah that was consistent with tradition and meaningful to me,” Landman says. She found a Hebrew text that acknowledged her acceptance of the obligations and duties of a Jewish wife and gave her husband a ring after the ceremony in the privacy of the yichud (seclusion) room, a practice that is acceptable to many Orthodox rabbis.

Wilmette, Ill., native Shira Eliaser chose a verse from “Song of Songs” to say under the chuppah when she and Norman were wed last July. She recited the verse: “His mouth is most sweet; yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem”(5:16). This was done just before the breaking of the glass so that there was no appearance of an exchange.

“I wanted something that was romantic and expressed my love. It wasn’t supposed to be an imitation, or a politically correct phrasing of [the groom’s declaration] but I found in it an echo of kiddushin,” she says.

She and her husband met at Northwestern University’s Hillel, and are now active members of the Egalitarian Minyan of West Rogers Park in Chicago.

Miriam Silverstein chose not to say anything under the chuppah when she married Brian Silverstein last October. “I wanted the wedding to be as religious as possible without alienating anyone. I’m not an egalitarian person [within religion]; I’m not a religious feminist,” she says.

Nonetheless, Silverstein and her groom (who has the same last name) incorporated both male and female friends and family members in other ways. Rather than having the prenuptial kabballat panim (receiving of faces) and chatan’s tisch in separate rooms, they used one big conference room with the groom’s activities on one side and the bride’s on the other. While the d’var torah and ketubah signing were on the men’s side, women could see and hear everything. While the tenaim (the prenuptial agreement) was read in Hebrew by a man, a woman read it in English.

By expanding the ceremony to include English translations of the ketubah and the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings), women can be included under the chuppah and afterward at the festive meal.

A traditional wedding includes both law and custom. “Custom should be divided into minhag Yisrael, which is as binding as law, and various hanhagot, that aren’t official customs or aren’t universally observed, are no problem to change or eliminate,” Lopatin says.

“In minhag Yisrael, the one who reads the Sheva Brachot in Hebrew, is a man. I can’t be flexible with that,” Lopatin says. “So we have couples come up and a woman reads the English translation for each bracha. The ceremony will have a feel of inclusivity, but the man is doing the halachic part of brachot.

“Walking around under the chuppah is not minhag Yisrael, but it has become very popular. If the groom wants to walk around the bride, or they want to walk around each other, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with the bride breaking the glass, or both of them breaking it together,” Lopatin adds.

Women can also hold the chuppah, Kurtz says.

Both Lopatin and Kurtz allow women to sign English translations of the ketubah but insist that the official document be signed by two male witnesses. “The Conservative movement is struggling with whether women should be counted as witnesses,” Kurtz says.

“I try to use inclusive language as much as possible under the chuppah,” Lopatin says. The wedding represents the life of the couple, “it is not just the groom taking the bride into his home.”

Reprinted with permission of JUF News in Chicago

The Truth About Jewish Cats & Dogs


"Beyond The Chuppah," by Joel Crohn et al. (Jossey-Bass, $17.95)

The sad truth about matrimony in the 21st century is that about half of all marriages fail. Dr. Joel Crohn, a psychotherapist based in San Rafael, has a book and a curriculum that he hopes will help reverse those statistics.

"Beyond the Chuppah," co-authored by Crohn, Howard J. Markman, Susan L. Blumberg and Janice Levine, is designed to help couples recognize the signs to avoid conflict, identify when a relationship is resilient and help it weather confrontation.

"My wife and I were arguing where our kids would go to school on our first date," Crohn said. "Next week, we’ll have been married for 22 years."

"People go into relationships thinking, ‘We’re so special, we’re not going to fail,’" said Crohn, a 55-year-old Chicago native. "The biggest problem is that the skills and behaviors that predict divorce aren’t recognized early enough."

"Chuppah" is based on the principles behind the book, "Fighting for Your Marriage," by Markman and Blumberg, which has been available in 52 countries since 1984. Since then, different versions of the book have appeared, customized to various cultures, demographics and marital situations. The publishers of "Fighting" chose Crohn to help create a Jewish version of "Fighting," because of a book he co-wrote called "Mixed Marriages," about interracial and interfaith unions.

In addition to "Beyond the Chuppah," Crohn is working with community leaders, such as Rabbi Mark Diamond of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, to implement a curriculum based on the book at synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

"Our goal is to offer workshops four times a year in the region," Crohn said. "The workshops would run all day on a Sunday, plus two follow-up sessions over two weeks with homework. The goal is to make a couple [self-]sufficient."

According to Crohn, the book’s curriculum has already been widely used, including in the military and among Norwegian oil platform employees, who spend time away from home on two-week intervals.

"Here in America," Crohn said, "we don’t need to live on an oil platform. Just living here is stress enough."

"Chuppah" cites a study of American Jews, The Jewish Family and Jewish Continuity, which reveals that while Jews used to pride themselves on their low divorce rates, now they are quickly catching up to national norms of 50 percent. "Half of all Jews marrying today will intermarry. Of those marriages, more will end in divorce than marriages between Jews. Even more disturbing, increasing numbers of Jews will not marry at all," the book says.

A big problem with Jewish relationships, Crohn said, is that people tend to see members of the opposite sex in negative Jewish stereotypes. However, the doctor is quick to point out that cultural self-loathing mechanisms among the sexes transcend Jews.

"There have been a lot of Asian women, for example, who have said, ‘I’m proud to be Asian but Asian men are not very sexy, they’re too this, too that.’"

Crohn said what is specific to Jewish-American culture, is that "Jewish men are more likely to be depressed than non-Jewish men. Jewish men tend to use more humor." But, humor can be "like a pinch — sexy, friendly, but the more you apply pressure, it becomes painful," he said. "You cross a certain line, and you’re hurting somebody."

The author also said that Catholics have had better fortune than Jews with programs designed to save relationships.

"The critique is that Catholicism is so hierarchical, so regimented," he said, "but they can institute programs in a very structured way. We don’t have that central system."

Speaking from his own experience, Crohn observed, "One of our kids is in Jewish day school. The majority of parents have divorced by the time [their kids] were in the fourth grade. This is an upper-middle class, suburban neighborhood. One would think that this would be a more stable environment, but it’s not."

So are marriages improving or worsening with each generation?

"Both," Crohn said. "I’ve seen people throw away good marriages, and some stick with bad marriages."

Sure in the good old days, marriages seemed to go the distance. However, staying together does not necessarily indicate a happy marriage, he said.

"The younger generation tells you more," Crohn said, "because there’s less inhibition. It’s not like a shtetl. When young people stay together, there’s a reason."

He believes that younger Jews are more confident about their Jewish identity. At the same time, it takes several generations for the repercussions of traumatic cultural events, such as the Holocaust.

"It’s not just Judaic history that gets passed on, but emotional history gets passed over the generations," Crohn noted.

Over time, such events perniciously reside from generation to generation in the form of a persecution complex, he said.

"That was a different generation, but it is still there," Crohn said. "That reverberates. We’re a more anxious people."

By the time a couple marries, they are pretty much set in their ways in terms of behavior. However, Crohn said people do still break bad relationship habits.

"What we try to teach people, is not to mind read," Crohn said. "I think of it as a box. We occupy 20 percent of that box. While I think we can’t get out of our structure, I think there’s much flexibility within that box."

My Best French Weddings


Of all the weddings I’ve attended, nothing compares to the spectacle that is the Jewish French wedding. My mom’s Algerian side has thrived in France for decades. They socialize like the Algerian revolution never happened. Mom’s family is bustling — full of passion, mirth and — seriously — joie de vivre. I can’t help but hold every wedding to the meterstick (not yardstick, this being Europe) of the ones I’ve experienced in France.

In 1985, I, as a 16-year-old, attended my second cousin Frank’s wedding in Marseilles. It took place in the 13th arrondissement, the city’s oldest, most Jewish quartier (district). Since bride-to-be Corinne hailed from a well-connected Tunisian family, the reception took place at the sprawling estate of the French minister of agriculture. There were so many white food tents, I thought the Peace Corps had taken over. Long tables steamed with merguez (spicy meat sausages) and couscous with vegetables.

As was pro forma at these big French-Algerian affairs, hundreds danced to Sephardic tunes that sounded so downright Arabic, my cousin Alexis busted out his mock belly dance moves (the videotape of which would now make great blackmail fodder for his philosophy students). This wedding was beyond massive, it was intergalactic. My relatives were in awe of its scale long before the culminating fireworks display.

"You think this is big, wait till you see the divorce," I joked in broken French. (Big mistake. More on that later.)

You might not remember July 1994, but I’ll never forget it. After all, I was in Paris during the World Cup, and Europe would rather lose World War II than miss a soccer championship. That was the summer my fun-loving cousin Florence married David, her decidedly serious fiancé of strict Orthodox upbringing.

Nevertheless, this wedding was a blockbuster, as hundreds of us converged at Temple Neuilly, a synagogue in what is considered the Bel Air of Paris.

Florence, always attractive, was exquisite on this day, dressed in white. Following the Orthodox ceremony, we arrived at the reception hall, tables piled high with bestels (meat- and potato-filled pastries), makrodes aux dattes (date-filled cookies), and other Pied Noir delicacies. Then came the real meal, a banquet capped off by a towering pìece montée, the traditional French wedding cake composed of a cream-puff pyramid held together by a framework of cooled caramel. Drunken karaoke ensued. I decided to save my Axl Rose impression for an upcoming occasion of special import, like Middle East peace or my Acapulco honeymoon with Gwen Stefani.

I drift back now to May 2001, the wedding of Monica and Chandler (Sorry, that’s "My Best ‘Friends’ Wedding").

Paris, April 1999. I’m at Florence’s cramped Montparnasse apartment. She proudly shows off the baby boy that she had with … Emmanuel. Yes, since my last visit, Florence divorced and remarried. Unfortunately, Frank’s marriage didn’t stick, either.

Having attended both weddings, my family considers me something of a marital jinx. The couples might as well have signed their ketuba in disappearing ink. Not helping was that divorce quip, which my aunts never forgot. Do I really need this rep?

By the way, Florence and Emmanuel, currently celebrating their fourth year of marriage, are doing fine, thanks.

Then again, I missed that wedding.

Ask Wendy


Unmarried at 40

Dear Wendy,

My youngest brother, Azer, is 40 years old and not married or dating anyone seriously. He is a kohen and will not marry a widow, divorcee or a convert, which excludes most of the eligible women I know in his age category. My Orthodox relatives in Toronto have in the past introduced him to appropriate women with varying degrees of success. I’m at a loss as to how I can help him, if at all.

Worried Sibling

Dear Worried Sibling,

Does it really come as a surprise to you — or to him — that the age-appropriate females who would meet his religious requirements have moved on with their lives? Before investing any more time, energy or postage trying to help your brother, consider the reality: he has had plenty of time to find the right person on his own. Is it possible that you are more intent on finding him a wife than he is? Or perhaps he is enjoying being taken care of by his older brother and prefers his current circumstance to having to grow up and contemplate taking care of somebody else?

Your brother is 40 years old. He is old enough to find a wife for himself if he is looking for one. Stop spinning your wheels. Or, if you really want to help, set him up with a good therapist, who may well be the right kind of woman for him just now.

Discussing the Shoah

Dear Wendy,

My 9-year-old just read a notable children’s book about concentration camps. He couldn’t put it down, but he was also quite upset by it. Am I doing him more of a favor by leveling with him about the Holocaust, or should I be reassuring him that such a thing could never happen again?

Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

You can’t lie to your child. You can, however, edit the information you feed him. To say it can’t happen again is a lie; to reassure your child that Hitler’s Germany was a unique historic phenomenon is not. The real question, sadly, is larger than what happened during World War II: At some point we all have to grapple with the wrenching task of explaining to our children that, as Jews, we have been and may again be persecuted for our religious beliefs. And imparting a sense of history, and our unique place in it as Jews, is part of your parental responsibility.

Only you know if your son is ready to hear the whole truth, but whatever you tell him now should prepare him for that eventual reality.

Employment Reference

Dear Wendy,

A colleague called to ask for a reference for an individual who worked for me for several years. I had let her go for having an interoffice affair with a married man. Moreover, there were rumors around the company that this was not the first time she had been involved with another employee. Should I include this information when giving her a reference?

Ex-Boss

Dear Ex-Boss,

It has been my experience that when one professional calls another for a reference, the kind of information he is looking for pertains to the skills required to meet the job description. Unless your colleague operates an escort service, I don’t see why the topic of sex or office affairs would come up.
Rumors are just that; they are not to be repeated, much less included as part of a reference.

Dear Deborah


Irked By Homework

Dear Deborah,

My 9-year-old son comes home from school each day and rants about how much he hates school. Often he cries and it has become a 30 minute or so ritual. I try to soothe him and ask what’s wrong, but usually it is irrational — teachers aren’t fair, too much homework, not enough playtime. The usual childhood complaints.

After a while he settles down, has a snack and I let him watch one TV show before he starts homework. Usually it’s not so bad and he does finish. I try to point out to him that his ideas about “too much homework” might not be accurate because he does manage to finish most days. He seems to get it, but then the whole ritual begins again the next day. I wonder if this negative daily routine is harmful.

By the way, he does well in his academically rigorous Jewish day school and there has never been a complaint from teachers about his behavior or attitude in school. Am I doing something wrong that might somehow cause this daily freak out? Do you have any suggestions?

Flustered Mom

Dear Flustered Mom,

Has it ever occurred to you that it is more about what you are doing right than wrong that enables your son to discharge his unhappiness via those tremendous daily kvetchathons? He is able to contain his feelings at school because at home he feels safe and free enough in your presence to fully express his frustration. You are providing him some release and soothing, and ultimately helping him by containing all that angst so that out there in the world he can be cool. Bravo.

Now let’s consider the existential component of the school issue. Right now he is able to do the work. What if his unhappiness does not abate in the years to come? How many hours of homework does he have? How much is too much? Does he have time to balance play, sports, socializing and the kind of plain old down time that results in all sorts of creativity with all that work?

Parents must attune to the needs of their own children and carefully consider if and when it is time to take action — from attempting to work with teachers at tailoring the amount of homework to finding a school whose philosophy regarding work vs. play is more aligned with their own.

In the meantime you get an “A” for parenting effort. Here’s to the kind of patience, wisdom and moxie the job requires.

Prodigious Religious Impasse

Dear Deborah,

My daughter’s husband has become increasingly observant in the four years since they married. When they met, they agreed to observe many of the lovely traditions with which both of them were raised.

Then after their daughter was born two years ago, my son-in-law insisted upon a kosher home and started attending Orthodox shul, observing Shabbos, etc. At first our daughter didn’t mind. Kosher was how she was raised and she was comfortable with it. Mostly it was important to her that she and her husband could continue to eat in restaurants and at the homes of family and friends who are not kosher.

As time passed our daughter felt she was being forced into a life she hadn’t chosen and she began to complain to us. He forbade her from taking their baby girl in the car on Shabbos, no more non-kosher friends’ homes or restaurants, etc. Suddenly our family who is Conservative became off limits on Shabbos and our own kashrus was not good enough.

My husband tried to speak to our son-in-law, but he has changed from the gentle man our daughter married into a mean-spirited, rigid dictator. He says we are not practicing Judaism correctly, and who are we to interfere with “the right way”?

My husband and I fear our daughter is sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness and despair. We know her and see the signs. How may we help before it is too late?

Desperate For Solution

Dear Desperate,

If you truly want to help your daughter, your must first stop intervening on her behalf, thus nudging her to step up to the plate and grow up in her own marriage. Explain to her once only that the rules of any marriage may not be dictated by one spouse alone unless the other is willing to comply.

Let her know that if she does not stand up for herself now this stalemate will lead to checkmate. And if either she or her husband loses, it is ultimately the marriage — and family — that lose.

Whether she consults a counselor, rabbi or other adviser, consult she must. Then back off and let nature (your daughter’s that is) take its course.

Easing the Teasing

Dear Deborah,

I’m uncomfortable when a couple tease each other. I’m told that it’s a show of affection. I feel that it’s veiled hostility. There are so many sweet ways to show affection. I’m often told I have a great sense of humor; however I don’t think it’s amusing to hear put-downs. Thanks for commenting.

Can Take A Joke

Dear Can,

While teasing may sometimes be playful, affectionate or funny, you are on the money. There usually is some measure of hostility lurking around an invisible line that may trip you up when crossed.

Perhaps some couples are comfortable with teasing and it in fact is part of how they choose to communicate. Your discomfort is real enough though, and if you are close to these people you might comment that their teasing makes you uncomfortable.

If you cannot broach the subject or if your appeal topples with a resounding thud, bear in mind that while you may choose to not abide teasing in your own relationships, there is little to be done about others who do but ignore it. If the teasing is that upsetting, ditch the yahoos and find friendlier friends.


All letters to Dear Deborah require a name, address and telephone number for purposes of verification. Names will, of course, be withheld upon request. Our readers should know that when names are used in a letter, they are fictitious.

Dear Deborah will appear once each month. She welcomes your letters. Responses can be given only in the newspaper. Send letters to Deborah Berger, 1800 S. Robertson Blvd., Ste. 927, Los Angeles CA 90035. You can also send e-mail: deardeborah@jewishjournal.com

Dear Deborah


Harem Dropout

Dear Deborah,

I’m recently divorced (after more than 30 years of marriage), an educated and, I thought, pretty savvy woman. I have been dating a charming man now for almost two months. Recently we became intimate, and of course I expected our relationship to change.

The problem is that the “gentleman” did not feel that way. In fact, I was shocked when he informed me that I was not the only woman in his life.

Now I am thoroughly confused. He continues to call and ask me out, but I make excuses because I am hurt and disappointed. I admit I’ve been out of the dating loop for many years, but sex used to mean a serious relationship was in the making. I am trying to make sense of what it means so I won’t get burned a second time.

M.

Dear M,

In this case the only salient point is that sex means something quite different to you than it does to your “gentleman” or, for all intents and purposes, to anyone else. All you need to learn here is to discuss your expectations beforehand next time.

In the meantime stop avoiding the man’s calls and let him know that you are interested in a monogamous relationship only. Then chalk this one up as the first of many lessons you are about to learn about being single.

Thirty years is a long time to be out of the loop, M. There have been just a couple of changes in the dating world since your last visit — among them all manner of gender-bending role shifts, to wit, “Sex and the City.” It’s enough to make a newly single person beat a hasty retreat to her lair, kick off her red pumps, eat bonbons and watch “That Girl” reruns.

Ultimately, the most important big-picture lesson to learn about dating is resilience. If you are brave enough to seek love, acceptance of the inevitable wounds and ensuing learning curve is key.

Now, back to it, Ms. M. Here’s to love and grit.

Family: Blended, Not Stirred

Dear Deborah,

My son has recently married for the second time. He was married for 25 years to “Suzie,” single for two and remarried for one. Suzie and I have always been extremely close. Because Suzie’s parents passed away several years ago, and because I have been widowed for 17 years and Suzie was a stay-at-home mom, we have been more than family. We are very dear friends. Since we both are alone, we spend a great deal of time together, sharing the joy of a new family member (grandchild for her, great-grandchild for me), attending theater and other functions, etc.

The problem is with my new, very young daughter-in-law. She feels very insecure about my relationship with Suzie and has let my son know that she resents Suzie’s presence at family functions and holiday dinners. My son had never minded Suzie’s presence before because their break-up had been amicable and they continue to be great parents together. I do not want to abandon Suzie by excluding her from enjoying family simchas, and I do not want to offend my new daughter-in-law either.

My son insists on remaining neutral here and says it’s my call. He says if he intervenes, someone will be hurt. Any suggestions?

X.

Dear X,

So while you are recruited into the conflict, your son remains Switzerland, eh? Ah, well. Although he may not always be able to stay out of the fray, for the moment there is nothing to do here but roll up your sleeves and attempt to pull an Albright.

You claim your “new, very young daughter-in-law” is a little insecure around Suzie, and it’s no wonder, because Mom (mother-in-law in this case) appears to have a favorite. Try inviting her to lunch to properly welcome her into the family. She will be far more capable of understanding and accepting your relationship to Suzie once she feels her position with you has a prayer. Let her know that since Suzie is the mother of your grandchildren and without parents herself, the two of you have grown close over the course of 30 years. Explain that while the comfort and continuity of four generations are involved, her own comfort is of utmost importance to you. Ask what can be done to make her feel more comfortable and welcome in the family and listen. Listen well.

As for you, consider checking those “very young daughter-in-law” references. Might it be that your own (Freudian) slip is showing? You may be inadvertently contributing to her insecurity with such subtle condescension. How about shifting from “very young” to “charming young?” Know what I mean?

Slow Learners Both

Dear Deborah,

My 12-year-old (and only) granddaughter has never sent me a thank-you note in her entire life. I have mentioned it to my son, but he just says to take it up with her. I have, subtly, but with no results.

The problem is the approaching Bat Mitzvah. My daughter-in-law has asked me for my “list” for the invitations, but I am reluctant to invite my people and then risk offending them as the result of her abominable manners.

Any insight?

Bubbe

Dear Bubbe,

Your granddaughter’s inability to have learned thank-you note etiquette is far more understandable than your own inability to have responded in kind. She’s had 12 childhood years of lack of training. You, on the other hand, have had 12 adult years to figure out an appropriate consequence to this behavior, and it’s high time, don’t you think?

Try this. Tell her directly: “No thank-you notes, no gifts.” Period. Be sure to explain thoroughly why it is important. Then stick to your guns, Granny.

As for offending your friends, well, it’s your call. Either do not invite them, or do so and allow the natural consequences of the child’s actions to unfold. If friends call you wondering about whether or not their gifts were received, offer your grandchild’s phone number.

Why Get Married?


We’d been seeing each other for about three and a half years, and it’d come up, more than once.

Conversations like:
“Should we?”
“No… well, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Do you want to?”
“Not now.”

Why get married? I love him, we’re already living together, things are just fine, why do we need to get married? I’m not philosophically opposed to marriage; I’ve done it before – twice. Apparently I do it badly. And yet, I wasn’t sure. Maybe we should, but I just couldn’t think of a good reason.So I asked myself, why do people get married?

The main reason, it seemed to me, was to have children. But that was not a reason for us. I already have two, and I’m too old for more. I’m not just saying that, I really am too old.

Financial security, that’s a big one, but that wasn’t for us either. I’ve been supporting myself and my kids forever.

There’s family pressure. Again, not for us. My mother died nine years ago. My father and his new lady friend are decidedly not getting married; they’re getting a kick out of just living together, it’s so much more romantic. And his parents? Their son was a 43-year-old bachelor. They’re so relieved that he’s finally got a meaningful relationship, they don’t care if we make it legal.

Social pressure. We’re middle-aged folk, living in L.A. in the year of the second millennium. Hotel clerks are not giving us the fish eye, for God’s sake.

And speaking of God, does the holy of holies care if we get married? Please. One of my favorite jokes goes: “You want to make God laugh? Make plans.” I assume a wedding must be one of God’s favorite jokes. They take more planning than preproduction for a feature film.

There were definitely reasons for other people to get married, I just couldn’t come up with a reason for me to get married. The question reverberated in my head, “should we?” I just couldn’t quite say yes.

Then one starlit night, after a great deal of excellent champagne – we’d been to a champagne-and-cheese-tasting held in a rich man’s garage. (I say garage, but it had marble floors, climate control, custom-made glass cases full of silver trophy cups and a security system the envy of any museum. It housed 11 vintage Bugattis. “Mint condition” does not do justice to their perfection; a very rich man indeed). While strolling in the glorious gardens next to this garage, my boyfriend looked deep into my eyes and said “I love you. I want to always be with you. Will you marry me?” It was fabulously romantic, I was delightfully intoxicated and the word, “yes” just fell out of my mouth. There was no thought process involved. Was it reflex? Instinct? My “real” feelings?

I’d taken the leap and said yes, but I wasn’t sure I was going to land on my feet. I wanted to get married, but I still didn’t feel comfortable with “why.”

Time to follow the ancient tradition and visit the rabbi: I heard “family… friends… public witnessing…” Also, time to follow the modern tradition, and visit the therapist: I heard “old fears… your choice… commitment…”

The words circled my head like planes over LAX waiting for landing clearance.

I made mental lists of my fiancé’s attributes: he’s loving and supportive, funny and charming, not afraid to be a fool, a fine traveling companion, and he genuinely likes and cares about my kids. He’s honest, dependable, loyal, and he truly loves me – yes, he’s wonderful, more than I dreamed I’d ever find. And yes, that’s why I love him. But we have all that already. Married or not married, it won’t change who we are and why we love each other, or even that we love each other.

Meanwhile, as I am struggling to come up with a reason to get married, my fiancé has finished fixing my antique rocker. He presents me with my repaired chair, now safe to sit in. It’s as beautiful as it ever was and now it functions, too. I sit, rock and look around the room. I see the other things he’s fixed: the entry hall light fixture, the cracked base of a storage chest, the stuck window crank. And that’s just the living room. His handiwork is all around the house. He’s fixed the VCR, the electric broom, the blender and the toaster oven. He’s returned table legs, cabinet doors and desk drawers to their pristine shape. He’s rewired lamps, and built a closet for out-of-season clothes. He can even trouble shoot the computer.

He can put just about any broken thing back together. If we have the pieces he can glue them. He’s reattached cup handles, teapot lids and serving bowls. He’s salvaged jewelry, purse handles and flashlights. Once he saved a cracked Game Boy from the trash. Apparently there’s way more to glue than Elmer’s, and boy, does he know his adhesives. There’s one that’s right for metal, one for paper, one for ceramic, one for plastic, one just for wood (and then there’s some confusing thing called plastic wood, but I won’t even go there). And he always knows the right adhesive for every job.

And then one day, I realized that the most important thing my soon-to-be-new husband has put back together is my family. It’s been 10 years since the divorce from the children’s father. For 10 years my children and I have lived in a broken home, but he fixes broken things.

We are not going to create children, but we have children. We have breakfast together, we go out to dinner for birthdays and gather for holidays together, we laugh at “The Simpsons” together. He helps my son with his French and science homework. He picks my daughter up from Sunday school and play rehearsals. He intervenes when there are fights, he kvells when there is joy. When we are married, my children will no longer introduce him as “my mom’s friend,” but as “my stepdad.” We will be a family.

Now that’s a reason to get married.

By the way, I found out who really cares if we get married: the bridal industry! Do you have any idea how much stuff you have to buy, how many people you have to pay, how much food and liquor you have to order? Well, of course, you do. You’ve probably got married once or twice yourself.

Transit


I didn’t do much today but drive.

No one died. No jobs were lost or won. I didn’t run into an old boyfriend, have an epiphany or a traffic accident. I just climbed into my car and pointed it across the Mojave desert.

My head was like one of those deluxe crayon boxes with every conceivable shade of mood – and that was only between Primm and Barstow.

I was just hitting one of my stomachache-inducing purple moods when I pulled up to a Shell station for gas. As I stepped out of the car, desert air surprised my lungs like a warm drink. I stretched my cramping legs against the rear bumper and felt my mood lighten. I moved slowly and deliberately, feeling as if I were in a movie, or at least a ZZ Top video.

I think most of us former joint-custody kids have a special relationship with transit.

Travel is something we did a lot of during our formative years. In my case, I flew back and forth from San Francisco to Los Angeles every month starting at age 4. Later, when my dad moved up north, I took the Golden Gate Transit, the most glamorous sounding of all my travel mediums, but a bus all the same. I logged quite a few travel hours in my day, reading Mad Magazine, eating M&M’s and not knowing if I was leaving home or heading toward it.

All of which is a perhaps long-winded way of saying that the road makes me nostalgic and nervous and hopeful all at the same time. It was a little much today.

One minute, it was like Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in the back seat telling me to pull over and walk off into the mountains. “It is your responsibility to control your own destiny,” he seemed to say to me in his uppity French accent. Moments later, I would be seized with the beauty of something banal, like a bright red Del Taco sign. Was I having a nervous breakdown, an existential moment or just one mean case of PMS?

There’s not much a nosh can’t fix, so I veered off toward the aforementioned glorious Del Taco sign and got a burrito for the road. Jean-Paul left in disgust.

Something of his essence remained, however. In the crayon box of moods in my head, the blackest is always brought on by thoughts of what I’m not doing. There’s nothing so wrong about my life except the idea that I could be wasting it. The things I’m not doing get big and bossy. I obsessed on that for miles and just sort of bored myself into a better mood.

The greatest thing about the road, what lures me back, is the temporary freedom from the overwhelming need to be doing something more important with my life and the sadness that I don’t know how. On the road, I’m off the hook. I can’t be writing, volunteering or improving myself in any way because I’m just driving. I can be a total loser as long as I obey the rules of the road and manage not to spill too much taco sauce on myself.

When I finally got home, my face was wan and road weary. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was clammy and my skin didn’t seem to fit. Parts of me, it seemed, were left on the road, like something that fell off the back of a truck.

I’m searching for a happy ending here, but to what? I didn’t do much today but drive.

Shotgun Wedding


According to the state of Nevada, I now have a new dad.

It’s not every day your mother has a shotgun wedding at a Las Vegas chapel, so it was a special moment. Who was holding the shotgun? Uncle Sam. It was a forced wedding of the new millennium – one necessitated by tax purposes after the sale of the family home.

Still, I tried not to let that distract from the beauty of the moment. While the nonsectarian minister rushed through the vows like a spaced-out auctioneer, a pregnant bride-to-be and her kids clogged up the outside waiting room, eager for their turn. My mother, a practical woman to her core, bought the bare-bones wedding package for which the time allotment was just 15 minutes. Music not included.

As I stood at my mom’s side, huge fake flowers cascading out of a large vase in front of us, there wasn’t much time to get sentimental. My brother circled us with his camera, serving as both photographer and witness, and I tried to consolidate the memories I wanted to review in my head.

I was 14 when I first met Ron, the coolest cat I’ve ever known.

He actually uses the term “cat,” as in “the cats are coming over to watch football,” and gets away with it. That’s how cool he is. Ron is in his late 50’s now, pretty much retired from his career as a trumpet player and the person I see as an angel that was sent down from heaven to think my mom’s neuroses are cute, cute, cute.

Ron just knows things. He knows how to cook a pot of chicken and dumplings so sublime it calls you from your bed in the middle of the night, fork in hand. He knows almost every classic Motown musician from the old days, having played with many of them. He has remedies for everything from a boil to a broken heart.

“Upper left-hand corner, honey. That’s where a piece of music starts,” he told me, while helping me pack up my belongings after a break-up a few years back. What I’d have to do is what any musician does after a mistake, take it from the top, start over, like he had done with my mom and she with him.

During the wedding, I thought about the contents of the trunk of my car on that tear-stained move-out day years ago.

Ron had packed almost everything I owned, minus the furniture, into the trunk of my car with geometric preci-sion. He didn’t have to tell me there were still people who loved me or that the chaos in my life would subside, because that’s what I knew when I looked into all that order, everything crammed neatly into such a small space, stacked with elegant perfection.

Most of all, Ron knows something that has eluded most people in his position: He knows how to be a good stepparent. Knowing he could never replace the closeness I have with my real dad, he didn’t try. He just tried to get to know me. He didn’t need to be called “dad” to act like family.

When Ron first moved in, it was a little jarring. My whole life, it had just been my mother and I. Her parenting style, a unique combination of maternal pride, intermittent hysteria and benign neglect, may not have been the best, but it was all I knew. Suddenly, there was a large Black man living in my house.

The first thing that struck me odd about Ron was not his race, but the mere fact that he actually liked me. My mother’s previous boyfriends had been a dubious lot: the out-of-work poet, the portly lawyer who gave me Ernie and Bert dolls when I was long past puberty. They tolerated me, but it was clear that I was an albatross around the neck of my mother’s love life. To Ron, I was like a bonus.

The relationship was given its first real test when he was witness to a battle between my mother and I so bloody it made Iwo Jima look like a thumb war. The nature of the argument was that I had neglected to fix the taillight on my car. Instead of jumping in and inserting himself as my new “dad,” he quietly slunk away. Mom and I were still hurl-ing “you don’t love me’s” when Ron walked by and casually uttered, “The light’s fixed.”

He had gone to the hardware store, bought a bulb and fixed the light while my mother and I stood there yelling at each other. Now that’s a cool cat.

How does a Black man fit into a Jewish family? Well, Ron’s like a perfect pair of black heels or an expensive Merlot. He goes with everything. The first time he came with my mother and me to a family wedding, we looked over and saw him arm-in-arm with two older Jewish ladies. Having already mastered the hora, he was teaching them the Electric Slide.

Time was up for my mad dash down memory lane as we cleared out to make room for the next bridal party. On the way out, people stared good-naturedly as I slapped Ron on the back, saying, “Good going, dad.”