The Aftermath


“Are you sure we won’t scare him off?” my aunt asked when I called to formally ask whether my boyfriend could come to our crazy seder.

That question echoed through my head as I introduced him to the gaggle of cousins and family members who greeted us at the door. Most of them had read my previous column for this page, in which I deliberated whether bringing him would be a good idea. I could read their thoughts, “Wow, he actually came!” While I’m sure some others were thinking, “Brave soul.” I could see the question, “Who is he?” in the eyes of some of my younger cousins, but all I did was introduce and smile. Once the initial surge was over, we pushed our way into the living room, which had become a makeshift dining room for oodles of family members. I could sense the engineering talent that it took to transform the space, as all 42 of us — family members, friends and guests — took our seats.

I had prepped my boyfriend for what he was going to encounter. From a Hebrew 101 lesson the night before, to a quick 1-2-3 seder crash course in the car ride over. With my sister as my partner-in-crime, we introduced the flight to Japan (yeah, don’t ask), our Mr. Potato Head chant (really not sure where that one came from), our sandpaper-clapping-won’t-stop-until-everyone-does-it L’Shana Haba’a routine and a lesson about the correct pronunciation of “Dayenu.”

The night began and as we sat around with sparkly crowns on our heads, since we are supposed to feel like royalty (great addition by the way, Leora!), I kept stealing glances at my guy. He did have a slight deer-in-headlights look, especially after we had heard the “Mah Nishtana” in Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, French, Yiddish and Klingon. OK, kidding about the last one, but it’s close enough. But the look quickly faded into a silly grin, especially once the frogs started flying.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs were flying everywhere!

It was about that time that I realized I had forgotten to warn him about the other plagues. He was definitely surprised once the “hail” — pingpong balls — were launched. One whizzed by and landed in front of us. I looked over and was met with a smile, so with a playful glint in my eye I tossed my pingpong ball…errr… hail backward over my head and turned around just in time to see it land perfectly in my cousin’s cup. Of course I asked if in true pseudo-Purim carnival fashion I had won a goldfish for my marvelous abilities — I’m still waiting for the answer. He definitely took it in stride when handfuls of “lice” (slimy glow-in-the-dark insects) were tossed around and landed inside more than one person’s crown, and he grabbed at the chance to don a zebra mask in tribute to the disease of the livestock.

Dinner came into fruition around 11 p.m. (so early!) and we all ate, talked and enjoyed ourselves. The night was going famously, and I hoped it would last through the third and fourth cups of wine, when the kids start falling asleep, and the adults become even more boisterous — if that’s possible.

As the night continued we pounded the tables, spilled many cups of wine, and turned the floor into an indefinable mish-mash combining plastic frogs, pieces of matzah, pillows that had slipped off chairs and a young child or two who had crawled beneath the tables to snooze.

I know for a fact that my boyfriend thought we were nuts as we “ooh-ah-ahhed” our way through the second-to-last song. But he didn’t just stare at me with concern in his eyes, he didn’t look at me like I was an escapee of the Hagaddah House of Horrors, he joined in. Perhaps he was a bit shy at first, but as he looked around and saw that we were all doing it, that we were all participating in these crazy traditions, he gained an inner confidence and began to mimic our movements. He adopted our mishegoss for a night, our sounds effects for “Chad Gad Ya,” meowing, bamming and “watering” along with the rest of us.

Was he tired after his first marathon seder? You bet. Was he amazed that it was past 2 a.m. when we finished? I know I was. Was he wishing he didn’t have to wake up at 7 a.m. to go to work the next day? I have no doubt. But he did it all with an open mind and a smile on his face, which is all I could have ever wanted, or asked for.

And yes, he even called me the next day. Did we scare him off? Nope — or should I say, not yet? I wonder when I should start prepping him for cousins’ camp “beach days”…. Hmmm. I think I’ll give him some more time.

Caroline Cobrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She can be reached at Carolinecolumns@hotmail.com

Saying Goodbye 101


On Sept. 1, my husband, Larry, and I will move our son, Gabriel, into his dormitory room at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he will begin his freshman year.

How do we formally honor this important rite of passage that, more than a bar mitzvah and more than his high school graduation, marks Gabe’s entrance into adulthood, with all the concomitant responsibilities?

Let me say that another way.

How do we kiss Gabe goodbye without dissolving into pitiful, sobbing fools who will undoubtedly embarrass our son and ourselves?

Judaism gives us plenty of advice on child-rearing. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says, “Train a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.”

But what Judaism doesn’t give us, when a child is old enough to depart from us, is a ritual to mark the sanctity of the occasion and, no matter how much we anticipate the eventual prospect of an empty nest, to contain our overwhelming emotions.

“By its very nature, this is something that can’t be contained,” Gabe insists. “I just have to go out and live it.”

But how do we live it?

We, who know from experience — our oldest, Zack, is beginning his senior year of college — how gut-wrenching the actual leave-taking is.

We, who know from experience how permanently our family configuration will — once again — seismically shift.

What can we do beyond opening a new checking account and beyond ordering, among other things, two sets of extra-long sheets and a hamper?

And beyond playing Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” over and over in the car and hysterically crying, a form of implosion therapy recommended by my psychologist friend Jody, whose oldest child leaves for college this month.

Surprisingly, Judaism offers a number of leaving home ceremonies. The oldest I discovered, dating back to the 1970s and found in “The Second Jewish Catalogue” (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), is called “On Leaving Home: A New Rite of Passage.” It recommends several home rituals, since Judaism places so much emphasis on the family, that range from hosting Havdalah, the quintessential Jewish separation ceremony, to invoking the traditional Jewish blessing over the children.

Others can be found on www.ritualwell.org, a Web site that collects and makes available a variety of innovative Jewish ceremonies and traditions. One includes a father’s prayer to be read at the Shabbat table while another provides a ceremony for affixing, if permissible, a mezuzah on the child’s dorm doorpost.

And the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) publishes “T’filot HaDerech,” “Rituals for the Road to College” (available at www.urj.org). Part of the Packing for College Initiative, proposed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the union’s 67th biennial almost two years ago, the booklet includes rituals and readings for congregations, families and individuals to celebrate this modern life passage.

Additionally, a few congregations have moved confirmation to the end of 12th grade, enabling the students, according to Rabbi Fred Guttman’s article in the spring 2005 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “… to intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults — the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.”

But why haven’t these leaving home ceremonies taken off? Why aren’t we gathering together as families, as day school classes and as congregations before sending our 18-year-olds off to college? After all, we Jews are adept at marking life transitions that challenge and overwhelm us — birth, adolescence, marriage and death — with ceremonies that comfort, contain and sustain us.

“Perhaps it’s because we tend to focus on b’nai mitzvah, confirmation and graduation,” Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs at URJ, says. “As a whole, we see [leaving home] as a natural progression that just sort of happens and doesn’t need something to bring it home spiritually.”

But he recognizes the need, along with the beauty and power, of a ceremony to bring parents and young adults together at this moment.

And so, on Aug. 26, the Shabbat prior to Gabe’s departure, Larry and I will integrate a small ceremony into our Shabbat dinner, something to give voice to our excitement and our pain, our pride and our fears.

“What do you plan to do?” Gabe asks suspiciously.

“We will each say something nice about you and talk about what we will miss most,” I answer.

“This is serious, isn’t it?” he says.

And Larry and I will bestow the traditional blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face give light to you and show you favor. May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”

Carleton College has given us parents a graph to show just how bumpy a student’s adjustment to college can be — from honeymoon to culture shock to initial adjustment to mental isolation to acceptance and integration.

We parents have an equally bumpy road ahead.

And so, on Sept. 2, when Larry and I say our final goodbye to Gabe, no matter how meaningful our last Shabbat dinner and no matter how many times we have cried to “Forever Young,” we will undoubtedly fall apart.

Then, as Gabe says, we will just have to go out and live it.

 

Tips to Engage Your Family in the New Year


"Dad, I have my first big test in biology next Thursday," Sandy explained.

"Next Thursday?"

"Yep."

"Sorry, honey, you are going to have to miss it. Next Thursday is Rosh Hashanah and I want you to go to services with me."

"Dad, I can’t miss the test. Mrs. Smith said that the only excuse was a death in the family or our own death — and I think she meant it, literally."

"No, you will go to services , end of discussion."

Sandy was very unhappy with her father’s position. Her father was Jewish, but he hardly stepped foot in the synagogue all year long. Her mother was a Seventh Day Adventist. She didn’t have a problem with skipping Rosh Hashanah services. And both of Sandy’s parents stressed the importance of school. Unlike her friends, she could never take a "personal" day off. Now that she wanted to be in school, her dad said no.

Sandy called asking for my support. She wanted me to call her dad and tell him to let her go to class on Thursday. She realized that it was strange asking a rabbi to persuade a Jew to let his daughter miss services, but Sandy was convinced there was morality in going to school and hypocrisy in going to services.

The blessings of interfaith families are many. However, when families are not clear about their faith direction, when parents struggle not just with their spouse’s faith but with their own, the results may be less than blessed. The question Sandy was trying to ask was, "How do interfaith families deal with the High Holidays?" It is an important — and, at times, difficult — question to answer.

The High Holidays are the central communal worship experience for Jews. For centuries, these days have drawn disparate Jewish families to the synagogue to recite prayers acknowledging our failures and searching how we might become better and more complete Jews and human beings. The essential themes of the High Holidays are repentance and renewal.

So what do interfaith families do with these High Holidays?

There are no simple answers. Each family will swim in interfaith waters with their own unique strokes. All I can offer are some simple coaching tips to make the swim easier and more enjoyable.

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• High Holidays are family events. Share in an erev Rosh Hashanah dinner before services. Have a family break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. Invite all members of the family, regardless of their individual faiths, to help create family memories, just like we do at Thanksgiving.

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• Attend High Holiday services as a family. Just because a family member is of another faith, the family is stronger when it celebrates together. If your synagogue permits, invite those members of your extended family who practice other faiths to join you at some of the High Holiday services. This will help them understand the history and importance that our Jewish traditions hold. (Of course, check with your synagogue first, to make sure you can get enough tickets for these family members. Also, selecting one of the shorter segments of the service for them to attend would probably be wise.)

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• As a family, take this season as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Have a family meeting and share your successes and disappointments during the past (Jewish) year. Discuss what each family member can commit to doing that will help the whole family to grow. Make a family covenant, describing what you promise to one another. It can be a simple piece of paper or an elaborate family art project.

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• Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to plan out the family year — what vacations will be taken, what allowances will be given out, what curfews, house rules or chores will be expected of each family member. It is a way of acknowledging the start of a new year for your family.

There are dozens of wonderful ways to incorporate the High Holidays into an interfaith family. The key is to focus on making Judaism a part of one’s everyday life. Sandy’s struggle existed because Judaism was being imposed, as a foreign object.

My response to Sandy?

I asked her if she thought of herself as Jewish. She paused. Then she said, "No one has ever asked me that question before. I know I am not Christian. I don’t believe in Christian doctrine. I am not sure if I’m Jewish. Why?"

I explained to Sandy that if she felt she was Jewish, she should be at services for Rosh Hashanah, that it was central to her identity as a member of a community. However, if she rejected being Jewish, I would be happy to speak with her father. Sandy said she would think it over and let me know.

I didn’t hear from Sandy. Instead, at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, she approached me, smiling. Her test had been delayed a day, at her request. Then she said, "If I am going to be Jewish, I probably should learn something. Is there another class I can take?"

The Simple Son


When I was in college in New Hampshire, the pastor of anearby church asked our Hillel rabbi to send over a Jewish student who couldhelp his parishioners learn about Passover. I volunteered.For all the fuzzy, feel-good reasons that a liberal arts education supplies inabundance, I felt it was important to teach others about my faith and culture.

Plus, I figured, I actually knew something about Passover.Like most American Jews, I had grown up oblivious to most aspects of my faithexcept the rabbi’s High Holiday sermons, Chanukah and the seder. For me,Passover was a good time, full of food, family, laughing — of course the peopleof Lebanon, N.H., should experience it.

I went to the local small grocery store to buy matzah. Theelderly woman who ran the place listened as I described the flat, unleavenedbread. She said she knew just what I talking about, then guided me back to theRyKrisp. I told her that wouldn’t do, because it’s made with yeast. “You saidflat,” she said. “It’s flat.” I bought several packs.

The pastor and I spoke by phone. His church was going tosupply the festive meal, he said. I mentioned wine. There was a pause. “Willapple juice work?” he asked. Alcohol was forbidden at church functions. Sure, Isaid, apple juice.

The night of the seder, the rabbi gave me a shank bone, apiece of celery, a roasted egg and his car, and I drove, for the first time,through a snowstorm. Somewhere between Hanover and Lebanon, the snow built upunder my rear tires, and I got the funny feeling the back of the car was goingoff in a direction all its own. I skidded off the road into a snow-filledculvert. The car was unscathed, as was I, and the first set of headlights Iwaved down was a four-wheel drive pickup with a winch and hook.

The church was in a plain, working-class neighborhood. Thebasement was set up with rows of long tables, and every seat was full. Thesewere the people who cleaned and served at my fancy college town and on campus,but who seemed to vanish once the sun set. If I was their first Jew, they weremy first crowd of Christians.

When I asked how many people were familiar with the story ofthe Exodus, every hand went up. It was clear to me that these people believedin the Bible as deeply as I doubted it. I was a dilettante missionary preachingto the seriously faithful. I told them, proudly, that the Passover seder is atime to ask questions and engage in debate, but no one did. Removed from myfamily’s festive table, at which just being together was enough to invest aholiday with meaning, I didn’t know enough about the holiday to give itmeaning. The words of the haggadah were lifeless in my mouth.

We blessed the four cups of apple juice and the RyKrisp, andthen, finally, arrived at the festive meal. The women rose and unveiled sheetcakes, Jell-O molds and huge bowls of macaroni salad, liverwurst and ham salad.The pastor apologized for all the pork. I explained that, actually, pasta wasalso forbidden on Passover. “Why?” a woman asked. I turned to see it was theelderly woman who ran the local grocery store — the RyKrisp lady — standingthere, dressed in her church clothes. “Macaroni doesn’t have yeast in it,” shesaid. I searched my limited Jewish knowledge for an easy and convincing answer.In the meantime, I stammered. It hadn’t occurred to me when I encouraged peopleto ask questions that I’d actually have to answer them. Back at her store, Isaid the woman’s crackers weren’t right because they had yeast; now I wassaying the macaroni wasn’t right, but it had no yeast. The woman seemed to besizing me up: Was I a liar? Was I difficult? Was I an idiot? Do these peoplemake it up as they go along?

The woman had no more use for me and moved away. After a bitI thanked the pastor and excused myself to return to campus. The rabbi waswaiting up when I dropped his car off. He figured I’d have problems drivingsince he had already exchanged his snow tires for his regular ones. “Imanaged,” I said.

Then he asked how the seder went. I said, “I managed.”

My big moment to contribute to cross-cultural understanding,to bring the peoples of the earth closer together, and all I had done was offera dull reading and contradict myself. My only comfort was having proved to theChristians of Lebanon, N.H., that Jews could not possibly be smart enough to controlthe media or take over the world.

But the evening was my revelation. I decided it was time toget serious about learning about my heritage, thinking through my faith,challenging my ignorance. Even if my tradition couldn’t be mastered, itdeserved more than just being managed. Being Jewish was a pale imitation oflearning Judaism, and it was time for me to begin.

Happy Passover.  

Lights Were Last to Go


My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know
more.

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â


Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

Prevent Your Children From Intermarrying


The calls increase in frequency as Rosh Hashana gets closer. "Rabbi, I’m thinking of putting my kids in Hebrew school. Could you tell me a bit about it?" So I give the usual descriptions. We meet twice a week. Your child will learn Hebrew reading, history, holidays and traditions. On the holidays we have all kinds of interesting projects, on Rosh Hashana they will learn to make a shofar, Chanukah make a menorah and Passover bake matzah. By the way, I sometimes say, our Hebrew school is great, but day school, like the Hebrew Academy, is a much better choice for a more comprehensive Jewish education.

"Oh," they say, "that sounds interesting. But I’ve got one problem. The program conflicts with soccer on Tuesday." So I try to be a bit tough. "Look, the program is twice a week. If you don’t send Timmy or maybe Tiffany both days, they really won’t be getting that much of an education."

"Rabbi, we are really not so religious, and anyway the kids learn the traditions at home."

So I wonder if I should lay it on the line or not. Chances are the amount of "traditions in the home" was a dinner last Passover. The family gathered and read the Maxwell House edition of the haggadah. After about 20 minutes, Aunt Sadie started complaining that it was getting late and they should move on to dinner. The older sister’s cell phone was ringing with some friend from school. And the 10-year-old kid is thinking to himself, "Ah, this must be Judaism." Mom can’t read Hebrew, and dad can somehow figure out the four questions since he had a bar mitzvah some 20 years ago.

Instead, I try to be the nice guy. Usually I try to cajole, encourage and hopefully convince them that the kids will have a great time. Hebrew school does not have to be a drag, and if you can only do one day a week, we will try to accommodate you.

Hoping that by first getting in the front door, maybe I will have a chance to slowly interest the children — and then maybe down the line the parents, whose Jewish attention span lasts no longer than the bar mitzvah anyway.

At times, I will try to enter into a philosophical discussion. Judaism gives us answers to the inner meaning of life. It leads us down a path of holiness, imbuing us with spiritual purpose and direction. But few are interested in engaging in a philosophical dialogue. They are more interested in the important issues: tuition, carpool, homework loads, etc.

What I don’t tell them is the harshest truth. "Listen, your observance is not so strong, and unless your kids get an education chances are it will be less. And if you want your children to marry a fellow Jew, the only thing that really insures that is giving the children a Jewish education."

But rarely are they interested in hearing the statistics of the National Jewish Population Study that clearly prove the more Jewish education, the lower the rate of intermarriage and assimilation.

I feel like I am witnessing assimilation at work. Parents who make Judaism a priority to their kids will have children that carry it on. Most importantly, they will gain an appreciation of the richness of Jewish tradition that will impact their lives. Sadly, we live in a time where most Jews are three and even four generations removed from full observance.

Daily, I see parents making decisions that will effect their children’s identity for decades to come. "Oh, Rabbi, we’ll make a small bar mitzvah and invite over the family," they say. I wonder, what’s the celebration if the kid knows as much about Judaism as I do about Zulu Indians?

Still there are the good stories. Parents who for years have invested much in their kids and are seeing the rewards of having the right priorities. Families who make a decision to seize the opportunity before it’s too late, and give their children some Jewish education. The best news is that what we are teaching the kids has an impact. According to all the surveys, the more years they learn — and in particular if they choose a day school over a Hebrew school — they grow to love Judaism.

It’s all very simple: the more hours they put in, the more they value the ideals and traditions that reach down to us from Mount Sinai.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

If you like babbling brooks and floating waterlilies, City of Hope probably has your idea of an interesting and unusual Saturday afternoon. It’s the second annual Parade of Ponds, a self-guided tour of neighborhood water gardens. You’ll get a map of the more than 50 homes on the tour, which cover more than 20 Los Angeles suburbs. Then you’re free to peruse at your own pace.9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday), 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (Sunday). $10 (general), free (children under 12). Tickets are on sale through Waterscapes Plus, (877) 540-7663, and the Rainbow Garden Nursery, (626) 914-6718. Proceeds will be donated to the City of Hope Cancer Center.

Sunday

On the list of features at this year’s Outfest, Los Angeles’ Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, is an Israeli docudrama titled “Tomer Ve Hasrutim” (“It Kinda Scares Me”). The filmmaker, Tomer Heymann, is a youth group leader for at-risk young men, each with something to hide. While Heymann works to get the boys to trust him, he avoids divulging his own secret that he is gay. But it is his eventual revelation that becomes their catalyst for growth.Noon. $10 (general), $9 (OUTFEST members). Subtitled. The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, Renberg Theater, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 480-7065.

Monday

We Jews pride ourselves on carrying our traditions with us no matter where we wander. Stacie Chaiken’s grandparents were no different. But while they carried on their traditions, they left their stories behind. As a grown woman, Chaiken longed to know the secrets her grandfather determined to leave in Russia. In her one-woman play “Looking for Louie,” Chaiken shares her tale — her search for the untold story of her mysterious great-grandfather.Runs through Aug. 26. 8 p.m. (Mondays and Saturdays), 4 p.m. (Sundays). $15 (general), $12 (students, seniors and groups). Stages Theatre Center, 1540 McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 465-1010.

Tuesday

Using subjects including nature, animals, seasons and biblical stories, six women artists interpret “Archetypal Allusions” in the University of Judaism’s new exhibition. But though their subjects overlap, their treatments vary widely. Susanna Meiers’ drawings of animals shift forms, while Suvan Geer’s birds allude to Buddhist mythology. Also featured are works by Lorraine Bubar, Mayde Herberg, Anne Scheid and Freda Nessim.Runs through Sept. 29. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Fridays). An artist reception will be held on Sun., July 28, from 3-5 p.m. Platt and Borstein Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Wednesday

MOCA may have Warhol, but Jack Rutberg Fine Arts has Chagall, de Kooning, Matisse and more. With more artistic headliners than we can name, the exhibition titled “Modern and Contemporary: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture,” features American, European and Latin American works.Runs through Aug. 31. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday). 357 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 938-5222.

Thursday

Chew on this: TAG, The Artist’s Gallery is presenting an all-member show with a theme you can really sink your teeth into. Check out different artists’ takes on the common subject of food in “Food for Thought.” Various talks are scheduled over the course of the exhibit’s run, including tonight’s Art Salon on “Appetizing Ideas.”Runs through Aug. 3. 7 p.m. (Art Salon). 11-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday), open till 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-9556.

Friday

“The Sex Show” debuts tonight at Highways. No, it isn’t live porn, but don’t rush to bring the kids, either. Nurit Siegel directs an ensemble production investigating the art of sex with a post-feminist twist. Think “Vagina Monologues,” only racier.8:30 p.m. Fri., July 26 and Sat., July 27 only. $15 (general), $13 (students and members). 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (310) 315-1459.

Women Take Part in Ceremonies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women can also hold the chuppah, Kurtz says.

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

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

Reprinted with permission of JUF News in Chicago

Home Repair


My brother and I are sitting on the kitchen floor cutting pipe. Actually, he’s cutting and I’m criticizing. This combines two venerable family traditions.

Tradition No. 1: when Alan and I were young and still sharing a bathroom, my father would cut pipe, measure paneling, or hang shelves or pictures, and my mother would respond "higher," "smaller" or "lower." This call and response is how anything got done at home, the critic as crucial as the actor.

"Too short," I say now, referring to the elbow of the pipe, which misses the connection by 2 inches. That morning, a small flood had developed under the sink, caused by eroded copper.

"Cancel the plumber," my brother said, flying into action. "It’s only a $3 part."

An hour later, we’d been to the local hardware store three times, buying not only the elbow but various extensions (total cost $6.95). Alan had a fine old time talking about the relative value of copper and PVC joint lengths (PVC wins the day) with the other mechanical mavens.

This is Tradition No. 2: When the going gets tough, find something to repair. Fixing the plumbing is a fine occupation for a rainy day when your sister has cancer.

When my brother declared that he intended to visit me soon after my lung cancer surgery, I practically wailed in protest.

"There’s no need to do that," I insisted. "I have no intention of dying."

Alan and I have not been together other than at family celebrations in 20 years. In this, we’re not so very different from many other siblings in the Baby Boomer generation. Having witnessed our parents’ eternal bickering with our aunts and uncles, we vowed to each other never to fall into senseless hatred, pledged not to replay the turkey scene in "Avalon."

Instead, we, who as children sat easily in pajamas before the television, laughing goofily together at Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore, had become as distant as Will (of "Will and Grace") and C.J. (of "West Wing"), cast in two counterpuntal sitcoms.

But here was real life, my illness thrusting us together in prime time. Why did he want to visit me? Why the reunion now? Once upon a time, I had to shlep him along on my dates (he remembers our first shlep-along movie, "Gypsy"). Maybe he figured this was reversal of justice, him shlepping me. If he had wavered in his intent for even an instant, I’d have been relieved.

Among all the terrible things about cancer, the worst is not the humiliation to one’s self-esteem. Nevertheless, it’s no great thrill to say the C word and watch people shrivel up all around you. Some run away. Others treat you like you’re at death’s door. I told my friends that any folks who look at me with obituary in their eyes would be excommunicated.

But what I’m coming to realize is not that others run away from you but that you run away from yourself. Time and again, I find myself trapped by cliché. Suspicious that I am the object of sympathy, fearful that I will be seen as weak (not the physical weakness of chemo, but the moral weakness associated with vulnerability), I see myself pushing away. It’s hard to give others the freedom to shift and adjust to this frightening news and to let them come close, as they need to.

From the place of my limited imagination, my brother could only have in mind a deathbed scene. Shows what I know about making connections, of the heart as well as the plumbing pipe.

As it happens, my father had predicted the sink problem only days before. I had just come home after lung surgery; Dad and Mom had moved in with me for a family record of nearly three weeks.

Here I saw Tradition No. 2 in action. My parents did what they always do when they get nervous: they go to Home Depot, followed directly by Bed Bath & Beyond.

While I was healing, they got to work. Dad and Mom installed a new towel bar. ("Too low," said Mom. And then, "That’s better.") They installed the TV in the living room Mexican pine cabinet. They replaced all my old glassware.

And the more they did, the stronger I got.

But the morning they drove off to the airport, Dad warned me that the kitchen sink didn’t drain right; he only regretted he hadn’t the time to do it himself.

Who would have thought that Alan could take over the job? Who knew he had such a way with a hacksaw? That he understood every one of the eight blades of the battery-powered screwdriver he bought me? My brother installed a new bathroom mini-blind, new shelves and pictures.

"Too low," I said. And then, "Just right."

And the more he did, the stronger I got.

Of Latkes and Light


Just about this time every year, I start to feel like a Maccabee — besieged, not by the Syrian army, but by Hanukkah itself. As the 25th of Kislev inches closer, the pressure increases to squeeze more commercialization out of Hanukkah than the oil from a latke.

So here’s my vote to simplify Hanukkah and restore its inherent values: freedom, conviction, dedication, hope, continuity, peace, rebuilding, community, family. To help achieve Hanukkah’s miraculous retransformation, we need help — lots of it! That’s why I asked children’s authors who’ve written Hanukkah stories to describe the simple joys of their own celebrations.

Jane Zalben, author of over 40 books, including “Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah” (Simon & Schuster), “Beni’s Family Cookbook for the Jewish Holidays” and “Papa’s Latkes” (Holt): “When my children were young, we all fought over who would set up the candles. I still love to pick out the colors of the candles, setting them in the menorah each night and watching them glow in the window. My husband, the architect, made a modern menorah out of brass plumbing parts and another one out of copper tubing. They stand alongside the one from Israel with oil and wicks, and the homemade ones from hair curlers and empty spools of thread.

“A tradition that was a holdover from my parents was ‘the search for the presents.’ They would leave little notes throughout the house until we finally found the little gift. Our traditions have also evolved: One year, we did a latke bake-off, where everyone made their own personal recipe. My husband’s blackened Cajun latkes with bits of jalapeno peppers were a hit, and turned into ‘Papa’s Latkes.’ Since the children are now 18 and 22, Hanukkah has less significance than Passover and Rosh Hashanah, when they return home. To me, Hanukkah celebrates a group of people who stayed true to themselves. That’s an important lesson in today’s world.”

David Adler, author of 150 books, including “Chanukah in Chelm” (Lothrop), “The Kids’ Catalog of Jewish Holidays” (JPS), and “One Yellow Daffodil” (Harcourt) says of his Hanukkah memories: “I grew up as one of six children. Along with our parents, our grandmother lived with us. We called her Mutti, which is German for mother. On Hanukkah, we all lit candles together, made and ate latkes together, and played dreidel together. The most fun was watching my brother, Eddie, and Mutti. Eddie was strict about doing everything the right way and after a few rounds of dreidel he often complained, ‘Hey, Mutti’s cheating.’ He was right. She did cheat. She cheated to lose. She wanted us, her beloved grandchildren, to win.” Adler says he, his wife and three sons — now 22, 15 and 10 — each have their own hanukkiot, but light the candles together and follow the family tradition of making latkes together. “Whatever you do,” he advises. “Do it together. Instead of just serving latkes, make it a family project.”

Eric Kimmel, author of close to 50 books, including “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins”, “The Chanukkah Guest” and “The Magic Dreidels” (Holiday House), also remembers his grandmother, who lived with the family in Brooklyn: “Hanukkah was my favorite holiday, bright and warm. My grandma spoke Yiddish and told stories about Galicia as if it were ‘Paradise Lost’.” Her old brass menorah had these two big lions standing on their hind legs holding up the shamash candle. She used old-fashioned orange candles that gleamed off the polished brass and then flowed down into rivers of melted wax. I’d gobble down her latkes, made with shmaltz (chicken fat).

“Hanukkah is a time to touch base with who we are. It’s a roots holiday. But if it’s the only Jewish holiday families celebrate in a year, it’s meaningless. Copying presents is the Christmas spirit, not the Hanukkah spirit. To families I say, ‘Nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do. Think about why you’re celebrating Hanukkah. Is it as a Jewish holiday or as a substitute for Christmas?'”

Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler are the founders of Kar-Ben Books, which has published over 150 books for Jewish children and their families, including “All About Hanukkah,” which they wrote together. Wikler suggests, “Get away from the gifts and go towards the mitzvot. It’s tough, but try going from getting to giving. One year, for example, my family went to a nursing home on Christmas so others could celebrate their holiday.”

Groner tells the story of her son Ben (of Kar-Ben), who moved from day school to public high school at the age of 16 and decided to have a Hanukkah party: “His guests included an African-American and a boy from India. While I served teenage-boy-portions of latkes (the house smelled of oil for weeks), he regaled his friends with the history and customs of the holiday, taught them dreidel, and led them in song. I realized the Jewish tradition had become a part of him. The amazing thing is that had I said, ‘Gee, why not have a Hanukkah party and invite your friends,’ he never would have agreed. It came from him, spontaneously. So let your kids call the shots. Let the ideas come from them.

“We think of Hanukkah for kids, but that doesn’t have to be. When the empty nest came, we did a grown-up party and had the classic latke-hamentaschen debate: our guests argued the merits of the two holiday delicacies from the points of view of medicine, physics, economics and art. We laughed and sang a lot, but the latkes — a lo-cal attempt baked on a waffle iron — needed oil to be the real thing!”

Rahel Musleah, author of “Sharing Blessings: Children’s Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays” (Jewish Lights) — oops, that’s me. We didn’t have latkes in Calcutta, where I was born, but to reflect the miracle of the oil, I often make the classic Indian delicacy of piaju: thinly sliced onions and cilantro coated with chickpea flour and deep-fried. My most beautiful image of Hanukkah is symbolized by my Indian hanukkiah: Shaped like a Magen David, it has nine brass holders that encircle the red glass cups we fill with oil. As is our custom, after the blessings we chant Psalm 30, “Mizmor shir hanukat ha-bayit Le-David, (A song at the dedication of the House of David). As I watch the flames dance and shimmer in the red glasses throughout the evening — for the oil usually burns until midnight — I think of my favorite line from the psalm, addressed to God:“Hafakhta mis’pedi le-mahol li” (You have turned my mourning into dancing).

May Hanukkah be a holiday of light, blessing and dancing.


Rahel Musleah is also the author of the forthcoming “Why On This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration” (Simon & Schuster), and offers programs on the Jewish communities of India. You can contact her with your favorite Hanukkah tradition at: Rahelmus@aol.com.