The many miracles of the family menorah


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Alex, Ryan, Josh and Ellie Dubin light about 25 menorahs every night of Chanukah


From painted-clay preschool classics to sterling silver family heirlooms, the eight bright lights of the chanukiyah have a unique and artful way of revealing our values, holding our histories and telling our stories.

That’s a Big Ball of Wax

As a preschooler, Alex Dubin was always mesmerized by Chanukah candles. Every year, he would sit and stare as the flames danced over his growing collection of menorahs — the projects he created in school; or the ones he made with his grandmother, a ceramic artist; or with his mother, herself pretty crafty.

Today, Alex, 17, and his three younger siblings — Josh, 15, Ellie, 12 and Ryan, 6 — still love to stare into the candles, and they still make their own menorahs — and light all of them.

Every night of Chanukah, the Dubin kitchen turns into a glowing testament to art, family and nostalgia, with as many as 100 menorahs (fewer on the candle-heavy later nights) burning on a foil-covered island and table.

Most of their menorahs are displayed year-round in little cubbies in the living room, which fits well in their house, where every inch is covered in homemade art.

Parents Cindy and Mark host a yearly Chanukah celebration, when friends and family come over to do art projects, eat and, of course, light the candles.

While the guests are content to light and then go eat dinner, the Dubin kids stay in the kitchen, staring into the flames and at the colorful wax stalagmites. For the past six or seven years, they have let the wax drippings build up — Alex has one with a square-foot mass of wax.

Some of the menorahs are favorites: the one crafted from pottery from an Israeli archaeological site, preschool clay ones, the double-glazed ceramics they made with grandma, and any number made from pipes, coffee cans, bolts, metal address numbers, old loaf pans and any other inflammable hardware they can spot.

Grandma Marlene Zimmerman, whose work is exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, has one menorah that didn’t make it onto the Dubin family display: Her replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights is in President Bill Clinton’s museum in Arkansas. When Clinton was in office, his wife, Hillary, chose Zimmerman’s Breed Street Menorah for the National Treasures Collection, and in 1999 Hillary lit that menorah at the White House Chanukah reception.

The Promise Menorah

Isaac Bialik and Shawna Brynjegard were high school sweethearts and inseparable at UCLA in the early 1990s.

So when Bialik traveled to Israel in 1992 — without Brynjegard — he was thinking about her much of the time. When he spotted a blue-and-purple ceramic-pomegranate menorah made by the Israeli artist Avram Gofer in a shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he knew he had to get it for her.

He came home a couple of weeks later, and gave her the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.

“I told her that from now on we would use this every Chanukah together, and that we would never be apart again,” said Bialik, who works on communications for Deloitte, an auditing and financial consulting firm. Bialik didn’t officially propose to Brynjegard for another year, but today Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (or B2) still light that chanukiyah.

Isaac is himself a Judaic artist (www.nicejewishartist.com), and Shawna is a rabbi who performs lifecycle events for those not affiliated with synagogues. By now, their pomegranate menorah has been joined by others in their Santa Clarita-area home. Their daughters, Mira (9), Yael (7) and Aviva (5), have added their own signature pieces and the family has bought a few more menorahs. Each night of Chanukah they light about five menorahs from their ever-growing collection, and while the other menorahs rotate in and out of the ritual, the Brynjegard-Bialiks always light their “Promise Menorah” together.

The Uncle’s Menorah

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Sheldon Ginns doesn’t even know the name of the great-great-uncle who gave him his brass menorah more than 60 years ago. He was known simply as The Uncle, the first of the family to come to the United States from Berdichev, Ukraine, around 1900. The Uncle was in his late 90s when he died, and just before then he divvied up his belongings between his closest relatives (his only child had died). The Uncle gave his chanukiyah, which he had held onto through years of poverty, to Ginns’ grandfather, who immediately passed it along to Sheldon, then 8 years old.

The cast-brass menorah, whose edges are worn down form years of polishing, features two lions holding up a heart inscribed with the blessing for the candles, topped by an ornate crown.

Ginns, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired architect, and he remembers lighting the brass menorah every Chanukah and playing with it as a toy the rest of the year.

The menorah took on a place of honor in his own home, as he and his wife and two sons lit it every Chanukah.

Today, the brass menorah is the only family heirloom Ginns has. His grandfather was the eldest of 12 siblings, and the only one to come to the United States before World War II; no one else survived the Holocaust. His grandmother was the eldest of 10, and also the only survivor in her family. Both looked for their family for years.

When Ginns took the menorah to the Los Angeles-based Lower East Side Restoration Project to have it cleaned and repaired a few years ago, he learned that the menorah dated back to the 18th century and was probably from Poland. He also learned that the reason the menorah had two shamashes — candle cups set higher than the rest — was because it was also used weekly for Shabbat candles, a sign that the family who first owned it was poor and couldn’t afford both a chanukiyah and Shabbat candelabra.

He found out that the chanukiyah was originally an oil lamp and had been converted to hold candles. The Restoration Project restored it to its original state for Ginns.

He lights the menorah every two or three years, and he plans to pass it along to one of his five grandchildren some day to continue the tradition of the Ginns family menorah.

A Blessing by Any Other Name

When Judy Stern (not her real name) was a kid, her mother always made sure to pull out the menorah in December, and she recited the Hebrew blessing. Stern’s father wasn’t Jewish — they had a Christmas tree, too — and aside from that little menorah, not much else Jewish happened in their lives.

Then Stern landed at Hamilton High School near the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and she made friends with some Jewish kids who invited her to the Jewish Student Union at school, and then to a youth group — where she made a disturbing discovery.

At a Chanukah celebration, the teens recited the blessing over the candles — and it was different from the one her mother had always said.

That evening, Stern realized that her mother, who herself grew up with little Jewish education, had been reciting the only blessing she knew — the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread.

Stern began saying the correct blessing, which she still does to this day. She married a rabbi (ironically, so did her brother), and has four kids. Now, every Chanukah, as they say the brachot over the candles, her mother is there to celebrate with them, and to say, Amen.

Blessings From Bullets

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Zane Buzby has restored many menorahs at her Lower East Side Restoration Project, but one of her favorites is what she calls the Palestine Menorah.

The owner, Rivka Greensteen, brought it to Buzby badly in need of repairs and restoration. The dented and dirty silver-plated brass rectangle was shaped like a wall of Jerusalem and engraved with lions and a Jerusalem scene. The candleholders fronting the wall needed care.

Greensteen told Buzby what she knew about the menorah. It had been brought from Russia to America by her grandfather, and was passed down to Greensteen’s father, and then to Greensteen. The family always used this menorah, and always had a family gathering on the fifth night of Chanukah — but they didn’t know why.

When Buzby got the menorah, she immediately recognized it as one from Palestine — pre-state Israel. The candle cups, she told Greensteen, were made from bullet casings. Greensteen put the rest together. Her grandfather’s brother was an early pioneer in Palestine, and must have sent the family the chanukiyah. He was killed in the 1930s in an Arab uprising.

This brother was the fifth son in his family, and it is probably no coincidence, Greensteen guessed, that it is his menorah that brings the family together each year on the fifth night of Chanukah.

New Queen Esther flick is whole ‘nother megillah entirely



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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bittersweet Meaning of Mud


Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speak Up!

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

‘Restless’ Hunk Reveals Family Secret: He’s Jewish


Don Diamont is the resident hunk on “The Young and the Restless,” where his buff muscles and six-pack abs make female fans drool.

Don DiamontWhile his character, Brad Carlton, has done far more than strut about in cut-offs (he’s mourned the loss of an unborn son, among other weighty scenarios), devotees can’t quite forget his 1994 Playgirl centerfold, his status as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and as one of the first actors to bare his tush on TV.

Now comes a plot twist in which Diamont, 43, will expose far more than his derriere. “I’m ‘outing’ myself as a Jew,” he says. “It’s the most meaningful story [line] of my career.”

In the Friday, July 28, episode, the fictional Carlton will reveal that his real name is George Kaplan and that his mother (Millie Perkins, who starred in the 1959 film, “The Diary of Anne Frank) is an Italian Jew who was forced to catalogue looted Nazi art in a concentration camp, Diamont says. After the war, she immigrated to the United States, started a new family and became a kind of art-oriented Simon Wiesenthal, tracking down stolen works and returning them to their rightful owners.

Those displeased with her efforts eventually bludgeoned most of her American family to death, save for herself and George, who were away from home at the time. Mother and son subsequently went into hiding, although the Bad Guys may be close at present.

Diamont — a 21-year “Restless” veteran — has been sworn to secrecy about future episodes. He says he only learned of his character’s true name upon reading a script a couple months ago. He was so startled that he telephoned head writer Lynn Latham, who confirmed that Kaplan was Jewish.

“‘I said, ‘This isn’t what we typically do here; we do baptisms and weddings in front of the cross.’ And she [replied], ‘We’re going to change that.'”

The change means that Diamont will play perhaps the only overtly Jewish lead on daytime TV, which is known for WASPy protagonists. He is likely the first soap actor to star in a story line about Nazi-looted art. It doesn’t hurt that pilfered art is currently a hot news topic; that the tall-dark-and-handsome Diamont would remain popular if his character turned out to be a Martian, or that “Restless” has been the top-rated soap for more than 17 years.

Latham says she had other reasons for turning Carlton into Kaplan.

“I have always preferred to write for an ethnically and racially mixed cast that represents most religions,” she told The Journal. “That’s the world … most of us live in.”

Diamont (né Feinberg) relates to his “new” character because he, too, has felt compelled to hide his Jewishness and has lost much of his family. Between scenes on a CBS sound stage, the actor comes off not so much as a sex symbol (despite his tight black Calvin Klein T-shirt) than as a thoughtful man whose real life story sounds as dramatic as any soap’s.

As a youth, he learned his mother’s cousin, who was Dutch, had been injected with gasoline during medical experiments at Auschwitz. In high school, several fellow jocks tormented him with anti-Semitic slurs (and slugs) for three years; the otherwise popular teenager kept the abuse secret, even from his parents, until he decided had had enough and repeatedly punched one bully. Since he had been victimized so long, his punishment was mild, just detention, but Diamont was left with mixed feelings about his heritage.

Because he had been raised in a secular home, “I didn’t know who I was, or why I should have pride in who I was,” he says. “Part of me was ashamed because I had been shamed…. I wanted to hide.”

Upon his agent’s advice, he agreed to use his mother’s maiden name as his stage name, instead of the more identifiably Jewish “Feinberg.”

The change began around 1987 as his father, then dying of kidney cancer, lamented raising his children without a sense of tradition and history. When Diamont’s brother, Jack, was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years later, the siblings decided to study together for a joint bar mitzvah. They had to stop when Jack deteriorated from a 210-pound athlete to an invalid. After Jack’s death, Diamont went on to become a bar mitzvah, alone, at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and to raise his six children Jewish. Temple rabbis conducted the funerals when his sister, Bette, succumbed to cardiac arrest nine years later and his mother died of emphysema just three weeks ago.

The actor, who is as tough and stoic as his character, came to work within hours of his mother’s death. That day he broke down only once — when he had to say the line, “I just spoke with my mother.” He recovered several minutes later and has not missed a shot since.

“It is ironic that as my mother passed, my TV mother has just been introduced on the show,” he says.

But he’s happy about the plot twist.

“You can’t tell the story of the Holocaust enough, especially since genocide continues today,” he says.

“Given the layer of insulation from the world I had wanted to not be immediately identified as a Jew, I’m ‘coming out’ in a most public way,” he adds.Of course, “Restless” is a daytime drama, so the plotline will undoubtedly involve steamy new love triangles for his character, Diamont says.

And, if we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll even get some more glimpses of those fabulous abs.

“The Young & the Restless” airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on CBS.

‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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1-800-Dreidel

Food for Thought


Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

 

The Best Presents: Ritual and Repetition


During my family’s annual Thanksgiving beach road trip this year, my kids showed remarkable stamina for tolerating monotony as they watched the “Rugrats’ Chanukah” video 12 times in a row. I was about to inquire how they could manage to consistently laugh like fiends each time they saw Stu dress up like Latke Man, but stopped short upon realizing that they could easily turn the question back on me. You see, I’m no stranger to repetition myself, having managed to spend Thanksgiving on Hilton Head Island every year since I was in first grade.

My family always looks forward to our November return to South Carolina — where we unfailingly celebrate the holiday on Friday rather than Thursday — and to having fishing and sandcastle competitions and playing charades late into the night. But this annual pilgrimage represents far more to my kids than just fun. It is the makings of their greatest memories, the links between past, present and future, and the safety net that is woven out of knowing that no matter how crazy their world may feel the other 51 weeks of the year, they will spend that one glorious week, which happens to include the third Thursday in November, embedded in the familiar, the mundane, the beautiful traditions that weave our lives together year in and year out.

No wonder many psychologists believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not the grand black-tie events — that our children find the sense of stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. In other words, even if your kid is convinced that the only present he wants for Chanukah is a new, updated video-game system to replace the his old new, updated video-game system, you can rest assured that he really wants something else. This Chanukah, give your kids an extra present — one that will last far longer than the batteries in their hot new toys. Here are ideas for eight nights of rituals to help you begin to weave a lasting emotional safety net for your families, leaving them feeling as warm as the menorah’s glowing flames and strong as the courageous Maccabees for many Chanukahs to come.

Treasure Hunt Night: Make a treasure map for your kids to follow in order to find their loot for the night.

Tzedakah Night: Give your children a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child. Let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.

Latke-Making Night: Whether it is peeling, washing or frying, making latkes is almost as much fun for kids as eating them.

Homemade Present Night: By stocking up on art supplies, having each family member draw a name and proceed to make a special gift for that person, you create a tradition as meaningful as it is messy.

Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament.

Big Present Night: OK, I may catch some flack on this one, but I support this unabashedly materialistic ritual, nonetheless.

Book Night: Reserve this night for exchanging hot reads and follow up with family reading time.

Friends and Family Night: The stories and memories swapped on this night will ultimately mean far more to your kids than the presents that will undoubtedly swapped, as well.

Sharon Estroff is a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist. She is a mother of four and an award-winning teacher with degrees in education and psychology. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids,” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, in 2007.

 

Cantor Carries on Tennis Tradition


Steven Walfish’s life is ruled by the three Ts: tallit, tefillin and tennis.To illustrate this point, when his son Sam was in first grade, he asked his dad to drop by the school and join other fathers in talking about their professions.

So the elder Walfish appeared in full regalia and talked about what it means to be a cantor in a synagogue.

Then he stripped off his robe, displaying the tennis shorts and shirt underneath, and discussed the job of managing three municipal tennis centers.

Walfish credits one of his professions to his father, the other to his mother.

His Polish-born father and Holocaust survivor, Heshel Walfish, has been the legendary cantor at Beth Israel for 50 years, and at 85 he shows no sign of slowing down.

Located at Beverly and Crescent Heights boulevards, Beth Israel was founded in 1899 as the first Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and was also known as the Olive Street Shul.

When Steven was 5 years old, Cantor Walfish put his son next to him on the bimah on Shabbat, and the boy starting belting out prayers at the Orthodox service.

By the time of his bar mitzvah, Steven had learned his dad’s craft and would pinchhit for him when he was out of town.

At the same time, the boy’s American-born mother, Betty, took over the physical education of the only male heir among her four children.

She took Steven bowling, fishing, and, most importantly, instilled in him a lifelong love of tennis.

Now, at 74, Betty Walfish still plays against her 48-year old son, who describes her as “a really sharp player.”

By stages, Steven Walfish became a full-service cantor the old-fashioned way, by learning from his father rather than through ordination.

For the past nine years, he has conducted one of the High Holiday services at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform congregation, and tutors bar and bat mitzvah students.

(Full disclosure: Walfish tutored and officiated recently at one of my granddaughters’ bat mitzvah, so this report may be biased.)

When The Journal interviewed Walfish last week outside Starbucks on Beverly Glen Circle, a parade of trim-looking women stopped by for cheery hellos.

“All mothers of my b’nai mitzvah kids,” he explained.

On a parallel track, Walfish’s tennis fervor kept growing. “I am an ardent fan,” he said. “If Tom Cruise came by now and sat down at our table, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me. But if it was Pete Sampras or John McEnroe, I’d die.”

In 1994, Walfish got a chance to combine pleasure and business. With partner Lee Ziff, he formed the Beverly Hills Tennis management company, and soon entered into a contract with the City of Beverly Hills to manage its 26 courts at Roxbury Park, La Cienega Park and Beverly Hills High School.

“We supervise all the lessons, leagues, competitions, facilities and special events,” he said. “We have 30 pros, so I can always find somebody to play with.”

Recently, Walfish had the opportunity to fuse his two favorite occupations by conducting a bar mitzvah on a private Beverly Hills tennis court.

In preparing Jewish youngsters for the rite of passage, Walfish takes a special interest in the sons and daughters of Russian immigrants and in children with learning disabilities.

“The Russian kids have practically no Jewish background but they have an intense thirst for Jewish identity,” he said.

Walfish, a divorced father of a girl and two boys, has developed a personal understanding for children with special needs through his 14-year old daughter Emily.

Emily was born with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that prevents her from walking or communicating in any way.

“She is a beautiful girl, she laughs and cries, and living with her — we would never put her in an institution — has made her two younger brothers much more sensitive and empathetic boys,” Walfish said.

A big man, who erupts frequently into hearty laughter, Walfish puts in pretty long days as cantor, manager of tennis facilities, and “full-time dad.” In addition, he “dabbles” in real estate, and hopes to rejuvenate his father’s Beth Israel congregation, which now consists largely of Holocaust survivors.

As a religious person, Walfish says he is somewhat conflicted. “My father is from a Chasidic background and I was educated in Orthodox schools, but I have worked mainly at Conservative and Reform synagogues,” he mused. “I guess theologically I look at life from a Reform perspective, but my heart and soul are still Orthodox.”

 

Give Some Honey to Apples of Your Eye


The High Holiday Hustle. We know the steps well. It starts with a tireless trek to the mall in search of that stylish synagogue suit. Next comes the culinary juggling act, simultaneously preparing Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, Bubbe’s killer kugel and a 22-pound turkey, dressed and trimmed. The last step is grooming an entire family and shuffling the whole gang out the door and into the synagogue in under an hour.

The entire dance sequence — minus the shopping — is generally repeated the following day. Scrambling through the better part of October, it’s easy to forget that the true meaning of the High Holiday season can’t be found in Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s or Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, but in appreciating and giving thanks for life’s sweetest blessings. So steal a few moments from the holiday hoopla to remind the true apples of your eye just how delicious they are. Even the simplest acts can send children a message, as loud and clear as the shofar, that they’re loved and cherished. The following sweet suggestions will help you show your children the honey this Rosh Hashanah and every other day of the brand new year.

Rosh Hashanah Honey for Kids

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• Take them to a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.

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• Leave Hershey’s Kisses on their pillows on erev Rosh Hashanah, along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

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• Celebrate the birthday of the world with a family nature hike.

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• Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree together.

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• Have a honey cake baking party.

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• Let them design the Rosh Hashanah tablecloth and challah cover using fabric crayons or markers.

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• Make a Rosh Hashanah hunt by giving children clues that lead them to different places in your home — i.e., go to the place where you rest your rosh (head) every night. Have a new clue waiting at each stop and a bag of holiday treats at the final destination.

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• Take a family excursion to an orchard for apple picking.

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• Bake a round challah together.

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• Visit ” target=”_blank”>www.babaganewz.com, where little techies can find Rosh Hashanah games and activities.

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• Have a Tashlich ceremony by a lake or river, so children can cast their sins away and start out the year with a fresh, clean slate.

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• Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half to reveal a star in the middle. Dip the fruit in washable paint, and let your little stars stamp away.

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• Steal some time to read a High Holiday picture book together — even if they say that they’re too old to listen to a story. Some noteworthy choices are “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year” by Eric Kimmel (Scholastic, 2000), “The World’s Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Harcourt, 1990), “Sophie and the Shofar” by Fran Manushkin (Urj, 2001) and “How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round” by Sylvia Epstein (Gefen,1999).

Year-Round Sweet Stuff for Kids

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• Flip through photo albums and baby books, and tell them stories about when they were little.

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• Have lunch with them at school (note: disregard in case of preadolescence).

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• Have a campout in the living room. Roast marshmallows over candles and tell ghost stories by flashlight.

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• Give them a coupon that they can redeem for something priceless, like going to a movie with mom or a ballgame with dad.

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• Plan a family game night once a week. TVs, cellphones and computers not invited.

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• Have an unbirthday party — complete with a cake — for everyone in the family who does not have a birthday that day.

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• Take them on a “mystery trip” to a place you rarely go, like an amusement park, sporting event or children’s museum.

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• Proudly display their finest schoolwork.

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• Transform your family room into a movie theater, complete with tickets and popcorn.

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• Send them comic books, baseball cards or other goodies in the mail.

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• Create a new family tradition like a weekly pizza-making night.

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• Do something completely out of character, like starting a pillow fight.

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• Pack dinner up in a picnic basket and eat at the park.

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• Watch cartoons with them.

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• Make up a secret signal together for saying “I love you.” (Little ones will love being sneaky; older children will be thankful to save face in public.)

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• Arrange with the teacher to read a book to their class.

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• Host special dinners to celebrate their every day accomplishments, like losing a tooth, scoring a soccer goal or getting an “A” on a science test.

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• Slip a joke into their backpacks.

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• Ask them for advice about something they know well.

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• Tell them you love them — even if they roll their eyes when they hear it — every morning and every night.

L’Shanah Tovah to you and your honeys.

Sharon Estroff is a syndicated Jewish parenting columnist with graduate degrees in education and child psychology.

Meet the Fockers


 

If the religion of Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker (pronounced Faw-ker), was hinted at in the movie, “Meet the Parents,” there’s no escaping it in its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” in theaters this week.

The first time around, audiences rooted for Greg, as he tried to find common ground with his WASPY soon-to-be in-laws, Dina and Jack Byrnes, played by Blythe Danner and Robert DeNiro. Now all that’s left is for the in-laws to meet each other.

This time, we’re on Focker turf, at the tiki-style abode of Greg’s parents, Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), in Coconut Grove, Fla.

The loud, affectionate, occasionally crude, left-wing bohemian Fockers are essentially the polar opposites of the Byrneses. And so the fun begins, as Greg tries to convince his future father-in-law that his family won’t be a “chink in the chain” of his lineage.

“If you really boil it down, it’s sort of the difference between cats and dogs,” producer Jane Rosenthal said, “The Byrneses have Jinx the cat, who’s back, and the Fockers have Moses, their dog. So it’s cat people vs. dog people, really.”

Moses the dog is just one of many Jewish nods in the film. There are Yiddishisms like bubbeleh, meshuggeneh and Rozaleh.

There is Bernie’s greeting to his son when he first arrives: “You look like a young, Jewish Marlon Brando.”

There is Roz’s classic greeting as she hugs Greg: “Honey, you feel thin. Have you been eating?”

And then there’s the incident with the foreskin….

Of course, in the tradition of “Meet the Parents,” chaos ensues when these two families get together.

Even if the plot does feel forced at times, for those who subscribe to the belief that other people’s pain is funny, “Fockers” has a good chance of amusing.

“Meet the Fockers” opens Dec. 22.

 

Roth’s ‘Kranky’ Little X-Mas


Tom Lehrer once noted that there were no American pop Chanukah tunes because Jewish composers were busy writing the nation’s sentimental Christmas and Easter favorites.

The observation came to mind when we talked to Joe Roth, about his movie “Christmas With the Kranks,” which opened Nov. 24.

Mr. and Mrs. Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) live on Hemlock Street, famed for its great annual Yuletide decorations. So when the empty-nester Kranks decide to skip the tradition and head for some balmy Caribbean island instead, the neighbors rise in indignation.

Roth, head of Revolution Studio and former chairman of the Walt Disney and 20th Century Fox studios, selected and directed the movie, based on the John Grisham novel, “Skipping Christmas.”

He is also one of Hollywood’s more prominent Jews, who was recently honored by the American Jewish Committee.

The first time he was in the news was as a 10-year-old boy whose parents sued his Long Island public school for requiring Joe and his brother to recite the daily prayer prescribed by the state Board of Regents.

“It was a traumatic experience,” Roth said. “We were ostracized and someone burned a cross on our lawn.”

However, the Christmas film, he maintained, has really nothing to do with religion.

“I see Christmas as a cultural and family holiday,” he said, while the movie itself carries two main messages. It’s first about the sense of family and community that supercedes any particular holiday. Secondly, it’s a satire on the over-commercialization of Christmas.”

Roth said the large Jewish presence in Hollywood makes little difference in what movies are made or how they’re presented.

“The major studios are owned by faceless conglomerates, which believe only in the bottom line,” he said.

“Remember, we make products for mass audiences, for the 97 percent of Americans and 99 percent plus of the world’s movie-goers who are not Jewish,” he added.

Then what accounts for the large number of movies dealing with the Holocaust and the Nazi era, his interviewer persisted. Would they be produced if most of Hollywood’s decision makers were, say, Albanians?

“I think they would,” Roth responded, “because they are simply compelling stories.”

Yet, Roth draws one line.

“I would never make a movie with the least hint of anti-Semitism,” he said. “The fact that I grew up in a Jewish home informs my entire outlook.”

Creative Chuppahs Are Labor of Love


Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.

“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.

“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.

They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.

“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”

But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.

Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.

One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.

Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.

“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.

As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.

Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.

How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.

“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.

“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.

Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.

“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.

She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.

“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”

She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.

Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.

The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.

Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.

Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.

“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”

When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”

Not Your Grandma’s Honey Cake


It wouldn’t be the second night of Rosh Hashanah if our friends didn’t come for dinner, contributing a cornucopia of dishes, especially divine desserts. There are enough pastries covering the buffet to keep judges at the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest busy for a week.

I always bake a chocolate and yellow swirl bundt cake, my daughter’s favorite dessert. One year, a friend came with an apple pie and a plum torte, which she placed on the buffet next to my cake. A towering pyramid of brownies vied for attention with white chocolate chip cookies and a plate of lemon squares. The intoxicating smell of a warm pear crisp tempted people who were piling their plates with pastries. When they reached the homemade honey cake, though, they made bee-lines back to their seats. Feeling embarrassed for Alice, who’d baked this wallflower, I moved the honey cake to a more prominent position and cut it into slices. Still there were no takers.

“I told you not to bring it,” Alice’s 8-year-old daughter cried. “Honey cake is boring. Nobody wants it.”

To be kind, I took a couple of slices. But Alice’s daughter was right. The cake tasted overbaked. I had been warned that dryness is a problem with honey cake, which is why I never attempted to make one. Yet I felt guilty shunning the only Rosh Hashanah dessert on the buffet. I realized honey cake had become the dowager of New Year’s celebrations, revered but seldom consumed.

“A dry honey cake will send people away for years,” said Marcy Goldman, author of “Jewish Holiday Baking” (Broadway Books, 2004). Conventional wisdom on the subject maintains that if honey cakes are removed from the oven at exactly the right time –whatever that is — the dreaded dryness will be avoided. But Goldman disagrees, explaining that many recipes call for only one-quarter cup of oil, which is not nearly enough fat to yield chewy, moist texture.

And so she began experimenting with different honey cake recipes. First, she upped the fat content. Then she realized that she had to add some sugar; using enough honey to sufficiently sweeten the cake can make it too sticky to rise. Later she addressed flavorings, adjusting their levels depending on which type of honey cake she was baking.

“If I make one honey cake, then I have to make 10 different kinds,” she said. Among her repertoire, Goldman has developed a Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake, an Eastern European Bee Sting Tart and a Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake.

The whole honey cake hullabaloo started because Goldman is fussy about honey and will not buy just any kind. In recent years, she has enlisted Elmer, a retired stockbroker-turned-beekeeper, to fill her honey needs. Elmer produces a nonpasteurized kosher honey, known to taste exquisite.

“Most honey is just sweet; it lacks rich honey flavor,” Goldman said.

Honey comes in thousands of varieties. There are more than 300 such varieties in the United States alone. They range in color from pale blond to dark walnut, and in flavor from mild and floral to herbal and robust.

The taste of this natural sweetener depends on the types of flowers its black-and-yellow creators frequent. In the United States, the most common floral destination for bees is clover, but the possibilities are endless, depending on climate and growing conditions. Like wine, honey is a truly local product that varies from region to region.

Equally enthralled by the range of honey flavors, food writer Jayne Cohen takes her family on vacation every August with a mission. As a segue between the carefree days of summer and the fall holidays to follow, they spend their vacations searching market after market for honey.

“We always bring a fragrant honey back from every trip,” said Cohen, who, along with Lorie Weinrott, is co-author of “The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book” (Clarkson Potter, 2004). She joyfully describes creamed lavender honey from Provence, wild blueberry honey from Maine, chestnut honey from Italy and honey scented with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda.

“Every year, we open a lovely new honey, and that has become our Rosh Hashanah tradition,” she said.

Last year her family vacationed in Sicily, where they found the most marvelous honey carrying the aroma of pistachio flowers.

“I prepared an elaborate Rosh Hashanah dinner for family and friends,” Cohen said. “But nobody could stop dipping apples and challah in that pistachio honey.”

It was so popular that three of her friends later visited Sicily and returned with jars of honey of their own.

While in Sicily, Cohen’s daughter, Alex, purchased a three-pack of honeys: chestnut, wild flower and thyme. Attending college in California, Alex couldn’t come home for Rosh Hashanah. Instead she bought a challah and went to a farmer’s market for tart apples. Inviting friends to her dorm room, they dipped the challah and apples into the three Sicilian honeys.

“Alex liked the idea of beginning the school and Jewish year wishing for sweetness,” Cohen said. “It was nice to see her repeating our family tradition.”

Honey has long been important to the Jewish people. Since biblical times, honey has been a symbol of abundance. Addressing Moses from the burning bush, God announced his plan to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

Back then, “milk and honey” were dietary staples, so in essence God was saying that Canaan would be a promising place to settle. In fact, the land was teeming with goats and swarming bees abounded. Canaan’s fertile soil supported grapevines and date trees, which produced a syrup also known as honey. Date syrup is similar in viscosity and texture to honey, and is equally sweet.

This abundant land offered prosperity and sweetness, which have come to represent Rosh Hashanah ideals.

During her career, Cohen has specialized in tweaking traditional Jewish recipes to create marvelous alternatives. With Rosh Hashanah in mind, she developed Honeyed Cigars with Date-Pomegranate Filling, a phyllo pastry with a Sephardi influence.

“Besides being a traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit, pomegranates have a tart taste,” said Cohen, adding that you don’t truly appreciate sweetness without contrast. For that reason, Jews from some Sephardi cultures mix pomegranates with honey. Cohen’s recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which can be found in Middle Eastern, specialty-food and gourmet markets.

Cohen highly recommends baking with a quality honey, preferably one that carries a flavor you find pleasing. Look for honeys such as orange blossom or lime blossom at farmer’s markets. At specialty stores, you can sometimes find Greek thyme honey or lavender honey.

If you can’t locate fragranced honey, mix flavors you like into commercial honey. Almond extract or a small amount of strawberry jam work well, also.

While the Rosh Hashanah dessert course should be the moment for honey to shine, it has lost out to Blondies and Mississippi Mud Pie over recent decades. There was a time when Ashkenazi Jews eagerly anticipated the holiday because it promised honey cakes galore. Every family had a bubbe or aunt who baked them. Yet a dwindling number of people recall this distant memory.

Now, just in time for Rosh Hashanah,
“I love baking,” Goldman said. “But even better than that, I love it when someone else derives pleasure from repeating my recipes, because with Jewish cooking and baking, you’re talking about more than just a recipe. You’re passing on your whole culture.”

Along with the chocolate desserts people crave, this Rosh Hashanah try baking a pastry so full of nectar that even the most ardent honey cake haters will have to admit they’re wrong.

For more tempting Rosh Hashanah baking ideas, visit Cohen’s Web site, www.ultimatebarbatmitzvah.com, which features Apple Challah Bread Pudding, along with other seasonal pastries.

Goldman revives honey cakes and other holiday confections on her Web site: www.betterbaking.com.

Marcy Goldman’s Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

11/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup warm coffee or strong tea or Coca-Cola

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup rye or whiskey (or substitute orange juice or coffee)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

This cake is best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in one 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake, or two 5-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit. Have ready doubled up baking sheets with a piece of parchment on top

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Make a well in the center. Add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, tea or cola, orange juice and rye or whiskey.

Using a strong wire whisk or in an electric mixer on slow speed, stir together well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom.

Spoon batter into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle top of cake(s) evenly with almonds. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets stacked together. (This will ensure that cakes bake properly.)

Bake until cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, 60-80 minutes; loaf pans, about 45-55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, baking time is 40-45 minutes.

Let cake stand 20 minutes before removing from pan.

Marcy Goldman’s Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

1 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla

1 cup Coca-Cola

1/2 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate

1/3 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. Generously spray a 9- or 10-inch tube pan or angel food cake pan with cooking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.

In a food processor, add in the oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar. Blend well about 30 seconds. Add in the eggs, vanilla, and Coca-Cola. Blend well for another minute.

Fold in the dry ingredients and blend for about two minutes, until smooth, stopping the machine once or twice to ensure that ingredients are all blended and not stuck at the bottom.

Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon or pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with almonds. Place cake on baking sheet and bake until done, about 60-75 minutes, until cake springs back when gently pressed with fingertips.

Cool 10 minutes before unmolding from pan.

Dust cake with confectioner’s sugar, or cocoa. Or, drizzle on melted, semi-sweet chocolate.

Garnish with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, drizzled melted semi-sweet chocolate, or the decadent Microwave Ganache Glaze (recipe below).

Microwave Ganache Glaze

1/2 cup water or heavy cream

1 cup coarsely chopped, semi-sweet chocolate (the best quality you can find)

1 tablespoon honey

Place water or cream in a microwavable bowl and heat on high until bubbly.

Remove from microwave and whisk in the chocolate and honey, blending until smooth and glossy.

Refrigerate about two to three hours until it has thickened but is still spreadable. If it is quite stiff, warm it slightly until you can drizzle it on the cake. You can also add one-two tablespoons of unsalted butter or margarine to make it more pliable.

Jayne Cohen’s Honeyed Cigars With Date-Pomegranate Filling

Pastry:

About 12 sheets of frozen phyllo, plus several extra to allow for tearing

1/2 cup light, fragrant honey

1/2 cup avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Filling:

1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) Medjool or other soft, moist dates, pitted and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon hot water

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pinch of salt

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling

Additional honey to brush on after baking

Thaw phyllo sheets slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the unopened package from the refrigerator two hours before you begin the recipe to allow sheets to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

In a small saucepan, warm 1/2 cup honey. Slowly add 1/2 cup oil, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in cinnamon. Remove pan from heat.

Prepare the filling. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend dates, oil, pomegranate molasses, hot water, cinnamon, and salt to a smooth paste. Add walnuts, and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a bowl.

Remove phyllo sheets from the package and carefully unroll them on a damp kitchen towel. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stack of sheets in half from short end to short end, forming rectangles approximately 6-by-17-inches (exact size will depend on brand of phyllo used). Immediately cover the cut phyllo sheets with a large piece of plastic wrap and another damp towel to prevent them from drying out.

Work with one sheet at a time, keeping the rest covered with the plastic wrap and a towel. Remove one sheet from the stack and brush it lightly and quickly with the honey-oil mixture. Carefully fold the sheet in half, bringing the short ends together and pressing down gently. Brush the new surface, now exposed, with the honey-oil.

Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling, roll it into a little sausage, and place it along the short bottom edge of the phyllo, leaving a one-inch border at the sides. Fold the bottom edge toward the center so that it just covers the filling, then fold the sides in, so the filling won’t ooze out. Brush the new phyllo surface that is exposed with more honey-oil, and continue to roll, jelly-roll fashion, brushing each new, dry phyllo surface with more honey-oil as you go.

Brush the finished cigars lightly over all surfaces with the honey-oil and place seam-side down on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle lightly with chopped walnuts. Keep the cookie sheet lightly covered with plastic wrap as you work.

Continue making cigars with more phyllo and filling, stirring the honey-oil mixture when necessary if it separates. (You can refrigerate the unbaked cigars at this point, well wrapped, up to one day before baking.)

Bake the cigars for about 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. While still hot, brush them very generously with honey. Let cool. Serve as is or cut each cigar on the diagonal into thirds.

Yield: 20-24 cigars, or if cut, three times as many bite-sized pieces.

A Day on the Bimah Changes Everything


My bar mitzvah took place in Queens, New York, in 1970. It was an unexpected and odd occasion, and I hadn’t thought about it in years. But now, 34 years later, I was once again in New York, and the subject of my bar mitzvah came up, as the ceremony itself first had, unexpectedly.

My new bride and I sat in a booth across from Charlotte, one of my oldest friends, in the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea. We’d driven to town to introduce my wife to those who couldn’t make it our traditional Jewish wedding in Louisville, Ky.

Abruptly, Charlotte asked point-blank, as New Yorkers tend to do, what had prompted me to become observant. Throughout high school, college and our early careers, we two friends had been secular Jews, intellectually but not spiritually interested to our heritage. During the intervening years, our paths diverged. Eventually I began attending synagogue, and Charlotte remained secular.

She wanted to know, "Was it because you moved from New York, where you’re surrounded by Jewishness, to someplace you felt more isolated?"

Though there is some truth to her point — isolation in Nashville, and in Louisville later on, had definitely been part of the impulse to connect to my "roots" — I had to smile at the thought that one had to leave New York in order to discover Judaism.

As my wife and I toured the city, we passed synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries. Visiting my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, we were in the midst of a large Chasidic neighborhood. It was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Cafe signs proclaimed: "Have a good fast. We open 9 p.m. tomorrow." Even Murray’s Bagels, my favorite Chelsea breakfast spot, was certified kosher.

Seeing these many signs of Jewish observance made me recall the storefront synagogues in my own Rego Park neighborhood, and how, while I ran to class at Queens College one day during Sukkot, the Mitzvah Mobile had pulled up, music blaring like some bizarre Orthodox ice cream truck. A black-hatted Lubavitcher emerged, pressed a Lulav into my startled hands and walked me through the Sukkot mitzvah.

No, you didn’t have to leave New York to discover Jewish observance, but something had to plant the desire. In my case, it was my bar mitzvah.

"That’s the big secret that none of my family or my old friends knows, or would understand," I told her.

In 1969, as I approached bar mitzvah age, the ceremony wasn’t even a blip on my parents’ radar. Not only were they recently divorced and not getting along, but they were both uninterested in Jewish observance; perhaps they were even somewhat antagonistic toward it. Therefore, I knew next to nothing about Judaism. The eldest among my cousins, I had never been to a bar mitzvah, so I hadn’t even acquired "reception-envy," with which to pressure my folks into complying with tradition.

Upon hearing that my parents did not intend to make any Jewish coming-of-age plans for me, my maternal grandparents decreed that despite all my family’s mishegas, I was having a bar mitzvah. And that was that.

But the path from decree to Torah wasn’t that simple. What followed was an embarrassing time for a preteen, as I was taken first to the local Reform, then to the Conservative synagogue, only to be rejected by their rabbis because it was "too late" to train me.

If it was hard for my secular parents to swallow the idea of a bar mitzvah, I’m sure it was even harder for them to make an appointment at their last option — the Orthodox Rego Park Jewish Center. But they did, and Rabbi Gewirtz told them, "He’s a Jew, of course we’ll take him."

Thus began a strange period in my family’s history. Each Wednesday, the day designated by the New York City public school system for RI, or religious instruction, the secular Jackmans’ kid left school an hour early (Yes!), put on his tzitzit under his street clothes, and headed to an Orthodox shul to learn Hebrew writing and stumble through the Rashi reader.

On Sundays, I attended morning minyan and more classes, including accelerated haftarah chanting lessons held with a group of other late-starters.

I must confess I remember very little of this learning. However, what stuck with me all these years is the passion for Judaism that the men and women of the shul communicated to me. During Sunday prayers, the bearded men davened in what seemed to be holy rapture. One morning, a mortified congregant scolded me for trying to pronounce the ineffable name of God. I may not have known better at the time, but I didn’t have to be told twice.

And that passion is why, the day the Jackmans’ kid stood at the bimah to recite haftarah Bo in a beautiful piping soprano full of errors, with his female relatives separated from the men, and heartily congratulated anyway by the somewhat forbidding but tolerant men of the synagogue, he was heading inevitably toward Jewish observance.

The inevitable decision would not be made for many years, until I overcame ambivalences, inhibitions and other mental obstacles. But the impulse was created during that short half-year when I prepped for and achieved my bar mitzvah.

Reprinted courtesy of in the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

Spiritual Cleaning


More than 3,300 years ago, God swept us out from our slavery in Egypt, where we had toiled for more than 400 years. He did not wait for a United Nations resolution on the matter — the Almighty acted unilaterally, and for this we are forever grateful. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is central to our lives as Jews — so central, in fact, that we mention it in the “Shema” every single day, as well as in the “Kiddush” on Friday night.

And yet there’s something very ironic about Pesach. Why is it that getting ready to celebrate our liberation from slavery involves so much hard work? First, we need to remember that during Pesach we are not allowed to eat, own or even benefit from the type of leavened products, or chametz, that we normally enjoy all year round: bread, crackers, pasta and even wheat germ. Who enjoys wheat germ, you ask? Well, I do. It’s in my favorite shampoo, so during Pesach the bottle gets booted into the garage with all the other verboten chametz.

The haggadah is our Passover playbook, which tells us that God took us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” These are useful images to keep in mind, because when you are preparing for Pesach you’re going to need both a mighty hand (two would be better) and an outstretched arm to get to those hard-to-reach crevices behind the couch where your kid stashed a packet of Oreos a few months back.

While cleaning for this Festival of Freedom, many of us will scrub our homes to within an inch of our lives, finally sitting down to the seder tired, yes, but serene in the knowledge that our homes are not only sparkling clean, but, more importantly, kosher for Pesach. Yet many women (who generally do the bulk of the Pesach cleaning) can get carried away with it all. In their zeal to create a kosher-for-Pesach home, they run themselves ragged and may be so exhausted by seder night they can barely stay awake past the soup. Frankly, women like this make me nervous. I’m just not willing to begin Pesach cleaning the day after Purim (besides, we need another week to finish the shalach manot) but I also don’t want to feel behind in the Pesach-cleaning Olympiad. I take comfort from the assurances I have received from several esteemed Orthodox rabbis who wish that the women would calm down about this. They say that one should be able to clean a home for Pesach (not including the kitchen) in just a day or two. If you insist on cleaning the ceiling, they say, it doesn’t make the home any more kosher, and if the cost to the woman and her family is needless stress, it’s surely not worth it.

In a way, our ancestors were lucky. When Moses gave them the green light to escape from their Egyptian taskmasters, there was no time to say, “Wait! I didn’t finish sweeping the floor yet! And the pots and pans still need to be put away!”

No siree.

When Pharaoh finally agreed to let our people go, we had to skedaddle. Little could we guess that we wouldn’t enter the Promised Land for another 40 years.

So why can’t we just commemorate our liberation with some traditional Jewish comfort food, like chicken chow mein? Why does scrubbing down the house and eating hard, crummy matzah, which tastes stale even when it’s fresh, remind us of freedom?

The answer, I believe, is that freedom is not just a physical reality — it’s a spiritual condition. And without a structure to our lives, there’s no freedom; there’s only chaos. It’s kind of like how gravity works: without gravity, every thing and every one of us would just float up into the atmosphere, hither and thither. Similarly, our value system is our “spiritual gravity” — it’s the structure that keeps us grounded morally. It gives us enough space to grow, but not so much space that we’ll just float around aimlessly, experimenting with potentially disastrous lifestyle ideas. It’s no coincidence that God gave us the Torah — His blueprint for living — after our liberation from slavery. As slaves, we weren’t free to make choices for ourselves. But as a newly liberated people, we needed guidelines. And who better to give them than the Creator Himself?

Similarly, the chametz that we search for before Pesach isn’t just physical. Our sages teach that the chametz is a metaphor for the “leavening” in our own personalities — the arrogance and egotism that can puff us up higher than a loaf of freshly baked bread. That’s why preparing for Pesach means more than looking for an old candy bar left in a jacket pocket. It means spring-cleaning our souls, trying to rid ourselves of pettiness, selfishness and tunnel vision. We’re multitasking — vacuuming with one hand, but also taking an inventory of our character, and trying to refocus on the things that really matter: our families, our values, God and the Torah He gave us to help us live a meaningful life. Only when we have swept this spiritual chametz away can we really connect with the deeper meaning of Pesach.

If we can manage to take this spiritual inventory, then when we sit down to our seders, we will be free — truly free — to enjoy this pivotal rendezvous with God, just as our ancestors have done for more than 3,300 years. We will be celebrating not just our liberation from slavery, but our reconnection to the tradition that has ensured our miraculous survival as a people.

Who knows? Perhaps any people able to digest this much matzah must surely be an indestructible people indeed.


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

In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors


“Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” by Mark Cohen (Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, $34.95).

Some months ago, I saw a Jewish homeless man near my New York apartment. He was wearing a yarmulke and muttering Hebrew words, and I think I saw a tattered prayer book in his shopping cart. Perhaps, I thought, the Upper West Side has officially become a Jewish town.

I have always been drawn to study Jewish towns and communities, a fascination that spurred me, professionally, toward the Yiddish culture of my paternal family. To my thinking, a real Jewish town — like prewar Vilna or Warsaw or even the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side — was one in which everyone was Jewish: not just the doctors and the lawyers, but the grocers, the firemen, even the prostitutes and homeless.

It seemed to me that in those truly Jewish towns in Eastern Europe — unlike the Diaspora neighborhoods of today, most of which are held together by strict religious observance — you could be whatever kind of person you wanted to be, with whatever beliefs, either political or religious, and still feel like a Jew, like you were part of a community. I longed for such a place, a place with streets that smell like challah on Friday afternoon, while children swim in local pools on Saturday — a home base on which to keep one toe while I explored the world with the rest of my body.

Over the last few years, my attention turned to Monastir, the Ottoman Empire town of my Sephardic maternal grandparents, in what is now Macedonia. Before my parents and I became more observant and joined the Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue near our house, we regularly attended a Sephardic synagogue co-founded by Monastirlis who, like my grandparents, had immigrated to America in the early 1900s.

Though all its Jews had long since emigrated or been killed in the Holocaust, perhaps Monastir had once been this Jewish town of my dreams; if so, maybe I could salvage its legacy. I could find other Monastirli descendants, and we could revive the traditions and sing the songs. I could even learn Ladino.

Aside from one dated, rather shallow history, I found very little published about the town. There were no tomes with extensive footnotes, no museum exhibits, no university chairs endowed for the study of Ottoman Jewry. Most importantly, at least to me, there was no Irving Howe of Balkan Sephardim, no one thinker so dedicated to — and supported in — his studies that he could place the disintegration of this culture in context, help me understand the loss I felt for a village I had never seen.

I toyed with the idea of writing a book on Monastir myself, but the task seemed daunting: Given the political chaos that has defined the region for the last century, providing the reader with a clear historical context would be a formidable challenge for a journalist; government records were sure to be near inscrutable, and what individual testimony one could garner would likely come from disparate, far-flung sources.

I was deterred, but, thankfully, Mark Cohen, a journalist from California with the same idea, was not. His newly released “Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, is an important addition to the study of Sephardic Jews and an essential building block in what I hope is the burgeoning field of Balkan Jewish studies.

The book is focused on the period between 1839 and 1943, the last years of a Jewish community ensconced in the Ottoman village since the Spanish Inquisition. Cohen is at his most evocative in his depiction of Jewish life, and it is in these details that the frequent stiffness of his prose fades away.

We learn how the 3,000 Monastirlis in the mid-1800s chose to live in a walled, self-contained residential district called a mahalle, which circled a great courtyard. Since virtually no one had indoor kitchens, the courtyard, which featured communal ovens in which the women would cook, served as “a house extension and host to domestic life.”

Yet this closeness came at a price. “With everyone exposed to the eyes and judgments of their neighbors, people were sure to conform to social norms,” including regular synagogue attendance and holiday observance. The Jewish quarter even had berurei averot, wardens who patrolled the area to suppress religious transgressions.

“Sephardic culture was intertwined with and inseparable from Jewish religious practice,” Cohen writes. In fact, children were named according to the different roles they played in supporting these twin heritages — girls were given Spanish names like Allegra, Palomba or Vida, while boys received biblical names like Abraham, Isaac and David. In line with this, boys were offered formal religious education through a Talmud Torah school, while girls were taught to master a wide range of Sephardic folklore genres; through folklore, mothers instructed their daughters in Jewish values, faith in God, even love and sex.

Cohen has gathered many of the unique Monastirli folklore and ballads in a separate index and has extensively detailed various rites of passage rituals — even down to the final one. When a Monastirli turned 60, a death shroud was made for him by the community; after a complex process, which included rinsing it in Monastir’s Dragor River, a ceremony was held in his honor. Cohen writes:

“It is here, in confrontation with death, that the power of traditional life shows itself. Tradition supported people during life’s most anxious and terrifying moments. It brought the community to the aid of an individual, orchestrating the enactment of ideals when a person was weak; celebrating with a 15-year-old girl who had just become a mother; feasting with a person preparing for death.”

A series of fires changed the course of the community’s history. In 1863, in less than two hours, 190 homes in the Jewish quarter — more than 90 percent of the total — burned down, leaving nearly 3,000 people homeless. All six synagogues, every house of study and the Talmud Torah school were ruined. The tragedy set the stage for one of the most intriguing twists in the town’s history.

The chief rabbi of Monastir appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore of London (portrayed in the book as a sort of Ron Lauder for 19th century Ottomans). As Cohen notes, the rabbi had excellent timing. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, led by Montefiore, had recently been lambasted by London’s Jewish Chronicle for ignoring the appeals of poor Jewish communities in Sana, Yemen and the Greek Ionian islands. Montefiore, sensing an opportunity to redeem himself, took it upon himself to help the small town.

Yet, there was a catch: Montefiore insisted the money be spent on humanitarian relief; believing that Ottoman Jewry needed to “modernize,” he and the other London Jews refused to help the devastated community rebuild its synagogues or its religious school.

With the authority of the rabbis thus undermined, Jews began to move to other areas in Monastir and, more importantly, their entire educational system was revolutionized. Beginning in 1863, a French-language alliance-style school was established — formally severing the Monastirlis’ ties with traditional religious life and its institutions. Some Jewish children even joined Christian missionary schools. The period from 1880 to 1903 was a time of incredible growth for the Jewish community, which reached its historical population peak of 11,000.

Yet as a backdrop to this assimilation and growth was the ethnic fighting that would plague the region for a century, with Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and even Romania all laying claim to the region at one point or another. Monastir would change hands repeatedly, as four centuries under Ottoman rule came to an end.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the Monastir region suffered ethnic conflict, a cholera epidemic and a decline in food production. It was at this time that massive emigration began, and the Monastirlis “experienced the greatest dislocation since Spanish expulsion.” Many left for South America, particularly Chile, as well as North America, where they founded communities in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

Those who stayed endured one world war after another, as they say. A Zionist youth movement emerged between the two wars, inspiring a good number of Monastirlis to immigrate to Israel.

But the story of the unlucky ones is, unfortunately, all too familiar to us from the well-documented stories of their Ashkenazic brethren: On April 9, 1941, Monastir came under Nazi control; Jewish shops were looted; a ghetto was created (in the area of the old Jewish quarter) and yellow stars were pinned to lapels. In March 1943, the Jews of Monastir were shipped to Skopje and then to Treblinka. “None of the Monastirlis who were sent to Treblinka survived,” Cohen writes.

Cohen has done an impressive job, and no library — certainly no center of Jewish studies — would be complete without this book. But as I finished it, I felt disappointed. I found myself wishing for a fuller epilogue, a chapter in which this seemingly kindred spirit would point the way forward from the sad tale unearthed by his research.

Instead, bits and pieces of Balkan history began to fall in my lap. I found out about a Web site chronicling the genealogy of all the Monastirli families run by Elie Cassorla of Austin, Texas (www.cassorla.net), and Stephen Schwartz wrote in about the efforts of Muhamed Nezirovic, a Bosnian Muslim and leading expert on his country’s Sephardim.

And I was sent a CD of music by Sarah Aroeste, a Ladino singer. Aroeste — whose relatives founded the only Monastirli synagogue to survive World War II, the Kal de los Monastirlis in Salonika — has picked up on the romanceros, or ballads, of her Sephardic culture and is bringing them to the world music stage.

All of these people are writing their own stories about the Balkans, struggling to deal with a piece of history, and they need more knowledgeable voices — academic, communal, perhaps even rabbinic — for support, and the opportunity to understand their own lost world, just as the descendants of the thriving Ashkenazic culture of Eastern Europe have come to understand theirs.

As it turned out, Monastir was never the Jewish town of my dreams. Mothers passing on folklore to their daughters is quaint, but less so when it is in place of formal education for girls, and those religious police are not for me. But perhaps Vilna and Warsaw weren’t as I imagine them either; perhaps no community, not even the Upper West Side, could fulfill my needs. Maybe those needs are antithetical to communal life.

Regardless, Monastir is no longer a Jewish town — of any kind. There are no Jewish homeless anymore; in fact, as of 2002, there was only one Jew, 68-year-old Mois Benjakoz, who escaped the deportation to Treblinka because his mother had married a Turk. It seems to me oddly important that Cohen wrote this book when he did, before Benjakoz died, extinguishing the last ember of a nearly forgotten Jewish community.

His example should open the door, quickly, to more research into the Jewish communities of the Balkans, because, as Cohen notes poignantly, “being dead [is] not nearly so bad as being dead and forgotten.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, Cohen will discuss
women in Sephardic folktales on Tuesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish
Community Library of Los Angeles. Admission is free, but reservations are
required. To R.S.V.P. or for more information, call (323) 761-8644 or send
e-mail to info@jclla.org .

Reprinted with permission of the Forward

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

If It’s Saturday, It’s Another Bar Mitzvah


Summer 2002

It starts as a trickle.

My oldest child, Becca, 12, is going into seventh grade. An invitation arrives from a boy at her new school. He doesn’t know Becca, nor she him, but in a kind gesture he has invited her — and everyone else in their class — to his bar mitzvah.

In the next 14 months, Becca, my wife, Ellie, and I will be invited to 55 more.

The Los Angeles bar mitzvah is a sitting duck. Wild tales of gross excess put fear, disgust and embarrassment into the heart of every Jewish parent I know.

Yet, among my crowd, there are three main concerns: 1 — That the religious significance be kept central and approached with dignity and respect; 2 — That the party is appropriate and affordable (“After all,” people say, “it’s not a wedding!”); 3 — That none of their children have any part of this generation’s supposed gift of choice (ask anyone with a child this age, they’ve heard the rumor. Trust me.).

Fall 2002

Becca settles into her new school. Now she actually knows the kids whose bar and bat mitzvahs she’s going to. Invitations come from her old friends, too.

Ellie and I — and also our younger kids — keep getting invited, too. It’s lovely to be included. We carefully find nice gifts, trying to figure out what each child would like.

The last time I’d been on the circuit was 1971-72 in suburban Boston. Even then — and even there — the main concern was “more mitzvah and less bar.” Back then, the gift of choice was a clock radio. We hit many temples.

Everyone seems to demand a lot of their b’nai mitzvah. The kids have been to religious school for at least two years. They lead a great deal of the service.

Their Torah readings are long. They give thoughtful and intelligent speeches. They’ve taken on mitzvah projects.

Each rabbi seems to know the child. And every parent gives a speech in which they express their pride and love.

A friend sadly reports that her son went to “one of those bar mitzvahs.” Everyone nods knowingly.

“Those” is code for ostentatious, tacky, over the top. Indeed, even in Los Angeles, conspicuous consumption is looked down upon as a sign of insecurity and sacrilege.

Sure, everything’s relative (professional lighting is fine; grand entrances on quadrapeds disdained), but “those” are like pornography — difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

Notes on montages: A child’s smile never changes.

The circuit is a great way for kids to adjust to middle school: a weekly party where they get to see old friends and bond with new ones, all under parental supervision.

Must be strange for the non-Jewish kids, though. What do they make of this? (Note to self: Remind kids that Los Angeles is weird; everyone only seems to be Jewish.)

The girls are, on average, a head taller than the boys.

Winter 2003

Picking up steam.

A DJ gets everyone doing the hora, and before it’s done, “Hava Nagila” segues into Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Everyone — kids, parents, grandparents — moves to the left, moves to the right, wiggles their hips, waves their arms.

Some are naturals. Many others, like me, kick up their feet when they’re supposed to stick out their thumb or move left when they’re supposed to step back.

Candlelightings.

The bar mitzvah child reads a rhyming couplet honoring someone, and as the person rises to light one of 13 candles, the DJ plays appropriate music: “I’ll Be There for You” (friends), “New York, New York” (cousins from the tri-state area) and, of course, “Unforgettable” (guess).

Notes on montages: A man can lose an entire head of hair in 13 years.

Becca’s bat mitzvah.

Incredible. Laughter, tears, love, pride, l’dor v’dor, etc.

The next week, another bar mitzvah. An old friend. Then a close friend. A friend from camp. At temples, hotels, soundstages, boats.

As a kid, I was warned that Jews can never get too comfortable. After all, the Nazis killed anyone with any Jewish blood.

Well, the joke is on the Nazis, because in 21st century Los Angeles, it seems anyone with any Jewish blood has a bar mitzvah. Good, I guess, for the Jews. But it means that at many bar mitzvahs, there is that table full of, say, Methodist cousins from Kansas who look like they just landed on Mars.

Early Spring 2003

They’re coming thick and fast.

Caterers, photographers, DJs make repeat appearances. More people can do the “Think” dance; I feel like I’m in a movie about a team that can’t do anything right but pulls it out for the big game. This is the scene where everyone gets it right except me.

The fish bowls we used for Becca’s centerpieces (we filled them with flowers and rubber ducks) make their second appearance, this time filled with candy. No one notices, and if anyone does, no one cares.

We can’t remember who we’ve given presents to. We have no time to shop for each kid separately.

I can’t remember multiples of 18. I’m in a hurry, and I’m irritated at the salesgirl at The Wherehouse who peppers me with questions about why I’m buying gift cards (10 of them) in a weird amount like $36.

Hello? Like, welcome to Los Angeles (and I may have to take out a second mortgage to pay for all these things).

Notes on montages: Has every Jewish family in Los Angeles been to Hawaii?

My younger kids beg us to not have to go to another bar mitzvah.

Coming up: A bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah — different kids, different temples, same school, same day. One mom makes a preemptive strike by sending out invitations months in advance.

Late Spring 2003

One a weekend, sometimes two or three. Another personalized yarmulke in my breast pocket and I’ll need a bra.

The “Think” dance. I feel like I’m in a long-running musical.

The fishbowls make their third centerpiece appearance, this time in Agoura. No one notices, so the hostess points it out. (This is “beating the system” in 2003, far more impressive than conspicuous consumption.)

A double-header. L.A. in the morning, Calabasas at night. Speeding up the 101, I notice food encrusted on my suit.

Have lost track of which invitations we’ve responded to. Most people on the circuit understand this problem.

The mom who made the preemptive strike calls: “Is Becca coming? You only have one week to respond.” (Not one week before the bat mitzvah — one week before the response card is due.)

More candlelightings. Endless. The crowd — except for the Kansans who seem charmed — gets antsy around candle five.

Another Saturday, another bar mitzvah, another kid hoisted onto a chair. Everyone applauds. One dad — a circuit regular — moans, “I can’t take it anymore.”

And then, up pops the boy who spontaneously announces he’s proud to be a Jew; the mom who tearfully tells her daughter how hard it was for her to get pregnant with her and how blessed she feels; the dad who tells his daughter why he’d hated his own father (now deceased) and how he has tried to be a better father to his own kids; the girl with learning disabilities who aces her Torah portion; the Hispanic nanny who tells the crowd that no one ever told her they loved her until she came to work for this family; and the boy who thanks his parents for adopting him 13 years ago.

Love and spirituality are alive and well in Los Angeles.

The preemptive mom calls again. She is testy. “You only have 48 hours left to respond!” We call in 72 hours (tee-hee).

Summer 2003

The slow season. Two or three bar mitzvahs. Yet I wonder: Is it a Jewish law that everyone has to serve a salad with gorgonzola, pears and candied pecans?

Fall 2003

Eighth grade. The last few.

The turnout is good. I can do the “Think” dance. The boys are now as big as the girls. Some are my size. And they’re getting antsy. At one of the last services, one mom is fighting a losing battle trying to shut them up. (What’s her problem? At least those rumors about “that special gift” have proven untrue.)

By Thanksgiving, it’s over. It’s like a dream or the chicken pox. You know it happened, but there’s little evidence.

Yet we’re different. And while these 14-year-olds aren’t adults, they’re not kids anymore, either. They’re teenagers.

And we aren’t new, young parents. We’re real, live, middle-aged adults, with a generation coming up who can hardly imagine us young.

In the end, the circuit of 2002-03 wasn’t so different from the one of 1971-72, which is very reassuring. After all, every culture has its excesses, whether it’s the Hispanic quincenera or a lifetime of elaborate Christmases.

For American Jews, the bar mitzvah service is our religion and the parties our culture. It’s great to be a part of a community and wonderful to continue a tradition.

True, it’s not a wedding. But that’s the joy. As a parent, at a wedding you are handing your child off. Yet at a bar mitzvah, this rite that ushers a child into Jewish adulthood, you are celebrating your family while you still have them.

It is a joy to be able to get up in front of all your friends and family in a spiritual setting and say: “This is my child. And I love her.”

And at the dozens of bar or bat mitzvahs I went to, every parent got up and said just that. And that, after all, is something to celebrate.

Ethiopian Pied Piper Rocks Heartstrings


Flamethrowers, breakdancers, mimes and musicians all perform on the Third Street Promenade, but when Saturday night rolls around, the biggest draw seems to be coming from a gaggle of bearded Chabadniks dancing to Hebrew tunes.

And the pied piper playing the keyboard is an Ethiopian Jew named Alula Tzadik.

This Rosh Hashanah, the dreadlocked Santa Monica resident will showcase his talents at B’nai Horin, the Culver City shul he has been performing at since 1997. Tzadik will play the kirar, a harp-like instrument dating back to King David’s time.

“He is a very soft and gentle, but a very dynamic presence as a performer,” said Rabbi Stan Levy of B’nai Horin. “More and more congregations are [recognizing his talent].”

There once was a time when millions knew who Tzadik was.

“I was like Michael Jackson in Ethiopia for a while,” Tzadik told The Journal.

Tzadik became a pop star sensation in Ethiopia in the mid-’80s with the hit song “Sentahehu,” named after his original Jewish first name, and now the name of his newborn son.

Tzadik’s journey to Judaism wasn’t easy. His Jewish mother, Tsige (“Shoshannah”), was raped when she was 13 by his Christian father, who was her teacher at school, Tzadik said. Tzadik was taken at birth from his mother because of her religion and did not know he was Jewish for the longest time.

“I knew I was different,” said Tzadik, who doesn’t know his precise age but estimates that he’s in his late 30s.

Tzadik was teased by kids and elders at the Christian orphanage he was placed in as buddha — an Ethiopian word often utilized as a derogatory ethnic slur against Jews. Tzadik remained in the orphanage until his early teens. At age 12, custody was given to his father, who encouraged him to deny his Jewish roots and embrace Bavarian customs.

“Can you imagine? A black man wearing lederhosen,” he scoffed.

Tzadik never learned why his patriarch, who had sired 26 children with various women, sent Tzadik to live in Germany, where he had his only child, Sentayehu, now 17.

But Tzadik never forgot his mother. He found her, and lived with her learning Hebrew songs and prayers.

After his song hit big, Tzadik landed in prison for a year for playing a song at his concerts called “Mr. President,” which was taken to be a protest against Communist dictator Mengistu. Tzadik went free in 1991, when the Communist government was overthrown in a coup d’état.

“Everything was open. We just walked out,” said Tzadik, who, fearing that he would be jailed again, left Ethiopia by foot to Sudan, then continued to Egypt and flew to Washington, D.C., where his father lived. Two years later, after his father died, he lived in New York and in Berkeley before coming to Los Angeles, “one of the best places to be Jewish.”

Shortly after arriving here, Tzadik connected with B’nai Horin’s congregation, which embraces people of diverse Jewish backgrounds.

“We try to be really eclectic in our music and incorporate some of the Ethiopian prayers in our services,” said Levy, who strives “to incorporate more than just the Ashkenazi tradition” to fully reflect the richness of Diaspora Jewry.

Given his labyrinthine journey to Judaism, Tzadik laments the fact that many Americans take their Jewishness for granted.

“We gather Jewish people scattered around to get them together,” Tzadik said of Sinai Temple’s popular monthly service, “Friday Night Live,” for which he performs. “That gives me fulfillment. Many of them don’t go to temple. I wish more people were involved.”

“It’s been said that music is not the notes that you hit, but what happens between the notes,” said “Friday Night Live” co-creator and bandleader Craig Taubman. “Alula’s a classic example of that. His energy, his hair, his smile is just out there. He’s got an aura.”

“Two months ago,” Taubman continued, “we had 25 visiting Fulbright Scholars studying in Santa Barbara — they were Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic.”

A scholar from Nigeria in the audience, who happened to be Christian, connected with Alula and got up and starting singing.

“It took the congregation to a high that I have not seen in five years,” Taubman said.

Tzadik continues to write songs and even scored “God and Allah Need to Talk,” an interfaith-themed movie. He explained that he demonstrates his gratitude for the freedom he enjoys as an American Jew with a monthly mitzvah, performing for Jewish inmates and recovering alcoholics. He also loves the Promenade.

“It’s so beautiful,” Tzadik said. “That makes me really happy to see young people and non-Jewish [people] who want to learn. Sometimes I feel like a teacher.”

“Here [in Los Angeles], I feel really, really connected. People ask a lot, ‘Do you have a family,’ and I say, ‘Yes. You are my family.'”

Alula Tzadik will perform at Rosh Hashanah services at B’nai Horin on Sept. 26 and 27; and at Temple Judea in Tarzana for Yom Kippur services. To contact Tzadik, e-mail alulaalula@aol.com .

My Mikvah Lady


The 21st victim of the heinous bus bombing in Jerusalem last month was Rachel Weitz, 70.

Her name probably flew by most of you. It almost flew by me, too, the first time I heard it on the 9 p.m. Saturday news. When I heard her name the second time that night, on the midnight news flash, I knew. My breath stopped as I ran to the phone book to check if there was any other Rachel Weitz in Jerusalem. There wasn’t.

Rachel Weitz was my beloved mikvah lady, the woman who ran the ritual bath.

Rachel ran the private mikvah in Mattersdorf until several years ago. Almost all the women who used it, except for me and a few others, were ultra-Orthodox. Even after I moved to Efrat, 18 years ago, I would still return there if I happened to be in town too late to get home to the Efrat mikvah, or just because I liked seeing Rachel.

For the 27 years of my married life, I measured all the mikvah ladies I met by Rachel. It was unfair competition. Had Agnon known her, he would have written a story about her, like he did about Tehila. But, of course, he couldn’t have known her like we, the women, did.

When I was a young bride, Rachel made me feel comfortable with this new activity that went along with the wedding ring. She always greeted me with a warm smile and a bit of friendly chatter. Each time I entered her pristine structure, tucked away behind a large Mattersdorf synagogue, I felt like I was parting a veil and entering a sanctum. No matter what insanity was going on in the world outside, it was always safe in Rachel’s mikvah. There, I was home.

As time went on, our family grew, and I loved the experience of returning to Rachel’s mikvah after giving birth, sharing with her the fact that a new child had been born to the tribe of Israel.

Most of the other women who came to Rachel’s mikvah wore thick stockings and either wigs or hats that covered all their hair; some had black stretch snoods pulled over shaved heads, and women even came from the heart of Mea Shearim to use it. I arrived in flowing colored head scarves with my barefoot toes sticking out of my sandals. Rachel didn’t care. She was as loving and caring toward me as she was toward the others, who were a much closer match for her mode of dress and lifestyle.

When I came occasionally after I had moved to Efrat, Rachel always expressed great concern for my safety. When I said goodbye, she would ask me if the road was safe and wished me best of health.

Over the years my scarves and flowered skirts were sometimes replaced by suits, heels and a fashionable hat or styled wig. But Rachel never changed. She remained an anchor of tradition in a shifting world.

Part of that tradition was what happened while the women waited their turn. The women in Rachel’s mikvah all said Tehillim (psalms) while they waited. There was no small talk. They turned inward and prayed for the people of Israel — and perhaps for their husbands and for their children. And if they had no children, perhaps they were praying for themselves.

Rachel had a custom from the old country that few mikvah ladies adhere to nowadays. As a woman emerged from the mikvah, while still on the last step, Rachel would grasp her wet hand, shake it warmly and give her a blessing for joy and good luck, as she helped her step up and out. And even though Rachel watched you dunk and say the blessing while in the water, once she had witnessed the act, she would hold the towel up to hide her own eyes from you as you emerged, offering you a final moment of modest dignity before you swathed yourself in terry cloth.

In the years of our marriage I’ve had occasion to travel, and to visit the luxurious mikvahs of London and of Beverly Hills. I’ve been to the beautiful establishments in Toronto, Cleveland and Queens. But even with their multicolored tiles, carpeting, piped-in music and collections of condiments and coffee for post-immersion pampering, none of those mikvahs were ever as soothing to me as Rachel’s spartan one.

I feel that Rachel’s blessings have accompanied me throughout my married life. She has been a role model to me of chesed, of kindness, of cheerfulness, of what it means to make another person always feel comfortable, special and welcome.

The last time I visited the Mattersdorf mikvah, more than a year ago, they told me that Rachel had retired. But I noticed that the spirit she had brought to the mikvah was still there. Well, I thought, some day I’ll go and visit her at her home, just to say hello and tell her how much I appreciated her all those years. Someday I’ll call her and tell her what’s going on with my children.

After the Aug. 19 bombing, Rachel suffered for four days before she died. This knowledge is almost more than I can bear. This righteous woman — who lovingly clasped the hands of thousands of women, lifting them up and out of the ritual bath, who then sent them forth from her sanctum to go home to their husbands, her blessings ringing in their ears, who should have spent her last years in comfort and joy, basking in the laughter and love of her children and grandchildren — was slaughtered by the epitome of evil. This knowledge is hard for me to live with.

And so is the knowledge that I never found the time to tell her, "Thank you."


Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, a community theater writer and director (“Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court”) and the editor-in-chief of

Spiritual Parenthood


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Frozen Chosen


Although my rabbinic colleagues will always go the extra mile to serve their communities, I believe I actually cover the most miles in my commute: Every other month or so, I start my journey at 4:30 a.m. in the North Valley and end it some 10 hours later in a small airport in Juneau, Ala. Outside the gate, a member of the Juneau Jewish Community (JJC) smiles and waves to me — a weekend of serving the Frozen Chosen begins.

Through many years of rabbinic traveling and teaching, I’ve been blessed to serve congregations from Long Island to Maui and from Canada to Australia. I’ve prayed in shuls from Transylvania to Argentina, and I’ve discovered that in all the world Juneau’s community is unique. The fusion of Alaskan life and Jewish tradition never ceases to amaze me.

The JJC presently has about 40 core households and no permanent building. We often pray in local senior centers, churches or members’ homes.

I began learning about Alaskan customs during my first Shabbat morning service in spring of 2001. I sat in a cozy, rustic living room, and as I prepared to sing an opening nigun, I looked around the crowded room and realized I was surrounded by a circle of smiling faces and wiggling toes — I was the only one wearing shoes. I then noticed the mountain of rubber shoes and winter boots piled near the door.

"It’s always snowy, slushy or just plain muddy in Juneau," the president said. "We don’t wear shoes in our houses."

So I quickly added my black dress heels to the pile, and now know how to lead home-based services in stocking feet.

Jews initially arrived in Alaska in the mid-19th century as whalers and traders. Eventually, Jews began to settle in the territory, teaching their traditions and learning about native ways. Over time, Jews married natives and Jewish family names are not uncommon among native peoples. An unexpected name emerged among the natives of a Northwestern tribe, which resides in the area around Bethel. The tribe is known as the Yupiks, and numerous marriages have occurred between Yupiks and Jews. The offspring actually call themselves "Jew-piks," proud of each culture and welcome in Bethel’s small Jewish community.

Of course, Juneau is Alaska’s capital; this year, when the legislative session began, the Jewish population swelled, because four Jewish legislators and their families joined the JJC. Juneau is a very political little town, and many JJC members serve the government in some capacity. Before one of my last visits, one of the members unexpectedly arranged for me to open a session at the state House of Representatives. Although I was ambivalent at first, because of church-state issues, I realized that my participation was important to the Jewish community.

"A rabbi hasn’t opened a session in years," they told me, "and most legislators have never even heard of a female rabbi."

With some hesitation, I accepted the honor, viewing it as a unique opportunity to teach and to offer a context for making the decisions of governing. Careful to avoid explicit reference to God and phrases such as "let us pray," I offered these words to open the legislative session on Jan. 27:

"In ancient days, the sages of the Talmud — who compiled Jewish law and lore — taught that ‘every deliberation conducted for the sake of heaven will … have lasting value.’ As it is said in the ancient tongue: Kol machloket she’he l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

"May your deliberations, in these honorable halls, truly be for the sake of heaven. May your discussions genuinely be for the sake of the men and women who depend on you, as well as the innocent children and the wild creatures whose care is entrusted to you. Through your debates, may you honestly pursue the best interests of those who dwell in the cities, towns, villages and untamed places of this great state. May you also fulfill your sacred obligation to protect this precious land itself.

"May you continue to be a privileged partner with the Eternal Holy Source of Life to protect and promote the well-being of those you serve — and may all your deliberations truly be of lasting value. Cain y’hi ratzon, so may it be."

While remarkable opportunities like addressing the House make serving in Juneau exciting, unexpected daily activities and conversations make it unforgettable. In the winter, it was amazing to sing "Shechecheyanu" as congregants and I stood beside an iceberg that had frozen in Mendenhall Lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. An equally memorable moment occurred on an earlier visit, as I discussed a bar mitzvah project with a 12-year-old Alaskan student; he wanted to make a shofar.

"Great," I said, "what kind of horn will you use?"

He replied "Dahl sheep — they’re all over."

"And how will you get the horn?" I asked.

"Well," he said matter-of-factly, "Dad and I will go hunting."

Only in Alaska, I laughed to myself, feeling, again that the commute is always worthwhile.


Sheryl Nosan is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley in Granada Hills. She will be returning to Alaska on May 30.

Hair Apparent


As I boarded the airplane with my baby last week, the passenger seated to my side smiled and commented, “What a beautiful little girl you have.”

I simply said, “Thank you.”

About an hour later, as I removed my baby’s diaper for a quick change, the same woman gasped, “Oh my goodness, it’s a boy!”

Her expression conveyed confusion and wonder — confused by the long hair with a clip in the front and wondering why I didn’t correct her mistake earlier. I was simply tired of explaining that traditional Jews often wait until a boy’s third birthday before giving his first haircut.

When my husband first insisted we follow this custom, I expressed reservations. After all, such traditions seemed more appropriate for insular ultra-Orthodox Jews, and we are modern and worldly. I also knew that as his hair grew, he would be mistaken for a girl. I argued that it would cause a gender-identity crisis. My husband remained steadfast, instinctively wanting to partake in the tradition carried down throughout Jewish generations, which had now touched our son, Avi. Still unconvinced and unsure of its roots and applicability to my life, I decided to research its origins.

According to Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Lubavitch of Long Island, the root of this custom is a verse in the Torah that compares man to a tree. In Deuteronomy, it states, “A person is like the tree of a field.” Just as a tree grows tall and with time, produces fruit, so it is hoped that a little boy will grow in knowledge, good deeds and, eventually have children of his own. Therefore, just as the Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits that grow during the first three years are off-limits, so, too, we leave a child’s hair alone during the first three years.

Teldon also points out that age 3 marks a turning point, and shedding the long locks of babyhood helps little boys look forward to their new “Big Boy” responsibilities. Gone are the days of bottle, diaper and nestling in Mommy’s arms. A 3-year-old boy is ready to move into the world of friends, school and formal Torah education. He will learn blessings, prayers and the Hebrew alphabet. It is also the time religious boys begin donning a kippah and tzitzit. Cutting his hair makes a strong emotional impression on the child. He knows he is entering a new stage of maturity, and this helps him live up to the new role.

The big birthday is marked by the celebratory upfsherin, Yiddish for “cutting off.” Numerous families have adopted the custom in recent years, and some mark the date by traveling to the grave of kabbalist Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai, located near Safed, to cut the hair near the cave where he lived and later died. Others prefer to take the child to a yeshiva, to be serenaded with blessings. I have learned that it is preferable to hold the upfsherin in a holy place and have righteous people cut the hair. Most host a party, replete with song and dance, sometimes clowns and, of course, the barber. But before the barber takes his scissors out, family, friends and rabbis take turns snipping. The first cut is at the spot where tefillin will be placed at bar mitzvah. And a wonderful way to tangle custom with mitzvah is to donate the long hair to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for children with cancer.

In Israel, this custom is closely associated with Lag B’Omer. It’s an incredibly joyous scene as thousands of 3-year-old boys receive their first haircut at the grave of the rabbi. Because this custom is tied into kabbalistic thought concerning the spirituality of hair, many put off the ceremony until Lag B’Omer (which takes place May 20). Friends and family gather for picnics and bonfires near the cave on Mount Meron, near Safed, where the rabbi once lived. Following their haircuts, the children each get a plastic alef-bet card, and they place a bit of honey on each letter. Parents then encourage their little ones to lick the honey while saying each letter, so that Torah should be “sweet on their tongues.”

And so, I decided to let Avi’s hair grow. I know that after his upfsherin, it won’t just be the soft, silky baby hair I’ll miss. I realize that I need to savor it all now, because once the long hair goes, so will most of the hugs, kisses, hand-holding and cradling, too. Gone will be babyhood. It is not just Avi who is being prepared for his new role — I am, too.


Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. She frequently writes about Jewish affairs.

A Date With Passover Memories


Once a year, soon after Purim, my parents lug down the hydraulic press from their attic. For those of us more comfortable in the world of DVDs and CD-ROMs, a hydraulic press is an old-fashioned contraption that looks like a wooden bucket perched on a little metal table, with a metal pole you turn to squeeze whatever you put inside — often, grapes to make wine. My parents use it to make halek, the date syrup that is the Iraqi-Indian version of charoset.

I won’t give too many details about the arduous process that results in the glossy brown, intensely sweet halek, but for starters, let me just say it ain’t easy. My parents produce enough halek not only for themselves, but for three daughters, eight grandchildren and numerous seder guests. Halek remains a favorite breakfast and snack food during the week of Passover. That’s a lot of halek, so my parents begin with 15 pounds of pitted, crushed dates. After the dates are soaked overnight, the hydraulic press strains and liquefies the fruit so that the halek retains every drop of honeyed essence. The liquid is then boiled until it thickens; it is mixed with ground walnuts before serving.

I know some families who make halek without the dramatics of the hydraulic press (a cheesecloth and hand-squeezing can do the trick). But my parents wanted to reproduce the exact process they knew from India, for my great-uncle Elias — the family’s master halek-maker in Calcutta — used a hydraulic press. In fact, Uncle Elias used to send us halek in sealed containers for 15 years after we moved from Calcutta to Philadelphia. When my parents bought the hydraulic press in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, they continued the tradition on their own.

The haggadah tells us that on Pesach we must re-enact the story of the Exodus. But for many of us, Pesach is also a time to re-enact the customs of our parents and grandparents. Elana Goldberg of Teaneck, N.J., doesn’t have a hydraulic press, but she devotes hours to making a sweet dish the way her bubbe did. The fried dough cake filled with raisins, prunes and raspberry jam, then soaked and baked in honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar, brings back a taste she treasured as a little girl.

"I thought it was heaven. It was the highlight of the seder for me," Goldberg remembers. Today, with two sets of twins, 8 and 5, and a 3-year-old, Goldberg still puts aside a whole night to recreate this piece of her grandmother.

"Somehow it’s not Passover without it," she said, "and the only way to get it is to make it myself."

Journalist and author Patricia Volk ("Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family," Knopf, 2001) sets her table with an inventory of heirlooms: Aunt Lil’s nut dish with squirrels on the side for charoset; Granny Ethel’s silver platter for matzah, and "place plates" to put under each place setting; Poppy’s silverware; Aunt Dorothy’s stemware; Nana’s "peacock plates" and salt cellars in peacock-blue clear glass; her father’s silver repoussé kiddush cup, and great-grandmother’s vase.

Looking for the afikomen is the thread that takes Ed Koch back 50 or 60 years.

"My father always hid the matzah under the sofa pillow, year after year," recalled the former mayor of New York. "But we always played the game. We’d look everywhere, and then look under the sofa pillow. We received a few coins, but for a 7-year- old, it was a treasure."

Today, when Noah and Jordan, his 5-year-old grandnephew and 8-year-old grandniece, look for the afikomen, "there’s no fix. You gotta really find it."

Their reward?

"We’re up to a dollar," Koch said. "You don’t want to spoil the kids."

At the Passover workshops he presents, Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and author of "The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder," (Jewish Lights, 1996) suggested matching the four cups with different varieties of the many good kosher wines now on the market. Last year, however, Wolfson got a complaint from a participant after Passover.

"Your idea backfired," the man said. "Everybody was looking for heavy Malaga. That’s what they remembered from their youth."

"That taught me an important lesson," Wolfson said. "The great attraction of Passover is that we not only recite the haggadah — this historical document — but we also live and breathe and eat and touch and smell the history, with the additional layer of family memory. The seder becomes a family reunion, a powerful reliving of family history."

Wolfson enjoys reliving one particular episode of his own family history that took place on Passover, although he may not have relished it as much years ago.

"I almost didn’t get engaged to my wife because of gefilte fish," he recalled. "When my future in-laws came to our family seder for the first time, they offered to make the gefilte fish. We sometimes had up to 50 guests, so they bought 100 pounds of fish, and worked for a week preparing it. They chopped it up by hand in a gehocker [a cleaver], poured cups of sugar on it, shaped it into balls, stuffed the mixture into the fish skins and sliced it. That was their tradition from Germany and Poland. My family, originally from the Russian Pale of Settlement, never saw gefilte fish like that before. They never tasted gefilte fish like that before. They expected it to be bland and unsweetened, and they were in shock."

"Familiarity is comforting," said Dr. Rhonda Yoss-Kaplan, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y. "It’s grounding. It connects you to your own personal history and identity, to what’s gone before and what you will hand down to your children."

The discomfort associated with change, she added, is the unknown aspect of things that are new and different.

But traditions don’t have to be rooted in history. Anyone can start a tradition at any time, Wolfson pointed out.

"I would welcome anything that opens up the seder as an interactive experience that has the family’s mark on it," he said.

He enhances his own seder in numerous ways. Steamed artichoke hearts for karpas (the green vegetable that serves as the appetizer) allow nibbling until the meal is served (there’s parsley for the traditionalists). A "Chad Gadya" competition engages anyone who wants to prove they can get through the long last verse in Aramaic or English without taking a breath.

Aliya Cheskes-Cotel, director of education for the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, listed many customs she follows from her childhood: the kids hide the afikomen and the adults search for it; everyone sings two songs off-key, the way Grandpa Isaac did; each person saves a piece of the afikomen and puts it away in a drawer until next year’s seder, when it is eaten.

So it does, in this era where the new rubs shoulders with the old. Miriam’s Cups, puppet shows, magic tricks, updated plagues, kosher-for-Passover pasta and nouvelle cuisine notwithstanding, an element of the old persists. Zinfandels and Cabernets haven’t yet totally supplanted Malaga. Some things change, it’s true, but it’s also comforting to know that some things don’t.

So when I asked my 9-year-old daughter, Shoshana, what one thing she would want to make sure her seder included when she grows up, I wasn’t surprised that she answered me without hesitation.

"Halek," she said, licking her lips.

I’d better learn to use that hydraulic press.


Rahel Musleah, the author of “Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Rose Queen for a Day


It took 50 years, but this New Year’s Day a childhood dream and mother’s fantasy is about to come true.

I was born on Jan. 1, 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower prepared to assume the presidency, American troops remained in Korea and newspapers heralded mine as Los Angeles County’s first recorded birth. In glad recognition of this event, producers of the popular TV tearjerker "Queen for a Day" presented my mother with a miniature silver tea set.

But throughout my childhood, thanks to my mother’s unwavering love and her gift for the fanciful, I dreamed of a far greater notoriety than gifts of precious metal, or being the first to enter the world at an interesting moment, could provide.

I dreamed of being the Rose Parade queen.

While this dream may seem especially whimsical for a Jewish girl growing up then in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district, it made perfect sense to my mother and me. After all, every year my birthday fell on New Year’s Day. And on every birthday, a lavish parade with rose-covered floats was held in my honor. Or so my mother told me.

From the time I was born, my mother told me that mine was the most special birthday. When my father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was only 5 years old, her proclamation took on a deep — and healing — meaning.

To be the child of a single mother was something of a stigma in the 1950s — when television portrayed only intact families with strong father figures. The sting of every schoolmate’s inquiry as to, "What does your father do?" was greatly lessened by my mother’s assurance that the most magical, wonderful parade around was held every year for me. It also guaranteed my status as a continuing treasure in her life — born 11 years after my parents married, and long after they had accepted that they could not have children.

So every Jan. 1, surrounded by friends and family, we did not celebrate New Year’s Day, but honored Phyllis’ birthday. I donned the new red velvet dress that my aunt sent me annually from her home in Canada, styled my hair to perfection and waved, queen-like, to the television while we all relished the floats.

As a teenager, I pleaded that we move to Pasadena so I could compete to be the real Rose Queen. Although my mother never included living in Pasadena as part of the fantasy, I continued to dream. Every year I visited the floats with my mother, then my husband, Mark, and, eventually, my daughters, Lauren and Julia. The one year my daughters didn’t join, I wept.

Last year, as I enjoyed the parade with them and my husband on the occasion of my 49th birthday, I determined that the next year I had to actually be in the parade.

So I wrote a letter to some of the Tournament of Roses officials. Touched by my story, they shared it with Larry Crain, president of Charisma Floats, and designer Raul Rodriguez of the coveted Queen’s Float.

Every year, tournament officials are deluged with requests from aspiring parade participants; apparently, Crain was moved by my request — maybe it was the power of family traditions and teaching children that, through the kindness and efforts of others, dreams can come true. For while my mother understood the value of traditions that are handed down through the generations, she also understood the beauty of creating your own.

So Crain arranged a "Queen for a Day" opportunity. In a red velvet dress and bejeweled tiara with my daughters as princesses and the media in attendance, I was photographed on the Queen’s Float. I held a scepter covered with just the right number of deep-red roses, answered reporter’s questions and waved royally to the cameras.

One writer noted that the float on that day was a "far cry from the many-splendored creation it will become." But I was unfazed by the absence of thousands of fragrant roses or the fact that the unadorned float was parked in a stark, white tent. Being photographed was a dream come true — viable proof that the parade was my personal birthday present.

How fitting that the theme of this year’s 114th Tournament of Roses parade is "Children’s Dreams, Wishes and Imagination." I was instilled with confidence by a mother who raised me on a department store clerk’s salary, but who provided me with a life rich in love and imagination.

That evening, my mother — in very frail health at age 86 — chuckled while she watched the local TV news coverage. And, like a child unwilling for a magical day to end, I reluctantly removed my tiara.

On Jan. 1, 2003 — my 50th birthday –that photograph will be placed on the float for the ride down Colorado Boulevard that I’ve always wanted to take. Millions of parade-watchers will see a beautiful young queen waving to the crowd, but my mother and I will know it’s really me.


Phyllis Folb is principal of The Phylmar Group Media Relations, a firm that specializes in the arts, education and nonprofit organizations.

A Holiday Hits the Big Time


At Universal Studios, all the usual characters — Spider-Man and the Rugrats — were out in force on Sunday, Nov. 24. But they weren’t just there for photo ops with children. Instead, they were lighting menorahs, spinning dreidels and eating the world’s biggest latke at the Chanukah celebration in Universal City.

Joining them were Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, Justin Burfield of "Malcolm in the Middle," the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green and Remedy of the Wu-Tang Clan, who performed "Chanukah Rap."

"We were looking for a way to bring Hollywood magic and star power to Chanukah," said Brian Pope, Universal vice president of marketing services, who said he hopes that the event will become an annual one.

"We thought that Chanukah was one of the best Jewish holidays that lent itself to the fun family entertainment, and so we worked with a consultant and spoke with a number of rabbis from a variety of groups to create this event," he said.

Pope noted that Universal Studios is the first major theme park to put on a Chanukah event.

That Chanukah has gotten its own event at Universal Studios shows how far it has come: The little-known Jewish holiday — which once had to fight for display space next to Santa — is now a major event on its own, even when it comes a month before Christmas.

From movies to malls, from sitcoms to shopping, Chanukah has gone mainstream; and while some see it as a sign of the resurgence of Jewish identity and the acceptance of Jews in American society, others wonder if the holiday’s success has come at the expense of its spirituality.

This Chanukah, if you head down to your local multiplex you can see Adam Sandler belching his way through "Eight Crazy Nights," an animated Chanukah comedy (see story, page 37). If you turn on the radio, you might hear Sandler singing, "Put on your yarmulke/It’s time for Chanukah," or Tom Lehrer crooning about "spending Chanukah in Santa Monica."

On television, Chabad’s "Chanukah, the Miniseries," will be broadcast on KCAL-TV each night at menorah-lighting time (between 4:15 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.). Two Chanukah shows will be presented on KCET-TV: a special Chanukah episode of "Alef…Bet…Blastoff," followed by "A Taste of Chanukah." They will be shown on Dec. 1 starting at 8:30 a.m.

You might also see Chanukah pop up on some sitcoms. Last season on "Friends," for example, an episode had Ross trying to teach his son, Ben, about Chanukah. "Saturday Night Live" featured a character, Chanukah Harry, who dressed in a blue-and-white Santa Claus suit and had a black beard instead of a white one.

For children, Disney has a Chanukah book out, "Winnie the Pooh and the Hanukkah Dreidel," and there is "A Rugrats Chanukah" video.

There are other reminders of Chanukah. Every Ralphs supermarket will display a large menorah, courtesy of Chabad, and most banks will put a small plastic menorah in their windows. Chabad is also sponsoring a number of public menorah ceremonies, such as the lighting of a 35-foot menorah in Beverly Hills Gardens, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

For shoppers there is an abundance of Chanukah items. Hallmark offers 119 different Chanukah cards. Online flower sellers, such as proflowers.com or 1800-Flowers.com, offer Chanukah bouquets for $39.99 and gift baskets, complete with dreidel cookies, for $69.99.

Godiva sells a $23 Chanukah Ballotin box of chocolates. Kmart has a 20-piece Hanukkah Lights dinnerware set for $19.99 and Avon sells a $14.99 Festival of Lights Bear that lights an accompanying menorah when its paw is pressed.

For those who have the urge to splurge for Chanukah, Neiman Marcus has a $4,000 Steuben crystal menorah with silver-plated candle cups.

The proliferation of Chanukah products has led retailers to focus less on the fact that the holidays are solely about Christmas. "I have noticed over time that it has gone from being the Christmas season to holiday season," said Tom Holiday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation, which represents 100 trade organizations. "In retail, there is always a conscious effort to be aware of the dates of Jewish holidays, but I see a more ecumenical approach in general."

All of this has taken Chanukah out of the Talmud and into the mainstream. Jews started celebrating Chanukah 2,000 years ago, when a small band of Jewish fighters led by Judah Maccabee emerged victorious in their battle with the Hellenists, who, led by King Antiochus, wanted to sway the Jews away from God and turn them into idol-worshipping hedonists.

After the battle, the Jews found their Temple desecrated, and only one vial of pure olive oil remained, enough to light the menorah — a daily ritual in the Temple — for one day. A miracle occurred when the oil lasted eight days, which provided enough time for new oil to be pressed.

Since then, every year beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, Jews have been commemorating the occasion by making a blessing and lighting a menorah for eight nights and by eating foods that are cooked in oil, such as latkes.

Today,while many people don’t know the details of the correct way to light the menorah (halacha dictates that the candles/oil must be the same height and lit from right to left, using a shamash servant candle, and that the lights must burn for at least half an hour), thanks to the the ubiquity of its symbols, Chanukah is a significant holiday on the Jewish calendar, and one that Jews can easily identify with.

The fact that Chanukah usually occurs around Christmastime — although this year it coincides with Thanksgiving — means that Jews don’t have to co-opt another religion’s holiday as an excuse to give each other gifts (although traditionally gelt — money — is given on Chanukah), and they don’t have to feel left out during the holiday season.

Chanukah is not the only Jewish holiday or practice that has over time accreted aspects of the larger culture.

"Jewish tradition has generally been responsive to the various cultures that Jews live; that adds up to the idea of minhag [custom] that varies from locale to locale," said UCLA professor David N. Myers, who teaches Jewish history. "[Jewish] language, culinary habits, dress norms all change according to the different environments [in which] they find themselves."

"In the modern period," Myers said, "the forces of acculturation are very powerful, and one of the reasons Chanukah has been so malleable is because it is not a major festival, and therefore the ritual stakes not as high when you modify its meaning or significance."

Rabbi Alan Flom of Burbank’s Temple Emmanuel said, "Most rabbis think that Chanukah is a very minor holiday, but in our culture we have had to make it a bigger holiday to compete in the marketplace. If we didn’t, I think that Christmas would be so overwhelming, it would be even more difficult to keep our people Jewish in this kind of an environment."

However, many see the mainstreaming of Chanukah not as a de facto response to Christmas but as a positive resurgence of Jewish identity.

"Chanukah has become front and center in Jewish life, and it’s a way for a lot of people to discover a bridge to their heritage," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Chabad of Orange County. "The subjective message in the mainstreaming of Chanukah is that its OK to be Jewish, and I think that’s good."

Others think that having Chanukah symbols everywhere actually does have a religious significance, and not just a Jewish feel-good one. "The Talmud says that one of the key ways to observe Chanukah is through pirsumei nissah, publicizing the miracle," said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for Chabad-Lubavitch on the West Coast. "That means lighting the menorah, spreading the beautiful message of Chanukah. And thank God, you can open your newspaper now and find that everyone is helping to publicize this beautiful miracle."

However, others believe that Chanukah has become a kind of Jewish Christmas — a holiday whose religious significance has been almost overshadowed by its commercial possibilities and universal appeal.

"The commercialization of Chanukah is particularly tragic," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Commercializing Chanukah is a contradiction of its very essence. If you take Jesus out of Christmas, you have a holiday where people are nice to each other, feel upbeat. Although it’s missing the point, it is not a violation of what Christmas is.

"Commercializing Chanukah is the opposite of the point. Chanukah is not a liberation story — [under Antiochus] the Jews could have lived in their country as free people without any other problem, other than being asked to renounce their faith. The story of Chanukah is not one of being asked to throw off the yoke of a foreign oppressor, but it is the issue of the spiritual prevailing over the might of the decidedly unspiritual."

"Chanukah is the story of the spark of Judaism striving to be united with its God and its Torah and its mitzvot," Alderstein added. "It is not a substitute for the gift-giving of prevailing culture. Chanukah is about the resistance of Jews to the prevailing culture of modernity and aesthetic beauty."

Claudia Wolf, an educator and program director for the Shalom Nature Center in Malibu holds a similar view. "It is bad that Jews feel like they have to compensate by becoming almost like Christians," she said. "One student at my program told me that she was going home for Thanksgiving/Chanukah, and her mother told her that she was not going to get any gifts until Christmas, because that is really the gift-giving season."

Rabbi Shlomo Holland, the director of development at Los Angeles Kollel, agreed. "When we portray Chanukah in a superficial, shallow and trivial way, in a sense we are ingraining in ourselves a new version of Chanukah that was never meant to be, and we celebrate a holiday that is not the essence of that holiday," Holland explained.

"When we commercialize it, we don’t portray that, we just portray a cute holiday where we light the menorah," he continued. "Which, in the eyes of the world, is not too different than a cute holiday where you light up a tree-and you give presents here, and you give presents there, and rather than looking for the obvious difference, one is looking for the similarities and the sameness."

Holland said that the essence of Chanukah is the message of the light of Torah. "That light could break through what appeared to be the wisdom of the Greek Hellenists, but was truly the darkness of illusion," he said. "The only thing that shines so powerful a light, that shows you what is real, and what isn’t real, is the light of the Torah. If anything, that is really the essence of Chanukah."

A Tuna After Atonement


Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a holiday for serious fasting — no food or drink for 24 hours. At the end of the day, thoughts inevitably turn to what to eat at sundown, and breaking the fast with family and friends.

Our family tradition has been to serve dairy and seafood dishes when we return from the synagogue. I found the perfect fish dishes to prepare for this meal when I attended a food fair at the Skirball Cultural Center. The highlight of the festival was a series of cooking demonstrations, given by well-known local chefs. They were on a stage in front of a movie-size screen so the audience could see what they were demonstrating. During each session everyone was invited to taste what the chefs had prepared.

Chef Neal Fraser, formerly of Boxer Restaurant, gave the first demonstration. He is planning his own restaurant, Grace on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. Neal prepared a dish that he called Big Eye Tuna Carpaccio With a Spanish Touch. He offered several cooking tips as he went along, and the audience clearly enjoyed his presentation. The tuna fillet was placed between wax paper and pounded until almost translucent. Neal transferred the tuna onto a plate and prepared a mixed vegetable salad that he placed on top of the tuna.

This can all be prepared in advance, and served as part of a break-the-fast meal. He also showed how to roll the tuna with the salad tucked inside and then sliced into bite-size portions, to be served as a finger food.

Next came Chef Kazuto Matsusaka, formerly of Chinois on Main, and his wife, chef Vicki Fan, who assisted him. Kazuto prepared Infused Sake, Cilantro Cured Salmon (my favorite), Vegetable Dumplings With Ponzu Sauce and Seared Ahi Tuna With a Daikon Vinaigrette. This handsome Japanese chef and his wife were a great team, adding humor and charm to their dumpling mix.

This year I will add these dishes to our traditional family buffet along with bagels, cream cheese, platters of herring and smoked salmon and a wonderful array of cold salads. Serve a variety of baked delicacies including honey cake, an assortment of sweet rolls and fruit salad for dessert.

Neal’s Big Eye Tuna Carpaccio with a Spanish
Touch

8 ounces Big Eye Ahi Tuna, cleaned

of sinew and cut into 2-ounce medallions

Olive oil

4 ounces baby arugula

1 ounce capers, chopped

3 ounces Spanish green olives,

pitted and chopped

1 ounce olive tapenade

1 bunch parsley, chopped

2 ounces sherry wine vinegar

1 ounce balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 ounces shallots, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 ounces haricot vert, blanched

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 Roma tomato, seeded and diced*

For the Tuna:

Brush the fish with a little olive oil. Place between two pieces of plastic wrap.

Using a hammer or tenderizer pound the tuna until almost translucent and reserve. Repeat with remaining medallions.*

For the Vinaigrette:

In a medium-size bowl, add all of the ingredients except the tomato and arugula, and mix with a wire whisk. Season with salt and pepper. Add enough olive oil so that it is balanced with the vinegar. (The ratio of oil to vinegar is 3:1) Taste and add the peppers and tomatoes at the end.

To serve, remove the top piece of plastic wrap from the tuna, and using the remaining plastic wrap as a guide, invert the tuna onto a serving plate and peel off the remaining plastic wrap (repeat with remaining tuna). Season with salt and pepper. Toss the arugula with the vinaigrette and carefully arrange on top of the tuna.

*Variation: Remove the top piece of plastic wrap from the tuna and place a small portion of the salad on top of the tuna. Roll up the tuna and slice it into bite-size pieces.

Kazuto’s Cilantro Cured Salmon

1 (4-pound) salmon fillet, skin on

6 bunches washed and picked

cilantro leaves, chopped (about 3 cups)

1¼3 cup salt

1¼3 cup sugar

2¼3 cup freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons tequila

With a sharp knife, score the skin of the salmon in four or five places about 2 inches apart.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the cilantro, salt, sugar and pepper. Place a small handful of the cilantro mixture on the bottom of a large glass baking dish. Place the salmon fillet skin side down on top. Cover completely with the remaining cilantro mixture. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly weight it down and refrigerate for 72 hours or until salmon is firm to the touch.

Wipe off the cilantro mixture to clean the salmon filet. If serving as an hors d’oeuvres or appetizer, slice thinly. Serve with a cucumber salad, on a toasted bagel or with a German-style potato salad.

If you wish, you may also slice the salmon into 1-inch-thick slices, sauté and serve with a cucumber salad, on a toasted bagel or with a German-style potato salad. If you wish, you may also slice the salmon into 1-inch-thick slices, sauté and serve with a honey mustard sauce and mixed green salad.

A Nation Says ‘Kaddish’


Flags flew at half-staff. People on the street made a stronger-than-usual effort to meet each others’ eyes, acknowledging the sadness of the day. Parents lingered on schoolyards well after drop-off, watching their children, perhaps thinking of the hundreds of other parents who were brutally deprived of this opportunity on that dreadful day one year ago.

In Jewish tradition, the one-year anniversary of a loved one’s death marks the unveiling of their gravestone. This year, Sept. 11 marked the mourning of a nation, and the unveiling of numerous memorials for those who suffered and died in last year’s tragic attacks on our country.

At the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday morning, a moving ceremony was held, starting with the blowing of the shofar. Among those attending were consuls-general from 20 countries, including Israel. Others who attended included Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, County Fire Department Battalion Chief Juan Gonzalez and LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish. Also present were Cmdr. Robert Anderson, director of the Navy’s information office, along with other military personnel.

"One year ago, America changed forever," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, center founder and dean. "Americans of all creeds stared down the ugly face of evil.

"In the year that has passed, we still don’t know what to say to the families of the victims," Hier said. "It is not only the victims who must never be forgotten, but we must never forget their murderers as well."

The rabbi quoted from a speech Winston Churchill gave in 1937: "For those who say that the case is fraught with danger, the greater danger is to do nothing."

"If we don’t defeat the terrorists today," Hier said. "America will have to pay, and make greater sacrifices to defeat them tomorrow. We owe it to the victims that there will never be another Sept. 11."

The ceremony included a display of artwork inspired by Sept. 11 that was created by Los Angeles schoolchildren. In addition, the lighting of memorial candles was conducted, each candle inscribed with the name of one of the more than 3,000 victims.

One of the biggest ceremonies took place at the newly opened Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. More than 3,000 people attended the interfaith remembrance service, whose sponsors included the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the Interreligious Council of Southern California and the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council.

Prayers were offered by a diverse group, including representatives of the Sangha Council of Southern California, Vedanta Society of Southern California, Los Angeles Baha’i Center, First African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Islamic Center of Southern California.

"Though we may be people of different tribes, of different religions, and individual convictions … we are all one under God," said actress Anjelica Huston, who hosted the service.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, called people to prayer with the blowing of the shofar.

"May the sharp, piercing blasts of the shofar shatter our complacency and arouse us to redeem our broken world…. May the loud clarion of the shofar herald the day when all people, all of God’s children, live in peace and harmony," Diamond said.

A number of Los Angeles-area synagogues also held memorial services, some in cooperation with nearby churches. Mayor James Hahn, who attended the ecumenical service at the cathedral, said such gatherings serve two purposes.

"One is to remember and honor the memory of those who lost their lives, to remember the heroes: the police, the firefighters, the paramedics and the ordinary citizens like those on Flight 93, who made sure more lives were not lost," Hahn told The Journal. "[They are also] to remember that America is united, stronger today than we were before, and to understand the only way this country works is for all of us to be united."

On that same theme, congregants of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills joined with members of next-door neighbor St. Bernardine of Sienna Catholic Church for a joint service called, "One Community, One Humanity."

"It really reflects the Sept. 11 mentality of trying to respond as Americans, as one people, and to show a sense of unity," said Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel. "When someone attacks your family, no matter what differences divide you, you put those aside to respond as one."

Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice held a similar service with its Catholic neighbors at St. Clements Church, with shared prayers and a rendition of 19th century composer Louis Lewandowski’s "Halleluyoh," a cantorial version of Psalm 150.

"For Jews and for all people of faith, death and life go together in many subtle ways," said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, leader of Mishkon Tephilo. "At the same time we share our sadness and our grief over loss, we also come from a religious tradition that death is not final.

"The heroism and values articulated in a good life are ultimately more lasting than death," he said. "Mourning the dead and celebrating the lives given in heroism are not two distinct things, but part of the same tradition."

Earlier in the week, Museum of Tolerance officials gave high school students from Los Angeles, St. Louis and Garrettsville, Ohio, an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about Sept. 11 via a video conference. Most of the discussion centered on how the students felt as Americans, their views on the U.S. response to terrorism and the lasting implications of the terrorist attacks.

"Sept. 11 was an awakening of what is going on in the rest of the world, and what happens in Israel every day," said Nadav Geft, a student at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. Some students objected to the media’s coverage of the attacks, and to the sometimes excessive displays of patriotism in the wake of the attacks. Chris Membribes, an 11th-grade student at North High School in Torrance, said that with the sale of patriot-themed T-shirts and keychains, "we gave the terrorists the publicity they wanted."

The discussion included a lecture by terrorism expert Sabi Shabti, author of "Five Minutes to Midnight." "Things are not going to be the same. I don’t think they will ever be the same," Shabti told the students. "Ultimately, terrorism is a war against democracy, because in the aftermath, people are willing to give up civil liberties and freedom for safety, security and order," he said. "We must not allow that [to happen]. It will take everyone in our society to protect our democracy, our rights, our way of life."

On Tuesday evening, Rabbi Allen Freehling spoke to more than 1,000 members at the Gathering for Civil Liberties and Peaceful Tomorrows, which was sponsored by the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, which was held at the First Baptist Church in Mid-Wilshire.

"Let us not make our Constitution the ultimate victim of what happened a year ago," Freehling declared. His remarks echoed similar sentiments of speakers throughout the night, which centered on First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the importance of dissent in a democracy.

Bringing the principle home, syndicated columnist Robert Scheer questioned the Bush administration’s pressure for a war with Iraq. "Even his own people are asking, ‘What proof, why now?’" Scheer said. "It just doesn’t fit."

The Interfaith Communities gathering, with its emphasis on politics, was an exception. Most memorials emphasized faith over politics and focused on the victims.

"At this hour of sacred memory, we cry with their families, friends and colleagues," Diamond said. "We cry with our fellow Americans for the loss of our innocence, our way of life as we knew it. We cry with all people of good will that a monstrous evil has struck God’s creation, and dealt a heavy blow to God’s creatures."

It was a long, heart-wrenching day. At the end, the flags remained at half-staff. But we, as a people, as a nation, stood tall.

Michael Aushenker, Rachel Brand, Charlotte Hildebrand and Gaby Wenig contributed to this story.

Why Be Jewish?


What is the nature of the struggle for Jewish continuity? What is it that the Jewish community is trying to sustain, and why should we bother?

Part of the difficulty, part of what I think has gotten us to this place, is the radical transformation of who is part of the Jewish community and what causes people to join with us, linking themselves as Jews. The old model, by which communities of Jews organized a century ago, was an ethnic model; people who came from other countries; people who grew up with Judaism in their kishkes; people whose childhood was often very traditional, and who happily left that tradition when they came to the new place in which, ambivalently, they wanted to establish (and flee from) a Jewish identity. On the one hand, there were the secular defense agencies (the committees, congresses and leagues), and federation agencies claiming to speak for the Jewish world. These agencies had a coherent vision of what Jewish involvement meant.

Then there was a distinct cluster of Jewish organizations devoted to the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish people in our homeland, in the State of Israel. And so there were people for whom their primary connection to Jewish identity and Jewishness was the effort to reestablish a Jewish nation in a particular place. And that Zionist enterprise also enjoyed a panoply of organizations (Hadassah, ORT and the World Zionist Organization, to name a few), and had its own calendar of events (such as Tu B’Shevat, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzmaut) culminating in supreme effort of helping someone else’s child to make aliyah.

Finally, there were the holdovers: those of us who were connected to Jewishness primarily through the synagogues and denominations. The foundation of this Jewish life was the study of Torah and holy books, doing mitzvot, observing the holy days, Sabbaths and festivals.

Those three groups operated among the same people with varying degrees of cooperation, overlap and some competition (for financial support, energy, and definitions of what constitutes Jewish success). These three primary views of Jewish life, three streams of organizations, reflected some degree of tension about what it meant to be a Jewish community, who gets to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, and who gets to decide what the priorities of the Jewish community ought to be.

There is actually considerable yichus to this model of Jewish life. Back in the old, old days (by which I mean the days of the Talmud, some 1,500 years ago) there were two primary perspectives competing for Jewish hearts and minds in Babylonia. The first was the office of the reish galuta, the political head of the Jewish community. The non-Jewish government appointed the reish galuta, and he was authorized to raise taxes, which corresponds today to the work of federations. Outside of this structure were the great talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbeditha, responsible for rabbinic learning and ordination. In late antiquity, these two worlds were generally distinct (and happy to remain separate) but for one powerful complication: the reish galuta got to pick which rabbis got hired, which meant the rabbis were somewhat dependent on the reish galuta, and the rabbis got to vote on who got to be the reish galuta. Sounds a lot like the contemporary community, doesn’t it? We have actually recreated this wonderful and hallowed model in which our leaders live together, even when they don’t really want to live together. But, that model isn’t working as well as it might, for a few reasons.

The simplest reason is the changing nature of Jewish memory. Your children and grandchildren probably haven’t grown up with the smell of bubbie’s challah permeating the house every Friday afternoon. They don’t have the Jewish neighborhood store that they walked past each day. When I was a congregational rabbi, the children with whom I taught and learned were much more at home in American civilization than they were in Jewish civilization. They knew American literature, not Jewish literature; they lived American holidays and studied the Jewish ones, which they did not particularly observe.

The challenge facing us is that this old model was based on ethnic Jews who were steeped in traditions they then left, attempting to establish life in a culture that was alien and often hostile to them. That reality no longer describes us. We are the people who know the second stanza to "God Bless America," or "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." The old bifurcation doesn’t address this new reality.

A second difference between the worlds of the secular/Zionist/religious divides and our own, is that the people who are rising in the Jewish community today don’t remember the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel. They don’t have personal memories of the decimation of the largest Jewish communities of the world, the oldest centers, the place where we looked for leadership, all of a sudden gone. The old model doesn’t address this new political reality.

Finally, the hard work of the earlier generations have put today’s Jewish community in the luxurious position of being able to attend to needs of the heart and the spirit. Our bellies are fed, by and large. Our institutions are built, and our security isn’t a matter of daily need. What does God want of me? How can I maintain the link for the next generation?

For these new/old questions we need a new model for continuity. What’s the purpose of investing this huge effort, other than getting to hang out with wonderful people? Why should we make this stupendous effort? The way the organized Jewish world pitches renaissance and renewal is that we need to have continuity. But nobody ever tells us what continuity means. The real question is — continuity for what? What does Judaism offer that merits renewal?

There is a hiyuv (obligation) to Jewish life, but it can only be perceived after a Jew has already become adept at walking the walk. Jewish obligation and responsibility are the harvest of Jewish involvement and belonging, but they are not attractions for the uninitiated or the ambivalent. There are three basic human needs all people share, and Judaism can meet those needs for today’s questioning souls.

The first fundamental human need is the need for connection. All of us recognize ourselves as somehow finite, as struggling against an isolation that life imposes upon us as an intrinsic part of the human condition. Even in a roomful of people, the thoughts inside your head are known ultimately only to you. Interestingly, there is a blessing recited traditionally upon seeing a crowd of a large number of Jews. "Praised are you, Lord our God, Majesty of space/time, the Knower of secrets." Each individual constitutes a hidden universe. Because we are each an unfathomable cosmos, we are always seeking ways to transcend our own limitations.

In college, I went to a traditional minyan for the first time, and discovered people donning tefillin, (the leather prayer boxes containing the words of the "Shema"). Returning home, I shared this experience with my grandmother, who went to her closet and emerged with her father’s set of tefillin. Two months ago, I kashered those tefillin, and now feel a connection to those generations of observant Jews in my family spanning the millennia. For someone seeking a connection that links one generation to another, one needs look no farther than Judaism.

The second fundamental human need is for context, a need for meaning, a larger narrative in which our own personal story makes sense. As a congregational rabbi, I used to meet with bar and bat mitzvah children to discuss the meaning of their Haftorah readings. The message was often the same: Jerusalem is going up in smoke, they (pick the "they" of your choice: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Neo-Chaldeans, somebody) have just destroyed Jerusalem, are incinerating the Temple, the Jews are exiled, and as we’re being marched out into exile, the home of our God destroyed, the Eternal City gone, the Davidic monarch, who was to rule forever, no longer on the throne … some nudnik stands by the side of the road saying, "So long as you stay connected to Judaism, there will always be Jews. Someday there will not be an Assyrian, Neo-Chaldean or Babylonian empire; but there will be a Jewish people." Ridiculous! And yet, here’s the miracle: 2,000-3,000 years later, in places that had no Jews, in places that Jews didn’t even know existed, those ancient words speak directly to 12- and 13-year-olds.

If I were to announce that we have discovered a group of ancient Canaanites — a pocket of Girgashites, a few Hivites, some Hittites and a couple of Jebusites, just to make it interesting — and every week they gather and they read the ancient Canaanite literature, using the ancient Canaanite language, celebrating their ancient Canaanite holidays and talking to their old Canaanite deities, you know that CNN and The New York Times and every major network would be flying in to see this incredible thing. The kicker is that there is a little old Canaanite nation that still reads the ancient scrolls in the old language and continues to converse with the old God. We are that ancient, persistent people, and that’s a context in which to live a full, rich life.

Finally, the third fundamental human need is the need for compassion, the need to give and to receive love. Recently, I read of a scientific study that I find both fascinating and shameful. They have found that if you bring puppies and kittens into old-age homes, the residents of those homes will live longer and better. That’s fascinating for what it says about the need to be loved and to love (it’s shameful because we shouldn’t be schlepping in dogs and cats to take care of the people that took care of us). For these researchers, this may be a new discovery, but I have a Jewish confirmation for this assertion: we are told in the Torah that God made the world as an act of love. God didn’t need us; God doesn’t need anything. This is a God who has everything. And this God made the world simply as a way to be able to give love to someone else. And we — we are made in God’s image. That’s why humans shrivel up in their souls if they can’t take care of someone else, if they can’t show affection to someone else. The divine image within is one that compels us to share and receive love. All people have that need. Rising for the elderly; honoring parents; feeding the hungry; housing the homeless … the list of the mitzvot that embody love are legion.

Our seeking people need what Judaism possesses. What continuity is really about, is an invitation to people to return to their truest selves and their highest nature, to allow them to come home to who they are meant to be. In that coming home, we discover that there are soulmates, both in the same place and time in which we live, and throughout the ages. The great wonder of being Jewish is that none of us are alone.