10 signs you’re an ‘older’ Jewish mom


The average age of childbearing in the United States is 26. For Jews, it’s a few years higher. Some of us Jewish moms, however, had our children significantly later than that. Here are 10 things that only “older” Jewish moms will recognize.

1. There’s an even chance your child sports an old-fashioned Jewish name like Ada, Jack, Abe or Lily.

Being older means there’s less chance all of our grandparents are alive (never mind great-grandparents), making it much more likely you chose a name that sounds like it came out of the Lower East Side instead of a modern baby naming book.

2. In Mommy and Me classes, you schmooze with the grandmothers as much as the other moms.

And kvetched together about the havoc that sitting on the floor wreaks on your back…

3. When it comes time to choose bar and bat mitzvah invitations, you go for paper over evites.

For some of us “older” moms, it just doesn’t seem formal unless it’s mailed in a bonded envelope.

4. You love the vintage toy selection from Fisher Price. 

You don’t buy old-fashioned toy record players and jack-in-the-boxes to be ironic; you remember playing with them when you were a kid, too.

5. You still send out Rosh Hashanah cards with pictures of your kids inside.

Printed on paper. With a stamp and everything.

6. When your daughter goes to an ‘80s theme party, you lend her plastic bangles you still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere. 

And show her the correct way to wear leg warmers, too.

7. You still haven’t quite recovered from seeing the words “geriatric pregnancy” written in your medical chart.

Used to denote any mom-to-be over 35, the term “geriatric” is startling ever greater numbers of us older moms each year.

8. Sometimes you take a nap at naptime, too. 

OK, maybe more than sometimes…

9. You order your child’s class pictures each year — and still print out pictures. 

At times, your kids roll your eyes when you say there’s nothing like a real photo you can hold.

10. You wish you had the energy you did 20 years ago to keep up with your toddler. 

Sometimes you mourn a little that you didn’t “settle down” earlier. Then you look at your child’s smile, feel a little flutter in your heart, and think that if things had worked out differently when you were young, you wouldn’t have this exact same wonderful, enchanting child. And suddenly, you think you wouldn’t change a thing.


Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. has worked as a professor of International Relations, a trade analyst for the US Government and in public affairs. She lives with her family in Chicago.

Can you rest in peace while your stuff rests in a dumpster?


When my mom died, I had to find a home for her panther. Not an actual endangered wild cat, a lamp.

Picture a glossy, garish panther base topped with a cherry red, tiered lampshade, exactly like the hats once worn by the members of the alternative, new wave band Devo. I had seen that lamp my whole life on her nightstand and the only thing I ever wanted to do was “Whip It.”

But after she died, I was haunted that I had left the panther in her condo in Las Vegas, to be dealt with by some shady dude our real estate agent knew, who agreed to show up with his pickup as soon as we were done taking what we wanted and remove whatever was left. Where it went after that, I’ll never know, but I’m guessing there’s a decent chance the panther spent some time at the bottom of a dumpster getting the stink eye from the ruddy-cheeked plaster of Paris orange that lived in my mom’s kitchen, cheering me up and creeping me out in equal parts. My mom knew how to put the kitsch in kitchen. 

She never met a flea market or garage sale she didn’t like. 

Did she have great taste? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder, but it is safe to assume not a single person who ever beheld my mom’s collectibles thought, “Wow. That’s a style I’d like to emulate.” Still, there’s something about her relentless dedication to her own aesthetic that you have to respect. If she couldn’t figure out how to be refined and elegant, she wasn’t even going to try. Her choices added up to a cluttered, confusing, cacophonous visual environment. If her decorating style were a song, you would have to change the station, immediately. But it was her song, and over the years, she did nothing but turn up the volume. She cranked it. And now, she’s gone. The music ended but the stuff remained. And as her daughter, and her only surviving child, it was on me to reckon with all of it when she died two months ago. 

The sorting of the stuff, for me, and I’m guessing for others in the same chipped gravy boat, is one of the most visceral experiences of loss. 

In a way, we are like that jaunty orange, those three sets of schnauzer salt and pepper shakers, that gilded frame flanked by brass peacocks: important and cherished in the context of belonging to the person who is gone. Now: value unknown

You might think, when faced with mountains of your mother’s tchotchkes, she’s gone, what does it matter if I give my baby-sitter a fishing tackle box of vintage Mexican silver bracelets, large-scale brooches, faded Bakelite cuffs? What does it really matter if her print of a hula girl ends up in a thrift store in unincorporated Clark County?

Personally, I don’t have room for much stuff, fruit-themed Chalkware folk art or otherwise. I don’t live in a world where there’s much call for speckled, pastel Bauer nesting bowls or an embroidered Ukrainian silk shirt from the old country. I’m all full up with the batting gloves and flash cards and Spider-Man costumes that likely fill the home of any mom of two young boys.  

What’s more, to me, a produce curio is a gateway knickknack, inevitably leading to harder stuff. One minute you’re propping up your sentimental smiling citrus fruit, the next, you’re climbing over seven mint green midcentury modern pitchers just to get to your Mr. Coffee. Don’t get me started on the framed photos. My mom and I had a complicated relationship, but in the end, I was the only person she wanted to see when she was dying, and, apparently, she also wanted to see plenty of me around her home, where there were images of my brother and me on just about every available square inch of wall space.

Perhaps I’m making her home sound more hoarder-like than it was. It was cramped, but tidy enough, with no discernible scent other than what I might describe as “top notes of leather handbag.” To be fair, she downsized like most of our parents will at some point, but while her living space shrank, the number of lamps and pitchers and photos never did. 

And, of course, there were the paintings.

A seascape by Nota Koslowsky.

Let me double down on doing away with objects important to dead people. In particular, I’m talking about oil paintings by my dead mom’s super dead uncle, who died before I was born.

At one point, Nota Koslowsky was a fairly well-respected artist and teacher who made extra money illustrating books, including a popular Passover haggadah published in 1944. My mother had several of his works, which she’d held onto since her married days in the San Fernando Valley, through her single mom days in San Francisco, up until the very end. Picture a young shepherd girl playing a flute, wearing a red scarf. Well, Nota did, and he painted her and she had her charms, but in the end, only his dark, woodsy forest scene made the cut. 

I had to make choices, parse all the stuff, select just a few things to keep (like the jade pendant I’m wearing as I type this), a few things to pass along to relatives and everything else to leave for the random guy and his truck. Did that mean it was right to 86 Nota’s portrait of a lighthouse? I don’t know. I have to talk myself down off a rocky seaside ledge of guilt every time I think about it. But in my haste and grief, that’s what I did.

I admit I probably did err on the side of chucking too much, too fast. But my mom had died just days before, four months to the day after my brother died of cancer at 47, and I had just had too much, too many dead relatives, too many folded letters and fading photos gathering in shoe boxes in my closet, too many overlapping stages of grief. My boys were bounding around her condo, leaving a light dusting of road-trip Bugles wherever they went, and the clock was ticking on their ability to hang out patiently while I sorted and cried. Plus, there was only so much I could fit into my minivan, or for that matter, my home, my life. 

As it happened, just before my mom died, I had read the best-selling Japanese organizing book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Cleaning and decluttering icon Marie Kondo didn’t write it for grieving daughters on cleanup duty, but some of the principles spoke to me nonetheless. 

“Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them,” she writes. “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past.”

Kondo’s guiding credo is that you should physically handle each item in question and keep only those that spark joy. “By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past,” she explains. So maybe it follows that in handling the things left by a departed loved one, you are also processing your relationship with that person, your own grief, your own past. 

In my mom’s congested Vegas bedroom, on a tray covered with opened mail and random pens, was a clay craft I had made as a child one summer at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department day camp. I remember sitting with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, doggedly rolling out pieces of clay into little worm shapes, stacking them together in a circle, making a lid that didn’t quite fit, painting the entire thing pastel yellow and pink after they baked it, and later handing it over to my mom, who was underwhelmed, to say the least. 

“Well, maybe crafting is not your thing,” she said laughing, this drooping, sad, clay atrocity in her hand. It was a parental slight I had never forgotten, a moment encompassing my mom’s sometimes brutal honesty, her awkwardness in relating to children, her inability to read the sadness on my face, the long days she parked me at various lame city camps at dodgy urban playgrounds. When I held the bowl, I thought about how long she had kept it, how many decades, how many moves, how she had chosen to keep it up until the end, and I just cried right into that crappy little craft because she was gone, and until the very day she died I could never just let her be, imperfect as she was, and accept her anyway. I felt the paint, smooth and cool against my hands, brushed my fingers across the too-small lid resting at the bottom of the bowl. I showed it to my boys. Then I tossed it. 

Letting her things go with gratitude was right, but I still felt a pang when I thought about Nota’s lighthouse, or the Chalkware cherries that lived alongside the grinning orange, or the panther that once prowled Mom’s nightstand next to her black-and-white TV, the one we would watch together in her room at night when I was little, on the rare occasions she would let me sleep with her, when I was too scared or lonely to resist breaching her private space. She was generally pretty reserved when it came to doling out maternal warmth, stressed by her two jobs, detached, overwhelmed, but on those nights, she would sing me a lullaby she made up consisting mostly of just my name, “Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Mama loves Teresa, Teresa, Teresa, Teresa.” As a mother, she cycled wildly and unpredictably between overbearing and almost criminally negligent, but letting me watch a rerun of “Taxi” at 11:30 p.m., letting me be close to her, her voice in my ear, Louie De Palma cracking wise in the background, that was a memory of her I wanted to keep, a memory that was now mine alone, mine and the panther’s. 

The sorting and tossing actually asks what is arguably one of life’s central questions, one we don’t ever want to think about until we’re holding a batik scarf, dangling it over a “maybe” pile, wondering while it hovers: Can she see me now, or is she just gone? 

This just got heavier than a box of blue glass vases headed for a landfill in Henderson. 

And that’s where an organizing book is one thing, and a spiritual guide is another. I turned to Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founder and leader of Jewish spiritual outreach program Nashuva, and author of several best-sellers about faith, God and loss, including “To Begin Again.”

“I believe that there’s another dimension and it’s not a far dimension,” the rabbi explained to me over the phone, her voice calm and measured, her words thoughtful and deliberate. “I don’t believe heaven is a faraway place; it’s like a simultaneous place that we get small glimpses of in life. The soul comes from a place of eternity, from another dimension, and it descends to this world, this material world, and it’s here for a mission — to create connections and healings — and there are daily missions and there are missions that take a lifelong period of time. But when it’s time, the soul returns to its place of eternity and the body returns to the earth.”

And the stuff that once belonged to that body and soul? 

“I just feel very strongly that the part of your mom that collected stuff is gone,” Levy reassured me.

“The part of the soul that remains is the part that’s connected to things of eternity, not temporality: beauty, divinity, oneness and love.” 

So while the part of her that cared about possessions was gone, my mother, according to Rabbi Naomi, was not. 

At that point, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she still has a box of her own mother’s sweaters in a box under her bed. Though she lost her mom several years ago now, the sweaters still carry her smell, and every now and again she takes them out to get a whiff. That’s how I feel about the few things I kept, like the jade charm. It touched her and now it’s touching me, so there’s a sensory reminder of the deeper spiritual truth: “Souls who loved us are never far away.” 

Stuff can help us mourn, but that doesn’t mean my mom is in heaven having a conniption because I subtracted her Russian nesting dolls.

Whatever and wherever her soul is, a part of her showed up on my doorstep last week. She arrived courtesy of the Neptune Society, in a cardboard box shipped for $63.01.

As to where to scatter her ashes, she left that up to me. I guess I will return them to the earth. Most likely, the earth underneath a flea market, where the vintage lace doilies are plentiful, the plaster fruit always smiles, and the ceramic creatures roam free.

Tamara Strasser


Teresa Strasser is an Emmy- and Los Angeles Press Club Award-winning writer and author of the best-selling memoir “Exploiting My Baby” (Penguin). Currently, she co-hosts “The List Weekend,” a syndicated TV show from the E.W. Scripps Co. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and two sons.

A letter to my daughters in college


To My Daughters:

We didn’t mean to lie to you — it just happened. 

We raised you with a rich sense of Jewish life. We sent you to Jewish schools, to Jewish camps, to Israel. We helped found a synagogue in L.A., in no small measure because of you. We wanted to give you the Jewish literacy that we were deprived of as children. We wanted you to experience Judaism both as a source of joy and also as a call to action.

We taught you about the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracle of 1948. We also demanded that you remember that the history of the Jews, your history, compels you to understand that the story of the Exodus is, sadly, never ending, for Jews and non-Jews alike. We boasted of the role of the Jews in the great civil rights movements of the last century and shared the stories of the young Jews who worked to tear down Jim Crow. We proudly showed you pictures of our Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with the great Martin Luther King Jr. 

We taught you that you should not be embarrassed by your privilege, but that your privilege calls on you to understand and act on the suffering of others. We taught you to honor your heritage, but we demanded that you avoid the dangers of parochialism and tribalism, of reflexively preferring the interests of your own to the exclusion of the interests of others, especially those less fortunate than you. …

We told you that anti-Semitism exists, but that you should not look for anti-Semitism under every rock. 

We taught you of the importance of Israel and to love Israel with all of your heart, while, at the same time, decrying the immorality of the occupation. We taught you that to be constructively critical of Israel is not anti-Semitic, but is rather, an act of chesed, loving kindness, for the people and country of Israel, our people. We told you that if you seek to heal the world, you would be joined by like-minded individuals finding common cause in righting the wrongs of the world — that only through joining forces across religious, national and ethnic lines could the world be restored.

You listened and have focused your passion and intellect on understanding and addressing oppression, in all of its forms.  However, despite the best of our intentions, we have let you down.

We’ve recently seen a spate of incidents on college campuses and elsewhere attacking Israel. The tenor of these attacks, whether the anti-Semitic rantings of an Oberlin professor or the pink-washing allegations in Chicago, has fundamentally altered the liberal landscape. It does not matter whether you are supportive of the occupation or opposed to it with all of your heart, if you support and love Israel, according to the logic of these protesters, you’re on the side of the oppressors. Indeed, the mere fact of being Jewish makes you suspect to many of the dominant voices on the far left today. We’ve told you to dismiss such behavior as anti-Semitic. But you’re smart enough to see that as reductive, as some of the criticism of Israel is manifestly justified and some of those people leveling such attacks are Jewish, and not just born Jewish, but feel their Judaism in much the same way you feel it. They, you tell me, feel the same moral imperative of the Exodus story to make the world a better place.

We’ve told you that there are organizations where you can find your people, people who don’t see any contradiction between a commitment to social justice and a commitment to Israel. However, joining organizations such as J Street or New Israel Fund is viewed in some pro-Israel circles as an act of treason. Yet, perversely, membership in such groups does not pass muster with the more extreme elements on the left, where anything short of calling for the destruction of Israel constitutes a rejection of Palestinian rights. 

The once-concentric circles of your Jewish community and your social justice community are now more like Venn diagrams with an ever-receding area of commonality. Yet, mercifully, you have not changed — you’re still the living manifestation of our greatest hopes and aspirations, galvanized by the Jewish spirit and imperative of narrowing the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

I wish I had an easy answer for you. The easiest path would be to pick one of the circles and forget the other. That’s the path that many would take and will take. However, you must not allow yourselves to be bullied into giving up a part of yourself for the sake of ease or social comfort. Such an outcome would be a tragic capitulation to a false choice and a rejection of your birthright. Instead you must join with others in forging a new path — a path that honors the singularity of your Judaism, love and concern for Israel, and the ethical and moral imperatives that guide you. Only by following that path do we have a chance of bringing the once concentric circles back into alignment. 

Love,

Dad


Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.

Did you see “The Lion King?”: A Thanksgiving story


I give thanks for “The Lion King.” This month, the theatrical production celebrates eighteen years on Broadway. I first fell in love with the show when I somehow scored tickets to the press preview the night before it opened in New York City, November 13, 1997. Like everyone else in the theatre, Susie and I were blown away by the phenomenal artistry of the piece – the spectacular costumes and puppetry portraying the animals of Pride Rock, the engaging music, and the story of family continuity. There have only been a handful of times in a Broadway show when I've completely lost it: the opening “Tradition” scene of “Fiddler on the Roof” sitting next to my Grandma Celia, the climactic fight scene when James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson prevails against “The Great White Hope,” and watching the enormous puzzle pieces of Mufasa's face come together as Simba sees his reflection as the “He Lives in You” scene unfolds.

Back in 1997, we couldn't wait to share the show with our children, Havi and Michael. They, of course, loved the original animated film, even though a beloved character dies. Once again, I cried tears of joy observing our kids sobbing in recognition when Simba realizes his place in “the circle of life.” 

Fast forward eighteen years. Havi is now herself a mother of a five year old, Ellie Brooklyn, and a two year old, Gabriel Elijah. “Mom, Dad,” Havi exclaimed on the phone as we planned our visit to celebrate Ellie's fifth birthday, “the national company of 'The Lion King' is in town…” I didn't wait for her to finish the sentence. “Don't say another word,” I said. “I'll get tickets. Gabe is too young for a three hour show, but I think Ellie will love it!” “I know, I know,” Havi cried, barely containing her anticipation.

And so it was on October 4, 2015, when Bubbie Susie and Zaydie Ronnie walked hand in hand with Ellie and Mommy Havi toward the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, while wonderful Daddy Dave took Gabe to the park. The plaza in front of the theatre was crowded with other grandparents, parents and children of all ages eagerly awaiting the show. Once inside, we bought a stuffed Baby Simba doll and a program before settling into our seats. As we waited for the curtain to rise, miraculously, Ellie lifted the Baby Simba doll high over her head and rocked it back and forth even though Havi had decided not to show the movie to Ellie, wanting her instead to experience the story as told in the theatre. From the moment Rafiki began her call to the incredible puppet animals to walk down the aisles and gather on stage, Ellie sat transfixed in awe. Havi, of course, was not watching the show; her entire gaze was on her daughter. And, of course, Havi was a basket case. 

I knew this because Susie and I were not watching the show either! We were watching our daughter watching her daughter experience the glory that is a live stage performance of “The Lion King.” Three generations sitting together in the dark of a theatre with souls illuminated by the power of music, art, and storytelling. It was magical…and, of course, I cried like a baby. 

When the climactic “He Lives in You” scene unfolded once again, I was overwhelmed with images of my parents. My mother Bernice died six years ago; my father, Alan, three years ago, God bless their souls. How they would have loved this moment! My mother was in a delirium for several days during the week before she died, but when she awoke and saw Susie and me standing next to her hospital bed, the first words out of her mouth were: “Is Havi pregnant?” It was a cry of hope for the future of her family.

This is the reason I wrote my new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing). Excuse the pun, but Is there any greater dream than our “line” continues? Is there anything more powerful than family to shape our identities and destinies? This is the compelling message we transmit through storytelling. So, in addition to turkey and football, let’s spend some time at our Thanksgiving tables telling our stories and marveling at the wonder of generational continuity.

At Gabe’s brit milah, I was given the honor of being the sandak, the grandfather who holds the baby during the ritual circumcision. The moyel did his business in a few minutes, but Havi has the creative gene from Susie, so the bris was a wonderful celebration, with readings for each family member, explanations of the baby’s names, songs, poems, and reflections. But it took a good forty-five minutes. The baby did fine, sucking on a gauze pad soaked with wine. But, forty-five minutes?! Finally, the service was over, and everyone erupted in song, “Siman tov, u’mazal tov!” I don’t know what came over me, but as the singing came to an end, I stood up, held the baby high over my head, and yelled, “Hakuna metata!”

Did you see “The Lion King?”

Giving thanks for a fight-free Thanksgiving


As my family — and families across the country — begin preparations for the Thanksgiving feast, I started to wonder what kind of family tsuris could rend this day of plenty, pilgrims and, well, pigskin, asunder.

Even in this season of presidential candidate debates, I knew that the table divider at my house probably wouldn’t be politics — after all, only some 6 percent of Americans have had a Thanksgiving dinner ruined by a political argument, according to a Economist/YouGov poll taken last December. But what about politics of a more familial kind?

This year, with my own family coalition coming over to partake in the feast, I didn’t want any infighting. After all, Thanksgiving is historically an important day for both sides in a potential conflict to come together — the day is imbued with the story of Wampanoag Native Americans joining the Pilgrims for that first dinner held in Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, who attended, wrote in a letter to a friend “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer.”

Though our plans were smaller scaled, and did not include a hunting party, we did plan on entertaining for a few hours, and wanted to do it in happy union with our family.

Moreover, on the Shabbat the week of Thanksgiving this year, we read from the portion Vayishlach, which relates the story of how Jacob and Esau — brothers estranged by a birthright that a hungry, impulsive Esau sells for a bowl of stew — reconcile. Years have passed, each is successful in his own right, but Esau is coming with 400 men. Is he going to settle the score?

Though my family arrives at my door without an army, each family gathering does present the opportunity for slights to be addressed and wounds reopened. In the Bible, Jacob sends ahead gifts to his brother to ease the tension. In our invitations to Thanksgiving dinner, I also suppose we send an offer of potential reconciliation of family issues.

Setting aside my projection that our table could be split between Clinton and Sanders supporters — I do have a right-leaning nephew, but he’s celebrating Thanksgiving elsewhere — I could see that there were other factors, aside from voting patterns, that could divide our company: important things like stuffing and cranberry preferences.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in France and the stabbings in Israel, peacefully resolving family disputes may seem trivial — that is until the blow-up happens around your own table, as it did at my mother’s house one year when a guest showed up totally shickered. It also happened at another Thanksgiving when an Orthodox vegetarian refused to even pass the turkey platter.

Like a lot of baby boomers, with parents aging or passing away, my family has experienced recent shifts surrounding Turkey Day. For decades, my wife’s aunt and uncle hosted Thanksgiving dinner; guests were required only to contribute good cheer. But with her passing a few years ago, my wife and her sister began to prepare separate holiday dinners.

Then, three years ago, after my sister-in-law became ill with cancer — today she is cancer-free, something to be especially thankful for — we offered to host Thanksgiving for both families.

So now, the entire mishpocha, comprised of around 16 politely opinionated people, comes to our Los Angeles home. Just throw a bigger turkey in the oven and schlep out a few more chairs, right?

But just because the meal is largely a secular one for Jews, do not think for a second that our preferences for “traditional” flavors — whatever they may be — are given the day off. For many families, there’s only one way to prepare the turkey, the yams, the pie — and only that way will keep peace at the table.

Turning to the Bible, there is a portion (Genesis 18) when Abraham suddenly realizes that he and Sarah are going to have angelic guests — the literal and not behavioral kind — in their tent. They rush about preparing the food and seeing to the comfort of their divine guests — so much so that when hospitality, or “hachnasat orchim,” is discussed in a Jewish context, these verses are often cited.

Yet, no matter how fine a model are Abraham and Sarah as hosts, they did not have to divvy up the food assignments among branches of their family, each with their own tribal preferences.

Many Thanksgiving dinners today are group endeavors, even potluck, and ours is not the exception. My brother-in-law and his wife supply salad and drinks, my sister-in-law brings a kugel and mother-in-law buys knishes (this is, after all, a Jewish meal).

But for the traditional Thanksgiving must-haves, nothing is left to chance — in fact, there is planned redundancy. That is, to keep everything copacetic between the two sisters (who deny any competition), there are two of most everything: two styles of stuffing (one with kosher sausage, the other with challah and vegetables), two types of cranberry sauce (a cranberry orange relish and a sauce made with wine and nuts), plus two vegetables and yams.

Though there’s barely enough room at the table for all the dishes, I must say that all the passing does keep us together. And we’re careful not to play favorites: There’s no singing the praises of one cook’s dish without a favorable comparison to the other’s offering.

There can be no table cliques or caucuses. We dine together or we dine alone. If this is the price of Thanksgiving “shalom bayit,” peace in the house, then call me a satisfied and satiated fan.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

Embracing senior moments with humor, insight


Aging — and dying — may be an inevitability, but it need not be a tragedy. Just ask octogenarian Bernard Otis, the author of “How to Prepare for Old Age (Without Taking the Fun Out of Life),” who has learned through personal experience, extensive observation and interviews that aging with dignity and joy is a choice.

In real life, an infectious grin stretches across his face, and joy radiates down to his strong and lively handshake. Although he originally started his blog, seniormomentswithbernardotis.com, and his book as a way to deal with the loss of his wife, Anna, reactions he gets from his readers of all ages have given him renewed purpose and great personal satisfaction.

“I drew the conclusion that when people weren’t prepared for death, they weren’t necessarily prepared for life, either,” he said. “They were not living their lives in a way that counted, and not aware about what was happening around them. Many people have a misconception that they will retire at 65 and that will be the end. However, the truth is that life goes on, no matter what stage of it you’re in. You need to embrace it.” 

Otis, 86, currently lives in a seniors residence in West Hills, but he is still a man about town. He maintains his blog and recently found romance with a woman visiting one of his fellow residents.

His book, put out by Incorgnito Publishing Press in May, touches on a lifetime of lessons that he has acquired. It is made up of chapters, which he playfully calls “Senior Moments,” filled with stories and observations that cover “the journey of life, the boulders in the highway and how to get around them,” according to Otis. 

It is dedicated to the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, who, Otis said, mentored him during the writing process and editing of the book and is quoted in one of the chapters. 

The concept grew out of Otis’ preparation for and coping with the loss of his wife, who died of cancer in 2012; Schulweis provided moral support for him in those days as well. The whole experience was cause for reflection for Otis.

“If you knew this was going to be the last day of your life, how would you live it?”  he asked aloud, rhetorically. “Most people don’t think about that, but how would you live it? I would get up in the morning and find somebody who needed my help. After that, I would do something I really enjoyed, and at night, I would go home to the arms of the person I love. Even if I don’t know what day will be the last day of my life, that’s how every day should be lived.” 

Otis says in the book it is easier for a person of any age to comprehend the most important truths about life when they also understand how they can be distracted by everyday “small stuff,” as well as petty arguments and conflicts that can potentially tear apart families. He also stresses the importance of starting preparation for aging as early as possible in one’s life.

“This is a major problem among seniors — the falls and the broken hips that lead to their dying, and families are oblivious or often afraid to address this,” Otis said. “Families should prepare themselves for these situations, have family discussions to prepare themselves for the eventualities of family members getting older. … Parents should explain to their children about what happens to people at different stages of life and death, and they need to know how to handle it. 

While the book project, which involved interacting with people at his residence and other senior centers over 2½ years, helped him come to terms with his wife’s passing, Otis grew to embrace the notion that he could provide a public service and create a philosophy that could serve as a manual for people of all ages and backgrounds on how to accept life as it comes — from birth to death, while fortifying one’s relationships with family and friends along the way. In other words, being adaptable, grateful and open-minded.

One idea Otis came to advocate: Never hide from death. Parents should not shield children from that fact of life, but instead teach them how to face it and explain what happens to people at different stages of their life and death. He recalls how he was bothered by the fact that his parents wouldn’t allow him to see his grandmother while she was in declining health, in the days and weeks before her passing.

“I believe the best way to [deal with aging] is to connect life and death in a way that makes sense, as a continuum between past present and future,” he said. “If people understand it, they won’t fear it.”

Otis likes to precede his personal observations and anecdotes with jokes as a way of keeping the attention of readers and lightening the mood between serious topics. One of his favorites, about dating after 60, involves three women sitting by the pool at an assisted living center. An elderly man walks by them and jumps into the pool. The first woman says, “You must be new here. I have never seen you before.” He replies, “Yes, I just got here yesterday.” The second woman asks, “Where are you from?” and he says, “I just got out of prison after 25 years.” The third woman says, “You’re single!”

Born in Detroit, Otis grew up in a traditional Jewish home and enjoyed a long career as a food service and restaurant facilities architect/designer. He continues to stay in touch with relatives throughout the country, including his first wife, who lives in an assisted living center in Dallas near their adult children. And therein lies another important life lesson, he said.

“Everybody who comes into this world has two significant assets: Awareness about what is happening around you and the ability to make friends, maintain family connections and build relationships,” Otis said. “Even with those gifts, some people forget how to use them. That loss, in turn, makes the aging process and facing mortality all the more difficult. With my book and blog, I want to remind people of how to make those skills work for them again, at any point in life.”


CORRECTION [Aug. 24, 2015]: This article originally mispelled the name of Incorgnito Publishing Press.

Finding my place in history: A love letter for Father’s Day


It is not enough to thank my father privately for the best gift he’s ever given me, because his own humility interferes with my every attempt to express sufficient gratitude. “Dad, I don’t know how to thank you enough for this,” I say. “I tried a new restaurant last night,” he says. His eyes tell me he’s received my gesture, but because he never allows me to lavish him with praise, I’m writing this article instead—for I am equally as stubborn, and I insist on sharing just how much I value his efforts.

Since 1998, my father has been researching our family history. Initially, he gave his parents a hand-held tape recorder, hoping they’d impart the past into an easily preserved format, but when his mother dismissed the idea out of hand, he realized he’d have to do any recordkeeping as he always had: on lined, yellow legal pads with his dark blue felt pens. In addition to interviewing his parents and as many relatives as he could reach, he consulted a wide range of sources, including the National Archives, the Ellis Island Passenger Search, newspapers, genealogists, doctors, translators, websites, court documents, state and school and military records, cemetery markers and gravestones, old photographs and old letters and old tickets still tucked into burlap envelopes, new photographs, emails, voicemails. He transformed our family tree into a Table of Contents, composed a 206-page narrative, and for Father’s Day last year, had it printed and bound, and gifted one copy to me and one to my sister.

At first, I read it looking for evidence of what made us special: the time my father let then-Senator JFK borrow his clipboard to sign autographs, the time my great uncle Max (aka Mackie) spent as an arranger for the Sev Olsen Band featuring Peggy Lee, or playing trombone at a burlesque house with chorus girls known as the Alvin Adorables. Then I became more interested in what makes our family story just like many other immigration tales: one guy in 1907 with few resources and even less money who travelled steerage across the Atlantic looking for a better life; then later his brother, my great-grandfather: first a stevedore on the docks unloading cement ships, then a fruit peddler selling oranges door-to-door from a bushel basket until he could afford a horse and cart, until he could afford a Ford one-ton truck, until he could afford a grocery store.

The family genesis and introductory paragraph is as follows:

There were originally four brothers, Mendel, Samuel (Sholom), Bencha, and Zalmon, and also sisters Reva and Hannah. There was a half brother, Samuel (Schmuel), and another sister, for whom there is no record of her name. The original family name was Metelitza according to some immigration records; however, according to Al Mattenson, a son of the half brother, the original Russian family name was Metelitzi (“blizzard”). Records of Ellis Island, however, state Metelitza.

Dad attempts to offer the facts unfiltered, and yet, just like biblical genealogies, there are gaps and ghosts in the story. Nothing is known of Bencha, Zalmon, Reva, and Hannah, who are believed to have remained in Russia. Was my great-grandmother born in Kluisi, Klency, Klinzcy, or Kleentsi? We’ll likely never know, though the town is believed to be near Kiev, Ukraine. Why did my Jewish great-grandfather, when asked to submit his Petition for Naturalization in 1918, list Christmas as the birthdate for two of his sons, and then change his own birthdate to December 25 in a World War I draft Registration Card, when he was born on January 25, as stated in his Declaration of Intention upon entering the country?

Perhaps my grandfather inherited his father’s sense of humor, because when asked to provide a birth certificate in order to get a job selling shoes, he obtained a fake one and selected Friday the 13th as his day of birth. He never knew his original birthday until my father consulted the Deputy Clerk of St. Louis County District Court, but even after we discovered that he was born on August 23, 1912 (assuming his father didn’t make up that date too), we continued to celebrate on September 13th. We like to call my dad Sherlock Holmes because he is such a thorough researcher, but there are just as many questions and discrepancies in our story as there are moments of clarity.

In school, we are taught to learn history by memorizing names and dates and fixing our understanding of events around something certain. Our family story reads more like the way history actually happens: some of it is recorded and some is not, some is understood only in context and only by the people living it, and everybody has a different view about how and why and even when and where things occur. These tensions are entry points into history. They demand our participation, and offer us a means of knowing ourselves by inquiring after our forebears.

In junior high school, I had to create a family tree in English class, and for the first time found out that my grandmother’s maiden name was Glass. I immediately recalled one of my favorite episodes of The Brady Bunch in which Jan invents a fake boyfriend named George, and when pressed to give his last name, sees a drinking glass on the nightstand. “George Glass! And he thinks I’m super cool,” she exclaims. I thought about my grandmother. I knew her as Sarah Mattenson, so Sarah Glass seemed as fictional as Jan’s George. Her history was not real to me; it was far away, in some other time and place. I was naturally inquisitive and wanted to know more about her life, but she chose to protect my innocence, so she never told me she wore dentures since early adolescence because her family, rather than spend money on dental care, extracted all her teeth instead. She never told me she was addicted to Miltown and other tranquilizers for 28 years until she voluntarily entered a chemical dependency center. She never told me she failed eighth grade three times and then dropped out of school altogether, or that she was traumatized when her family sold the piano, her one source of joy and confidence. Now that I know, I long to talk with her and let her tell her story. She had a lot of secrets.

My grandmother started writing about her life when it was almost over, and my father included those letters, knowing his mother wanted to be heard, and knowing his daughters wanted to listen. Dad included everything: the happy and sad times, detailed evidence and elusive memories, and everyone’s presence from the progenitors to Mr. C, the family dog. Dad regards everyone equally; there are no minor characters. Everyone is part of the story. This family history gives me access to human history in that sense: everyone is part of the story. It’s what my ancestors wanted—to be part of a new story—and American life. Maryascha became Minnie, Dweire became Dot, Gootel became Gertrude, and Metelitzi became Mattenson. Reading about all of them in this manuscript allows me to see them both intimately and from a distance, and thus myself the same way. Who am I and what is my place in history? Is it enough to be part of the story? My ambition drives me to stand out and make a name for myself rather than to fit in.

My grandfather’s ambitions all had a purpose. He wanted to be a dance instructor in order to meet women. He took on jobs in order to make enough money to survive. He polished Ford nameplates in a factory, sold sewing machines and flavored extracts (vanilla, lemon, and orange) and eventually shoes, and once ran away at age 16 to join the Marines. I once asked him, “Papa, why did you decide to be a salesman?” He laughed and said, “There was a job. If there was a job to be a fisherman, I would have become a fisherman.” He dropped out of school before ninth grade because his father died and he had to help support the family. It’s in part because he struggled so much that I have the luxury to choose a career and craft my own ambitions.

I took particular note of my father’s description of Samuel (born in 1873), who came to this country in 1911 and took the Grand Trunk Railway to Duluth, Minnesota to be with his brother and my great-grandfather. He was a tailor, and he executed his Declaration of Intention “by making a mark.” We can only assume he was illiterate and could not read the form, so when asked to sign his Petition for Naturalization, he must have made some sort of X or checkmark. Dad’s phrasing stuck with me and I started to wonder how all these people felt about making a mark in the world. This document itself is one way my father is making his mark. He is keeping our family alive. He even brought some people back to life; my grandfather never knew he had a fifth brother until my father’s research revealed that Louis died at age 5. Since poor families couldn’t afford gravestones, Louis was likely buried along the perimeter of the first Jewish cemetery in Duluth. He probably would have survived appendicitis if he had been born after antibiotics were discovered. His family never talked about him, and there’s only one known photo of him, now included in our collection.

For some reason, as I read, I’d keep turning back to Louis’ photo. He looks so sweet in his little black coat with his soft, golden curls, and his tiny hand resting on his brother’s shoulder. He’s holding some sort of staff and his brother sits upon a tricycle. I think about Louis. He never got to “make a mark.” The phrase reminds me of a moment, years ago, in my grandfather’s kitchen when we were making lunch. He took out a small notepad used for phone messages and drew a few lines. “Here’s the alley,” he showed me, “and here’s where our house was—522 E. 8th St. in Duluth, and here’s where I made my mark!” Apparently he had carved his initials into the cement a few feet from the garage. I’ve always wanted to travel to Duluth and see if the inscription is still there.

I, too, want to make my mark in this world, so I was honored to represent my department in a competition for a distinguished award this year. Many of my colleagues have been nominated but not selected over the years, but I assumed my dossier would be strong enough to transcend committee politics and rise above the other candidates. When I did not win the award, my ego was bruised. How will I make my mark if I’m not on the official high-achievers list?

I went home, made some strong coffee, reread all 206 pages of the family history, and emerged transformed. I’ve been so focused on being the star of my story that I’ve forgotten I’m a part of a much larger narrative, from family history to Jewish history to human history. I’ve started to think more about my life in context as opposed to being primarily distinctive. It’s a relief. I’ve got a lot of angels in these pages sending me messages: think Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. “You’ve been given a great gift, George,” he says, “a chance to see what the world would be like without you.” In the film, it is only when George Bailey sees his life from a distance that he can then reenter it with a renewed enthusiasm. He learns what really matters to him. That’s the gift my father has given me as well. I am merely one entry in the Table of Contents, and I can see the value of my life even as it slowly slips away. I don’t mean for that to sound melancholy. To the contrary, the subtext of impermanence throughout Dad’s offering makes me want to love and learn in as exuberant a way as possible, for as long as possible.

At dinner last week, my father made a joke about his own mortality, and my eyes filled with tears at the mere thought. I see him as too youthful to be in his seventies, and similarly, I think he has trouble believing he has two daughters in their forties. He sent us “Happy 29th Birthday!” cards for at least a dozen years. I can’t pass for that age anymore, but the older I get, I understand Dad’s humor and even the denial. I want him to live forever. He will—in the pages titled Our Family—and no doubt, I’ll return to them many times, for my father’s love is in every word of the text. It’s hard to imagine a more meaningful gift from father to daughter.

Dad’s last line is excerpted from a prayer book on the page after the Mourner’s Kaddish: As we remember our departed, we perpetuate their presence among us. By remembering them, we confer upon them the gift of immortality.

Immortality is conceptual; the reality is that my father’s father, for example, is gone, and we miss him. But his legacy is alive, and there are things he said and did that remain with us. Every time we talked on the phone, instead of “goodbye,” Papa said, “you’re a good person.” When I was younger, I’d laugh and say, “No, You’re a good person!” Sometimes, I’d say, “I love you, Papa” or “see you later.” And then he’d repeat: “you’re a good person.”

Dad, I get to be the one to bestow Papa’s enduring blessing this time: I love you dearly. Thank you for this gift. You’re a good person!


Mattenson is a Lecturer with UCLA Writing Programs. Her latest work can be found at www.LauriMattenson.com and her new Kindle Single, “Backbone: A BodyMind Breakthrough” is now on Amazon.

Tending the roots: Making meaning of the heritage of the Holocaust in my family


I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors on my mother’s side. Both her parents survived with one sibling. The rest — brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — did not survive. On my father’s side, though his parents and grandparents immigrated to Israel before 1939, many of his relatives who did not were slain. As a grandchild, this decimation of my ancestors was not visible. I had parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts and uncles. Everything. The damage to our family tree was invisible. Underground, so to speak.

I knew that my grandparents suffered through and survived the Holocaust. My grandfather Chaim escaped from a transport early on and lived under an assumed identity until the end of the war. My grandmother survived several camps, including Auschwitz. I wore their survival as a badge of honor. I know other grandchildren of survivors who feel the same way. It’s a private pride — we are the descendants of those who lived.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school in psychology that I began to wonder about my family’s past and the effect it had on me. I began wondering about the intergenerational transmission of trauma, this notion that emotional patterns are passed down from parents to children. Did I carry baggage that originally belonged to my grandparents? This was a hard question to answer. I had always suffered from anxiety, even as a small child. So did my sisters. How could we know if it was our anxiety of someone else’s? After all, we did grow up in Israel; we had to scramble downstairs to our apartment building’s bomb shelter and put on gas masks during the first Gulf war; we saw familiar street corners littered with bus parts and body parts on the news in the mid-’90s. There were things to be scared about. But not everyone was as anxious as we were.

I wonder about it. As a young child, I already had certain ideas, ones I had taken for granted for many years, until I realized they were not obvious, to children or adults. Death, for example. I thought about it from early on. Not as an abstract concept, but as a real and imminent reality. I had a very particular image of death — it was the absolute end of consciousness. A truly terrifying image that still rattles me to the core to this day. There was no doubt in my mind that one day my parents would die, and so will I. When this idea crept into my mind, I was stricken with such life-crushing panic that only sleep, when it finally came, could release me from its grip. This imbued a preciousness into time spent with family, even during my adolescence. The funny thing is, even though we never talked about it as children and teenagers, my sisters felt and still feel the same way. So does my mother. So did my grandparents — I heard. It would make a lot of sense that they would feel this way. They lost many loved ones without being able to say goodbye. How fascinating that we somehow took up the same perspective!

It amazes me that this highly specific experience of death and loss trickled down the generations in my family without being explicitly discussed. When I met my wife, I discovered her family had a different culture regarding death and dying from my own, one that sees death as a part of life. It is as if some basic human wisdom about the cycle of life has gotten lost in my family. My grandparents did not get to sit at their own grandparents’ and parents’ death bed. To experience death as natural, timely, even, yes, necessary. What else was lost with the decimation of my ancestry?

My wife shared with me an image that occurred to her in relation to my family — a tree with no roots. The image resonated with me immediately. I could identify with it immediately. There is a kind of security that comes from being deeply rooted that has been lost in my family. I don’t mean necessarily rooted in space, having a place to call our own, though relocation is certainly part of my family’s story, even my own. I mean rooted in time — having a sense of continuity stretching into the past, along with knowledge, traditions, even wisdom, feeding into the present from the depths of the past. How can we not be anxious trying to face life’s weather without being rooted in this way? Holding ourselves up with the power of our will without being able to rely on the ground to support us, anxious at the possibility of a strong wind knocking us over.

I see myself, my sisters and other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors struggle with this predicament. Many highly functioning people straining in the effort to stay upright in the midst of life’s blows.

There is healing taking place, however. As a therapist, I have seen over and over again the human psyche’s natural tendency toward healing. In our case, healing is happening through our efforts to mend our links with our ancestors. This is happening spontaneously, without conscious intention. I’m seeing this drive in many grandchildren, myself included. A pull toward the grandparents, their story, their life. A need to know in an intimate way, in our hearts. A need to feel. We are being driven by a fascination with our ancestors. Driven to reconnect and reclaim. This is an important word. Reclaim. To take back what is rightfully ours, what has been taken from us by the atrocities of the Holocaust.

I see this as a generational task. A responsibility, not so much to right the wrongs that were done to our families — what’s done is done — rather, to reconnect the thread to the past. How this task is to be accomplished is yet to be determined. We must find creative ways into our heritage. We have been tasked with tending the roots of our trees. 

Dedicated to my grandparents Chaim and Hela Hofman.


Nattan Hollander, MFT, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Tending the Roots, an organization dedicated to promoting healing from the intergenerational impact of genocide. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are invited to continue the conversation in a workshop on May 3: Healing the Intergenerational Wounds of the Holocaust. For more information visit TendingtheRoots.com.

A cartoonist’s tribute to his father


How Jewish ritual helped me find my way through loss


I had to press my lips closed, the day after it ended.

The ritual was no longer mine. My duty was complete. But the words, with their cadences and rhythms, their alliterative twists — yitgadal v’yitgadash — had become my anthem. For 11 months, I had owned these words, claimed them like land, their cries and God-calls had become, for me, a visitable place. 

How could I now forsake them? 

The last day I said it, my hands trembled. Deep, heavy breaths rose and fell in my chest. The room felt hot. I’m not ready, I thought to myself. I’m not ready to leave this place — hamakom — the place of consolation. When my heart first tore, like the dress I wore to her funeral, the words of Kaddish were what daily sustained me. 

Magnified and sanctified … Magnified and sanctified …

These words were my poetry, the only sustenance for a soul in retreat, for a child who felt like an orphan. I needed these words, in their mystical, mysterious Aramaic, like food.  

May his great name be … in the world that he created … as he wills …

How could I stop mourning my mother? I still needed her. I still needed this.

Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’alam ul-al’mei al’maya …

In the Talmud, Kaddish is likened to Yom Kippur, described as a prayer of atonement on behalf of the dead. One source even tells us that when a child says Kaddish for a parent, “Any decree against them will be torn up and the Gates of the Garden of Eden opened.” 

Is it possible that my mother needed these words, too?

It has been more than a year since I buried her. She was 61 when she died. “Young,” everyone said. She would have loved that. She also would have loved that the coroner’s report began, “The body is that of a 5-foot-5-inch, 127-pound white female appearing younger than the given age of 61 years.” It is true that she was very devoted to proper skin care.

Her official cause of death was blunt head trauma — from a series of falls — leaving her with more than one “dark red subgaleal hematoma.” But that only tells you how she died; it doesn’t begin to suggest the preceding years of decline, the crusade her body launched against itself, or the wrenching struggle of her soul to find some kind of peace. I want to believe she found that peace in death, and that her pain ceased. But the end of her pain meant the end of her life, and, therefore, the beginning of my pain — a pain my family, as her survivors, has to live with every day.

At a shivah minyan for Sheryl Berrin-Klein, from left: husband Donald Klein, son Frank, daughters Jessica and Danielle, and their father, Larry Berrin.

The last time I saw my mother, she lay on a hospital bed at South Miami Hospital, pink-lipped and auburn-haired, her alabaster skin flushed with the final trickle of blood ever to flow through her veins. On life support, she looked just like John Everett Millais’ Ophelia — painterly, peaceful, floating gently down some endless stream. The air in the hospital room was so thick you could choke; a disconsolate quiet punctuated by enormous eruptions of grief. I can still hear my sister screaming.

The next week was a dark fairy tale. A funeral. Bereaved children. Devastated spouse. Eulogies. The pounding dirt on her grave. Shivah. Platters of food. A greenhouse of flowers. So many people. Noise. Rupture. Alienation. Angst. The phone didn’t stop ringing.

When I arrived back in L.A., just before Shabbat, it was as if her death had not happened. No one I’d met in the seven years I’d lived in California was among the nearly 500 people who attended her funeral. Miami was too far, and it had happened too quickly, and I hadn’t had the courage or the time to invite anyone. I flew to Miami, put her in the ground, and then returned to everything as it had been, while my world had unalterably changed.

That first afternoon, I sat on my couch, blank and full of dread. What should I do with myself? Shabbos was coming, and I was alone. Everything was disorienting. The air was hot, humid. I felt dizzy. Services seemed like the safest, most tranquil place to go. So I stumbled, as if drunk, to Temple Beth Am’s Kabbalat Shabbat, the service that welcomes the Sabbath. I had never been there before, but it is just around the corner from where I live, and, at the time, there was nowhere else for me to go. Saying Kaddish would ground me, I told myself. It would force me to stand still in a spinning world. 

At this time, we invite all who are mourning to please rise …

At the end of the service, Rabbi Ari Lucas looked around and kindly asked new people to introduce themselves. He looked directly at me. He knew he had never seen me before and invited me to declare myself. But I lowered my head, wishing to remain silent. Death had rendered me closed. I wanted to be alone, anonymous and far away. Loss had diminished me, my spirit shrunk from grief and pain. 

But I had a duty. For much of Jewish history I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to fulfill this mitzvah, but fortunately I am a Jewish woman living in the 21st century in Los Angeles. Kaddish was mine to claim. As Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, reassuringly writes in “The Puzzling Power of Kaddish”: “No one is beyond sanctifying God’s name.”   

Kaddish wasn’t a choice. It was my reveille call back to the world of the living. I’d learned of the ritual not in religious school, but from Leon Wieseltier. I devoured his book, “Kaddish,” on the plane ride home from my mother’s funeral. “Help me, Nachmanides. Help me,” Wieseltier wrote. I wasn’t entirely sure who Nachmanides was, but that became my prayer, too. 

When I walked into Beth Am’s daily morning minyan 36 hours later, I wanted to do what was required of me, then disappear. I didn’t want pity; I didn’t want friends; I didn’t want food. I wanted to be an island. 

But community, just like family, it turns out, is not about what you want but what you need. 

Kaddish knows this. It’s why a minyan is required to say it; it demands a communal response. And that response, Landes teaches, “interrupts every other prayer, for Kaddish is beyond all prayers.”  

And so began my ritual of rising to say Kaddish. Each day, I would wake at an ungodly hour to go and do the godly thing, and each day, it hurt like a hangover. At 6:30 a.m., I’d shove my cats from on top of me, roll out of bed, throw on whatever clothes I had worn the night before, grab my tallit and walk out the door. And almost every morning on the way to shul, my sister would phone, and I’d say, “I’m late for minyan!” 

“You say that every day,” she’d tease. 

I still don’t know how to daven the early morning prayers. “If you don’t know Kaddish D’Rabbanan,” one of my teachers recently chided about the rabbi’s Kaddish, said after completing a passage of study, “that means you get to shul more than seven minutes late. That’s the early-bird prayer.” As he well knows, I am no early bird, but it is my firm belief that one should always have something to aspire to. Most days, anyway, the whole service felt to me like a prolonged prelude to the Kaddish, as if all the other liturgy existed as an elaborate exposition in service of this sacred supplication. In the Talmud, Wieseltier reminds us, it is said that the whole world is sustained in existence by the utterance of “Y’hei sh’mei rabba m’varach l’alam ul-al’mei al’maya (May his great name be blessed …).” Long before Kaddish became a full prayer, that line appeared in early Jewish literature — not quite verbatim, but close — in Daniel, which was written around 500-160 B.C.E.

One of the Kaddish platitudes people often refer to is that there’s nothing about death in the prayer. It is, instead, explicitly praiseful, a proclamation of God’s greatness. This is a favorite conundrum of the rabbis who love to answer complicated questions: In the face of loss, when you might be doubting the existence of God, how can you praise God? How can there be eternity when death brings finitude? Why believe in something when death brings nothingness? And who decided it would be a good idea to commemorate the end of life with an affirmation that life goes on? For a while, my thoughts were more in line with Nietzsche than Nachmanides.

Then I realized that Kaddish depends on that convergence. “It is about the meeting place of two worlds, human finitude and God’s eternity,” Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen point out in Volume 6 of “My People’s Prayer Book.” “It brings us out of our sadness and anger by having us utter appreciation and praise just when we are tempted to deny the importance of both,” Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes in the same book.

Something extraordinary happens when you force yourself to perform a ritual. In high school, when I was competing in the speech and debate club, my mother noticed that the more my partner and I performed — up to six times each day at some tournaments — a mastery began to develop, a perfection of the text, which then enabled this transcendent, creative magic to happen. And so it was with Kaddish: I doubted it would transform me at first, but I did it anyway. And at the moment I least believed, God showed up. 

God first came in the form of Mike Harris. A white-haired, quietly devout Jew with a gentle soul, Mike knew me no more than a few days before showing up at my doorstep — with his wife, Bev, and two grandkids in tow — offering food and care and a year of free synagogue membership. (I would later joke that the worst part about finishing Kaddish was that now I’d have to pay to join the congregation.) Over 11 months, Mike invited me to Shabbos dinners, taught me how to garden and bought me my first siddur, from Jerusalem, with my Hebrew name inscribed on it in gold. When I first saw my name combined with my mother’s — Leah bat Zalman Leibel v’Sara — I realized she wasn’t lost; she was my link to the world.

Morning after mourning, I felt God’s presence through the people praying around me. Through Teri Cohan-Link, who unfailingly greeted any new person who walked through the door, who saw other people’s pain and was kind; who blessed me with holiday meals, gave me greens from her garden and hugged me when I cried. And Roberta Goodman-Rosenberg, who for months mourned her own mother by my side, and even included my siblings at her holiday table, throughout the year offering tips on the business of mourning, the ordering of footstones and planning for the final Kaddish Kiddush. 

And the rabbis, Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas, were often present at daily minyan, quietly davening alongside us, elegant in their warmth, gentle in dispensing wisdom.

At minyan, there were all these Jewish angels everywhere, and Kaddish made me see them. I saw how the minyan gabbai, David Kaplan, diligently performed a million tasks, visible and invisible, every single day, to make it possible for Jews like me to do my duty — to mourn, and magnify and sanctify. 

And then there was Sam Tuchband, who noticed I walked to Starbucks every morning after prayers and brought me his empty coffee bags to exchange for free drinks at the store. And the adorable Nate Milmeister, the nonagenarian neighbor I never knew I had, whose effervescent Yiddishkayt brought levity and light to the austerity of the prayer service. On my birthday, Nate bought me cake; he kept my kitchen stocked with lemons from his yard and never missed an opportunity to practice his old-fashioned coquetry: “You’re a sweet bunch of onions!” he’d flirt. Admittedly, I haven’t received many compliments like that one.

The truth is, I could write at length about each person in the minyan — because it was with these souls, in that space, through the words of our tradition and in the presence of our Torah, that I found my ethereal mother.

Every morning I could see her out the window, in the skies, in the trees, even in the traffic. And through the words of Kaddish, I could speak to her. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that Kaddish is what the dead would say to us, could we hear them. It’s a gorgeous thought, and I often prayed, “Let it be: Let it be that my mother exists in a place so wondrous only praise would spill from her lips could she speak.” But what if that isn’t so? What if she exists in a perfect, wondrous place but still cries out because she misses her children?

I’ve come to think of the prayer more as literary manna, a fungible fugue that supplies the seeds for a sublime conversation. Kaddish contains the question and the answer. And, like Shabbat, it is a profound gift to the Jewish people. When we are left to wallow in death’s silence, Kaddish may be the only conversation left. 

A few weeks before my 11 months of recitation would end, I became very nervous and couldn’t sleep. What would I do when it was over? When there would be no more mornings of promptness, of purpose, of complaining to my sister, “I’m late for minyan!” Who else in my life but my fellow “minyanaires” had I let see me so raw? Fresh out of bed, hair unwashed, not a stitch of makeup, dutifully wearing the same things day after day feeling not fashionable, but threadbare. How true are the words of the customary phrase, offered by the congregation to a Jew in mourning — “Hamakom yenachem etchem …” May the place comfort you. My hamakom was the Temple Beth Am minyan, where the only expectation was my presence, not my performance; where I was allowed to simply be, just me. 

Hard though it was, the last day of Kaddish turned out to be the best day. It was filled with family and friends — my father, sister and brother, who were here from Miami; my “fellow fellows” from American Jewish World Service, who had made a minyan for me so I could say Kaddish during the 10 days we traveled through Mexico; and my best rabbi friend from another shul, who even led davening. 

Before davening started, one of the daily minyanaires offered me a blessing. “I hope you found some comfort here,” he said. But that last day, I couldn’t stop trembling. 

My teacher recently taught that Kaddish is like a punctuation mark. Its various iterations — half Kaddish, rabbi’s Kaddish, Mourner’s Kaddish etc. — bookend each part of the prayer service: After Birkat Hashachar, Kaddish; after the Amidah, Kaddish; after Torah service, Kaddish; after Aleinu, Kaddish; and so on. It’s a sign of completion. And it is yet more evidence of the brilliance of Jewish tradition: At the moment of loss, our tradition offers us a prayer symbolic of wholeness.

The loss of my mother has circumcised my heart with an irreparable wound. It is still impossible to fathom that for a time she was here, and now she is not. It is harder still to contemplate all the things she’ll miss, all the years I’ll feel deprived of her presence, her wisdom, her counsel, her love. Should I be blessed to marry and have children, they’ll never know her. For every simcha and every sadness, she’ll remain a ghost.

But from all of those losses, Kaddish brought gain. 

“You’ve added many dimensions to this minyan in ways you don’t even know,” one of the minyanaires said to me on my last day of mourning. “One is, we all know we can get written about at any moment, so we’re on our best behavior!”

If best behavior means being committed Jews who are kind to the core and religiously competent, then he was right. (I, on the other hand, still can’t make it through the whole Amidah with this group of NASCAR daveners.) As I told them on the last day, the Temple Beth Am minyan taught me not just what community is — but the highest levels of what it is meant to be.

Several weeks ago, when my childhood friend Steven Sotloff was killed by ISIS militants, I returned to minyan to say Kaddish for him, as well as for my stepfather, simultaneously. That day, my recitation reeked of rage. As our Miami rabbi, Terry Bookman, asked at Steven’s funeral, “Is there any sorrow greater than this?” 

And yet, even when confronted with profound anguish and despair, Kaddish remained the manna: Kaddish doesn’t tell us God is good or fair; Kaddish tells us God is great — big, mighty, inscrutable. Jewish tradition, thank God, knows better than to promise a life devoid of pain. Instead, it offers us the tools — God, community, ritual — to help bear it. 

Yit’barakh v’yish’tabach v’yit’pa’ar v’yit’romam v’yit’nasei …

Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi in Palestine, was once asked how he, a devout Jew, could associate with secular Israelis. And he answered: First comes yitgadal — magnification. You have to expand your prayer, your soul, your circle. Then comes yitgadash — sanctification. Only once you have broadened yourself, and left that narrow place, can holiness emerge.

The Temple Beth Am daily minyan made it possible for me to yitgadal and yitgadash — magnify and sanctify — to emerge from a cocoon of grief and enlarge myself through the presence of community, the presence of my mother and the presence of God.

Amen.

From Israel, a Holocaust survivor worries about her Gazan daughter


In her living room in the Israeli town of Ramle, Sarah says she wants a peaceful life. At 79, she deserves one.

A Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, Sarah was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in Serbia as a child, arriving in Israel at age 17. Her entire family perished in the Holocaust.

Now she watches from her armchair as her family is threatened once again. Sarah — not her real name — is now a Muslim, and her daughter lives in Gaza City.

“The whole city is in ruins,” Sarah says. “Everyone is just trying to find a piece of bread.”

Sarah arrived in Israel in 1950, one of the tens of thousands of Jewish survivors who found refuge in the young Jewish state. From there, her story departs from the conventional narrative.

In 1962, she married an Arab Israeli and, with no surviving family of her own, converted to Islam to join his. Neither of them were particularly religious.

“In my time it wasn’t Arab or Jew,” said Sarah, who speaks Hebrew with a slight European accent. “We knew there was no problem between Jews and Israeli Arabs. I’m very liberal; my husband was the same. We felt no discrimination.”

Light-haired and soft-spoken, Sarah has lived for decades in the same Ramle apartment, which she now shares with her daughter, Nora. Both women leave their hair uncovered, and Nora said not to worry as she set out tea and cookies on the last day of Ramadan. She wasn’t fasting.

Sarah’s other daughter, also an Israeli citizen, moved to Gaza in 1984 after she married. On Sunday, Sarah and Nora waited by the phone as the Arabic news network Al Jazeera played on the television.

In the first days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Sarah’s daughter took her six children and one grandchild and fled their home in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City for a calmer area in the southern Gaza Strip. The day they left, their four-story home was destroyed, most likely by an Israeli airstrike. Since then, the family has survived on dry goods and whatever they can scrounge up during brief cease-fires.

Along with food, electricity is scarce in Gaza, so Sarah has a hard time getting in touch with her daughter. She learned the house was destroyed only when another relative posted on Facebook a picture of the rubble. She hopes for the rare phone call when her daughter manages to charge her phone. But sometimes, no call at all is better.

“With every phone call, we pray that she’s charged so we can reach them, talk to them, see how they are,” said Nora. “Every call jolts us, that we won’t hear bad news.”

Neither women would agree to be photographed or give many personal details out of fear of retribution from Israeli authorities or Hamas, the reigning power in Gaza. Only Nora would give her first name.

Though they have lived through such conflicts before — Protective Edge is the third such campaign in Gaza in six years — Sarah says this round has been harder than previous ones. Anti-Muslim discrimination flared up during previous conflicts, but Sarah said the antagonism seems stronger this time.

“I go to day centers [for the elderly], and they don’t talk to me,” Sarah said. “Behind my back, they curse me. I hear it. I hear ‘Their name should be erased. They should die.’”

Sarah and Nora used to enjoy driving to Gaza City to visit Sarah’s daughter. But Nora hasn’t been allowed to visit since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Sarah was allowed only once, for a five-day visit several years ago.

Will the family return to Zeitoun to rebuild its home? When will Sarah’s daughter be allowed to visit the family in Ramle? Will Sarah ever be able to visit her grandchildren and great-grandchild in Gaza?

They don’t know.

Is there still hope for peace? At that question, Nora shakes her head.

“Honestly, no. I don’t think the situation will get better after this war,” Nora said. “There’s tension between me and my Jewish friends. They want to justify themselves and this war. I never encounter a person that says, ‘Enough spilled blood’ or ‘Poor civilians.’ I haven’t heard that.”

Like most Israelis, Nora has coped with the sirens that warn of incoming missiles for a month now. She opposes Hamas, she says, and understands that Israel needs to protect its citizens, though she wishes the government would scale back its operation and pursue diplomacy more aggressively. Her family in Gaza, she said, is not affiliated with any movement — not Hamas, not Fatah, not any other.

“Israel has the full right to self-defense,” Nora said. “The missiles don’t differentiate between Jew and Arab. We don’t need to see houses destroyed, women crying, dead soldiers. A soldier is the son of a mother. Anywhere in the world, the pain of a mother is the same pain.”

Both Sarah and Nora say they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both wish their Gaza family could visit Israel to eat Bamba and Bissli, the classic Israeli snack foods they love. Both wish they could hop into a cab and drive to Gaza City to eat fish on the coast.

But Sarah says that because of Hamas, because of the war, because of the antagonism born of decades of separation between Israelis and Palestinians, a hopeful future seems less likely than ever. She scoffed at the occasional peace negotiations.

“It’s all nonsense,” she said, then in Yiddish: “Bubbe meises.”

 

From Grizzly Bears to Gaza Rockets: Alaskan olim head for Israel


Rebecca Scoggin lived in a lot of places growing up: Juneau, Nome, Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage. But except for the two years she lived in Seattle after high school, she never lived outside Alaska.

At least she hadn’t until a few months ago. Inspired by a Birthright trip she took at age 19, Scoggin decided to pick up and move to Tel Aviv.

“It was kind of a random decision. There was no real reason for it,” Scoggin, 23, told JTA in a recent phone interview from Anchorage, where she was back visiting family. “I fell in love with Tel Aviv and sun. It’s become more home to me than any other place.”

Scoggin is not your typical immigrant to Israel, and not just because she hails from the 49th state. Scoggin has no family in the Holy Land, hasn’t had much Judaism in her life and has a Christian father. But something drew her to Israel.

“I’m not religious, I grew up celebrating Christmas my whole life, but I do feel that connection to my land,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my Jewishness or if I just like the heat.”

Scoggin is one of several Jews from Alaska immigrating to Israel this year. Among the others making aliyah are a 51-year-old CT scan-MRI technician who wants to get away from the ice; a 51-year-old expert on refugee resettlement who is relocating with her son and Scottish husband; and a 58-year-old former corrections officer and deputy sheriff from Anchorage.

“It’s not every day that we are privileged to take care of new olim from Alaska,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization used by the Israeli government  to handle the logistics of U.S. immigration to Israel. “It’s astounding and inspiring to me that Jews living in a kind of paradise, with a comfortable and luxurious life, are deciding to leave home, work, community and friends to move to the other side of the world — especially these days when Israel is under fire.”

The technician, Donn Ungar, whose aliyah flight left from New York on Monday, says he’s not nervous about going to Israel despite the rocket fire from Gaza.

“It’s crazy over there now, but it doesn’t change my decision at all,” Ungar said. “It’s not a reason not to go there. I know they have wars. I’m going to be a part of Israel and a part of the community. You can’t pick and choose.”

Karen Ferguson, director of the refugee program at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, where she works with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan and Burma, has a similar take. She will be moving to Haifa in August with her 13-year-old son, to be followed in December by her husband, Stewart.

“I don’t think you can pick a time and hope that will be a time of peaceful tranquility in Israel and say that’s when you’re going to move,” Ferguson said. “This is the reality of Israel. We’re going there to immigrate and be part of the country. You have to take the country for all it is — the good and the bad.”

Ferguson’s move will be the latest stop in a lifetime marked, she says, by “a desire for change and adventure.”

After meeting her Scottish, non-Jewish husband in Ohio and marrying in Nova Scotia, Canada, the couple soon moved to the Pacific island nation of Samoa, where their daughter was born. When they moved to Anchorage 17 years ago, they planned to stay just a year or two.

But with good jobs, young kids and a fondness for catching their own wild salmon, they decided to stay put for a while.

Every year the family catches up to 55 pounds of salmon (their legal limit) using dipnet fishing: Stewart affixes a large, circular net to the end of a long pole, then dips it into the ocean where the salmon swim into an inlet. Karen chops off the heads, guts the fish and takes the meat to a facility that turns it into lox and smoked salmon and filets. The family hasn’t had to buy salmon in 15 years, Ferguson says.

But now they’re ready to say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” With their daughter off to college and their son about to start high school, they’re set for a new phase in their lives.

“We’re in this window of opportunity now,” Ferguson said. “We could continue doing what we’re doing or try and do something different. My husband and I decided we really wanted to take on new horizons.”

 

So why Israel?

“I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate it. It’s a place I would love to have lived in and been a part of,” said Ferguson, who has raised her children as Jews, though her husband has not converted.

“There’s just something about Israel that is both dynamic and magnetic. The intellectual and historical experiences when I’m there are very challenging. And for me, I grew up never being around very many Jews. We were a very secular Jewish family. I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. I work for Catholic Social Services. There’s something really appealing for once about being among my own and having the holidays be the Jewish holidays.”

Unlike many immigrants, Ferguson says she’s not necessarily thinking about Israel as a final destination. She will be starting a master’s program in peace and conflict management at Haifa University; her husband will telecommute to his job doing telemedicine for small, rural communities around Alaska.

“We’re going to Israel looking for a connection and a place to be our next home,” she said. “You really can’t predict well whether a place you stay for a while will become your home. Things unfold for you.”

That was how Ungar ended up spending 17 years in Alaska. He decided to move there after falling in love with it while on vacation from Florida, found work quickly and made good friends. But after a brutally cold winter three years ago that never seemed to end, Ungar, who is single, began thinking about an early retirement destination. He wanted someplace simple and inexpensive.

But Israel, where his family unsuccessfully tried living for a few months in 1971 and where Ungar now has a brother and other relatives, kept popping into his head. Ungar went there on a three-week vacation in February and was smitten.

“The energy just felt amazing,” he said. “That’s what brought me to Alaska in the first place — the feeling that this is where I should be at that point in my life. Now I was feeling that for Israel. I’ve learned to listen to that little voice in my head.”

So he contacted aliyah authorities, packed up and got rid of his most prized Alaska possession: a fur bomber jacket. It was the warmest thing he ever owned.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you going?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘I have no idea. It’s just where I’m supposed to be.’”

Uncomfortable seder table talk


We had just closed our haggadahs to begin the dinner portion of the Passover seder when the conversation abruptly, yet not surprisingly, turned to my singlehood.

There is a curiosity to some about a single, childless woman in her early 40s, and a guest at the table, a married mother of three, couldn’t hold hers in. The Four Questions all single women of a certain age know by heart were about to begin:

“You’ve never been married?” the woman asked as the youngest of her three children tugged on her sleeve and she sat him on her lap.

“No,” I responded, hoping my frank, curt answer would shorten the conversation.

No luck.

“Were you ever engaged?” she continued, as if, at the very least, a broken engagement might validate my ability to commit and marry, or to be loved and desired.

“No,” I said, now with a bitter taste in my mouth.

“But you want kids, right?” she asked pointedly, while cradling her son in her arms, as if I didn’t know that it’s easier to become a mother when you have a potential father for those potential children.

“I’ve always wanted children,” I replied. “Very much.” She had no idea of the amount of salty tears I’ve cried over my childlessness, I thought to myself.

My new friend refastened the yarmulke on her son’s head, reminding me of the expectations of a Jewish woman to bear Jewish children. She looked up at me with the final question:

“So, is it you or is it them?” She wanted to know who was to blame, but I wouldn’t take the bait.

“It just hasn’t happened yet.” I said. “It’s no one’s fault.”

I know this is true. Childlessness at a later age is a growing trend in America, and certainly among Jewish women. Nearly 50 percent of American women are childless, up from 35 percent a generation ago in 1976. Jewish women are more likely than the average American woman to remain single and childless until their mid-30s.

That’s because Jewish women are also more likely to have a college degree, and, like most college-educated American women, we are more likely to marry later. And just like our non-Jewish peers, we are also more likely to become mothers only once married — or at least living with our partner.

I never expected I’d be one of those who wouldn’t marry during my most fertile years. And while I hold no judgment on those who marry outside of Judaism, it was always a deal-breaker for me. Jewish women carry the Jewish babies, and we carry the Jewish guilt of keeping our heritage going.

Those of us, among the most well-educated, most financially independent Jewish women, who remain single and childless as our fertile years wane, are often made to feel like we’ve broken a promise to all Jews. It is our mandate: Get married to a Jewish man and have Jewish children. The unwritten promise of our having children works both ways; we expected it to happen, and others expect it of us.

Back at the seder table, the married mother still wasn’t satisfied; there must be a reason I haven’t lived up to my end of the deal.

“Were you too focused on your career?” she asked.

“I have to work, of course,” I told her, adding that I always found time for meeting men and dating. “Besides, we women are pretty good multitaskers,” I said, nodding toward the seder hostess, a married mom who is also a partner at her law firm.

“Then you must be picky,” the woman insisted. “There is no such thing as Prince Charming, you know.”

“It’s enough, dear,” her husband said, perhaps wondering if his wife thought she hadn’t been very picky in choosing him. I thought it gallant of him to try to save me from his wife’s inquisition.

“I just think that if a woman is smart and attractive, she should be married and have children,” she argued, like I was no longer in the room. Turning back to me, she added: “I’m sure you have lots of dates. I hope you find one you can settle down with soon.”

“I promise,” I said, just happy we were done. But my promise wasn’t for her. It was for me. I promise to never settle to settle down. Love isn’t a gift for those who deserve it, but a reward for those who wait for it. And while the unmarried, childless woman of a certain age waits for the right relationship, she isn’t waiting for life to happen to her. She finds great meaning in her beautiful, gratifying life of other things.

Despite all my good intentions and efforts, I may never make it to the Promised Land of motherhood. And while that promise may be broken, I never will be.

Love and marriage is a promise I will always keep for myself. And as I look out over the future, I see it waiting for me there. 

Confessions of an ex-hoarder


I’ve run out of excuses for hanging on to stuff.

No, I haven’t achieved Zen non-attachment to material things, but I’m no longer on the road to “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”

It was easiest to get rid of the piles of unread magazines.  Those now get the heave-ho every few months.  The fear that had made me their custodian, which I’d confused with the theoretical pleasure I’d have when I’d eventually read them, was the chance I’d miss something important.  The reality, it turns out, is that if I do overlook some essential, or just juicy, journalism, I’ll hear about it from a friend, or online, and saving a link to it for reading later, even if later never comes, requires no real estate from my non-virtual life.

Clothes were harder to let go.  I didn’t really believe that wide ties would come back, or that someday I’d be glad I saved those tap shoes (don’t ask).  But it was easy for me to mistake my closet for a scrapbook, to treat old clothes like souvenirs of where, when and who I was when I got them. When that happens now, I remind myself that if I’m warehousing something I haven’t touched for years in order to keep alive the guy who once wore it, it’s less punishing to put a selfie of it on my hard drive than to be sentenced to a lifetime of curating my personal wardrobe museum. 

Book-hoarder has been an even tougher role to jailbreak.  It’s intellectually respectable to have your own library.  I love looking at all those spines on all those shelves; they map the cultural journey I’ve taken, and no Kindle can duplicate that experience.  But shelving books three-deep, which I’d been reduced to, was a labor of guilt, not love.  I still can’t throw books away; it feels sinful, even if I didn’t like them, even if I never have or will read them.  But I’ve learned that I can drop off cartons of books at the local public library with a perfectly clear conscience.  If they end up in a dumpster, my hands are clean.

But these were all baby steps.  My big problem, the ball I’ve chained myself to for decades, is the stack of boxes, currently numbering 33, in my garage.  Every move I’ve made – from my parents’ home, to dorm rooms, to apartments and houses and homes of my own – has included the fiction that it’ll be easier to deal with those multiplying cardboard boxes at the other end, when I unpack.  Of course, I never do. 

At first, it was just mail that I saved.  When I was a kid, getting a letter was as unusual, though for different reasons, as it is today.  I loved mail.  Corresponding with someone beyond the bounds of my family bunker was evidence of my growing autonomy, a validation of my nascent identity.  I could no more throw letters away than I could toss a Kodachrome in the trash.  Yes, I saved pictures, too.  And postcards.  And comic books, baseball cards, Mad magazines, geometry projects, ticket stubs, lists of books I’d read and places I wanted to go – anything that testified to my existence.

In college, I couldn’t bear to throw away the spiral notebooks I had filled so carefully with notes, not to mention the course catalogues, term papers, student publications that ran what I wrote, calendars, address books, I.D. cards. Travel added new categories of ephemera to save – odd matchbooks, cool baggage tags, train schedules, hostel receipts, shells from Greek islands and sand from Israeli deserts.  I don’t think it was OCD; it was proof of my cosmopolitanism, and prophylaxis against amnesia.

Once in the work world, it was effortless to justify the files I kept amassing.  Those pieces of paper made up a personal archive, priceless material for the memoirs I’d one day write and the biographies that would doubtless be written about me.  Surely future historians would be grateful for the 18 drafts of Vice President Mondale’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, the relentless pre-production script notes I wrote on “Three Men and a Baby,” the letters I got from baffled friends and newfound fans when Time published a piece I wrote in praise of mysticism. 

It’s a wonder I was able confine this monument to me to 33 boxes. 

Today I’m on the road to recovery.  Marvels like document scanning and cloud storage are enabling my rehab, and though I suppose there’s still the risk that I might turn Dropbox into my digital garage, I’m now throwing away more stuff than I’m converting to PDFs.  But it isn’t technology that’s motivated my self-intervention, or the panic of seeing myself in the mirror of a Discovery Channel hoarding show.  It’s the freedom I’ve given myself to entertain some humbling thoughts.

The truth is that pretty much no one is going to need this stuff I’ve saved, least of all me.  I’m not going to use the 1978 White House phone directory to recall the names that will trigger the anecdotes that will make Chapter 4 of my hypothetical memoir sing.  (Those 18 drafts, though, are going to the Minnesota Historical Society.)  Shakespeare’s tax records may be gold, and Ben Franklin’s juvenilia may inspire entire dissertations, but the list of dishes I ate on my first trip to Italy are biographically fascinating to no one.  The day when I finally have the time to savor the call sheets of the first movie I wrote will likely also be the day I’m evaluated for dementia.  Maybe, out of all the mail I’ve hoarded, there’s a way to reconstruct who I was then to the person who wrote it, but I’d rather give those packets of letters back to their authors – which I’ve actually begun doing – than disappear down the forensic rabbit hole of reading them.

There’s no mystery why I’ve saved so much stuff: to prove that I’m alive, that I’m someone, that my trail on this earth is worth preserving.  My fear of letting go of those boxes is the fear of mortality, the fear of not having become worthy enough to investigate and document.  What’s taken me too long to recognize is that the present moment is more than enough time to manifest and appreciate that worth; that its measure is not what some stranger may someday find riveting; that its meaning and poignancy derive not from the fear of death, but the love of life. 


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Writing your perfect wedding speech


You’re getting married! He finally popped the question: “Will you sign the prenup here and here?”  

Oh, and he asked The Big One, too. Since you said yes, Vera Wang has been gowning, Jimmy Choo, shoeing. Mothers have been kvelling. Daddies have been liquidating portfolios — and that’s just for the cake.    

Now you have to write your speech. And you want it to be worthy of your sparkling day. Here are a few suggestions that never miss.   

Dig for original thoughts, not what the rest of the world has already recycled. Aren’t you more special than that? Surely you don’t want your speeches clogged up with clichés. 

Don’t expect your remarks to pop out whole and perfect in 10 minutes. Start jotting down notes. In those notes, make a list of things you might want to include. Like a grocery list. Don’t cross anything out. Save it all. There are no wrong answers. You can choose the best items later; now you’re just scribbling down ideas and feelings. 

On your “grocery list,” instead of “linguini, zucchini, scaloppine and gum,” you might write, “Just thinking about you makes me happy.” Then start a new page for all the reasons you’re honored to be your fiancé’s life partner. After that, tell a story or two about your courtship, and you’ve already got a good start on your wedding speech. See?   

Procrastinating is normal. Even with everything you do to avoid writing, the warm-up is part of any creative process. Each warm-up is different. While you’re doing it, you will feel completely nuts. But you aren’t.    

As an example, here’s what I do. While getting ready to write, I go shoe shopping, take long walks, devour candy corn (Brach’s brand only), lock my phones in the trunk and grab my writing ritual stuff: a blue glass of water, a second chair on which I rest my right foot, and Post-its saying “I can do it I can do it I can do it” that I hang around my computer monitor. Next, I roll my shoulders backward and forward, stretch my jaw six times, and finally type something silly, like, “If Brad Pitt divorced Angelina Jolie and begged me to marry him on Wilshire Boulevard in rush hour traffic, I’d have to say no because I love you and…”

At that point, I actually have something on paper, and I’m playing with the words, instead of clobbering any syllable that isn’t perfect. I revise and revise and revise. Eventually, something clicks in my gut saying I’m finished.      

Here are five additional tips for writing your wedding speech.   

• Start early. Don’t wait until the flowers flop over before you commit quality time to what you want to say. As soon as that ring is on your finger, set aside five minutes a day.       

• Practice. Once your speech is finished, rehearsing will help you relax. Honest.  

• Be brief. This is about love, not a debate on health care.     

• Say what you feel, what only you can say because nobody but you is you.         

• Be a little funny, a little teary, and finish on a happy note.  

To show you the importance of choosing every word carefully, I was contacted many years ago by The Hershkowitz (not his real name). He had already asked a remarkable lady to marry him, twice, and got “no way” both times. So he asked me to write his marriage proposal.         

I did. She said yes. He and Julie have been married 27 years.                                 

Now the pressure of the proposal is behind you and your fiancé. And as you approach your wedding, you have all the tools to be sure that somewhere inside you there’s a basket of beautiful words from which to choose just the right syllables for your one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime wedding speech.


Molly-Ann Leikin is an executive speechwriter and Emmy nominee living in Santa Monica. Her Web site is anythingwithwords.com.

Family problems? Turn to Genesis


If you have family problems, there is a book that can provide a good deal of consolation. That book, you might be surprised to learn, is the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.

Genesis makes it abundantly clear that you are not alone, that what we now call dysfunctional families are the norm, not the exception. Every family in that biblical book is deeply troubled. 

Let’s begin with the first family, that of Adam and Eve. Adam defends (to God, no less) his eating from the forbidden tree by blaming his wife: “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Adam blaming his spouse for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden would be bad enough. But things get worse: One of their two sons, Cain, kills the other, Abel.

The next family is that of Noah, the one righteous man of his generation. After leaving the ark, the youngest of his three sons, Ham, does something very wrong to him while Noah is in a drunken stupor: He “saw the nakedness of his father.  … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.”

The next family is that of Abraham. His marriage to Sarah is fraught with tension, especially after the birth of his two children, Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah had given her servant, Hagar, to Abraham to impregnate so as to give Sarah a child. After Hagar became pregnant, “she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai [Sarah’s original name] tells Abraham, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”

So Sarah finally demands that Abraham eject Hagar and Ishmael from their home, and “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.” 

Finally, after Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, his son with Sarah, he and his wife separate forever. This was pointed out to me by a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi, the late Pinchas Peli.

He was right. After nearly sacrificing Isaac, “Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.”

Just five verses later, Genesis informs us that Sarah “died at Kiriath Arba — that is, Hebron — in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.”

In other words, Abraham and Sarah went to live in separate cities and never spoke to one another again.

The next family is Isaac’s. He and his wife, Rebecca, were deeply upset by their older son Esau’s choice of two Hittite wives: “They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.”

Then, in old age, Rebecca and the younger twin, Jacob, plot to trick the now-blind Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob rather than to Esau. When Esau learns of the deception, Esau said to himself, “I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Later on, Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying Laban’s older daughter Leah, rather than Rachel, the younger daughter for whom Jacob had worked seven years. Laban forces Jacob into working for him another seven years in order to marry Rachel.

After Leah repeatedly gives birth, tension builds between Jacob and Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

Finally Rachel gives birth to Joseph, but that only creates a terrible rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, because their father, Jacob, “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.”

The brothers plot to kill Joseph, but instead decide to sell him as a slave and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Upon seeing the bloodied robe, Jacob became inconsolable: “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” 

Why does Genesis portray every one of its families as dysfunctional? 

First, because they were. The Hebrew Bible is painfully honest about the Jews generally and about the heroes of the Jewish people specifically — the patriarchs, the matriarchs and later about Moses, Aaron, King David, etc.  (This self-critical honesty — unique among the world’s religious texts — is a primary reason I believe in the veracity of the Torah.)

Second, to show us that even great men and women have family problems.

And third, to make it clear that family pain and tragedy are the human norm, not the exception.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

High Holy Days: Sharing the love, handling the holidays


Every day in my office, I see parents, embittered by divorce and so grateful to finally be physically and legally apart from a partner they once loved and now hate, struggling to co-parent and jointly make decisions about their children.

Every day, adults who once loved each other so much that they promised to stay together until the end of time storm into my office, dragging behind them children dejected and battered by Mom and Dad’s rage toward each other.

The out-of-control battles parents wage over raising children after divorce leave deep and dangerous open wounds and scars on their children long after the parents have moved on, making their children the real casualties of that war. I see these wounds every day in the children who come into my office. Their grades have plummeted. They act out at school and on the ball field. They are angry or sad. Their physicians raise red flags. Their teachers are concerned. I see children, emotionally and behaviorally hurt by the war between their parents, trying frantically to create stability as their world changes too quickly for them to keep up — and so they fall.

Handling the holidays creates tremendous conflicts in families of divorce. Differences in religious beliefs and observances, demands of extended families and commitments to new relationships all serve to increase the conflicts between separated parents.

There are several different approaches to managing holidays. Sometimes parents alternate years. For others, if the child spends Rosh Hashanah with Father, then she spends Passover seder with Mother that year. Other times, parents prefer to divide up the significant days — Rosh Hashanah with Mother until 3 p.m. and then with Father after 3 p.m. This allows the child to celebrate each holiday with both families. To ensure that domestic law attorneys remain well employed in interpreting documents, both approaches are sometimes combined, alternating years and alternating times. A third approach, especially popular with parents of younger children, may be to try to spend holidays together, believing that maintaining family traditions are better for their children. 

In examining which approach might be the best for the children, one must explore the key factors that influence the impact of divorce on children. 

The co-parenting relationship rests on three broad principles that guide parents after divorce to promote positive growth and development in their children. First, research confirms that children of divorce do better if they maintain positive, meaningful, real and consistent relationships with both of their parents. What parents consider equal parenting means nothing to the child. 

Second, the parental relationship has to be as free of conflict as possible. Both parents are still the child’s parents, and they must model conflict-free parenting. 

Third, parents must work to assure that both parents are actively involved in the life of the child and making decisions for the child. Children are hurt by the divorce, but they are far more damaged by how parents behave following the separation. And one of the biggest sources of that pain is the difficulty parents have in making decisions, or in simply being together at important times of the children’s lives.

The bottom line is that when adults fight — and when they cannot together effectively set consistent boundaries, rules and expectations that will allow active and meaningful relationships with both parents — the child suffers.

The key is flexibility and responsiveness to the child.  

The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?


When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.

A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.

“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.

“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”

In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.

In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.

That’s true from the Reform movement to Chabad, with the exception of some haredi Orthodox. Where the denominations differ is how far one may go in that embrace, and how strongly — if at all — to push for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

At Orthodox synagogues, non-Jews cannot ascend to the bimah, and many synagogues go so far as to deny certain ritual roles to Jews married to non-Jews.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism leaves it to the discretion of its member synagogues to set the rules on how to treat non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the association’s executive vice president, says conversion of the non-Jewish spouse should be a goal. The only question is tactical — how and when to bring it up.

“Do you have the conversation about conversion first, or do you welcome them in and then have the conversation about conversion?” Wernick said. “You build the relationship first and then you have the conversation.”

In the Reform movement, there is some question about the significance of formal conversion.

“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has advocated a vision for the movement as a big tent with the flaps wide open.

“He’s living in the Jewish community. He’s trying on Jewish commitments,” Jacobs said. “Conversion can’t be the only thing we talk about, but it also should not be off the table. We’d be delighted to have people join the Jewish people.”

Perhaps more than anything, the shift in attitudes has changed the conventional view of intermarriage as a net loss to the Jewish community, in the form of the out-marrying Jew, to a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.

“Once you’ve intermarried, it doesn’t mean you’ve left the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

“As times go on, we have to constantly evaluate what is the best response,” he said. “Given that it happens, what’s the best way for the community to approach it? The last thing we’d want that person to do is to throw everything away just because they’re intermarried.”

Poem: Grandchild


Elohai, neshama….

I take her to the park, I swing her in the little swing
Help her on the slide, lotion her face and arms against the sun
She runs around in her little bluejeans

The sun is getting higher, as it does every morning
The game now is for me to chase her
The air is dusty and warm

My God the soul you gave me is pure
When another child comes into the playground
She points excitedly and shouts: baby!


From “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). Reprinted by permission of the author.  Alicia Ostriker has published 14 volumes of poetry. She received the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2010 and has appeared in numerous Jewish literary journals and anthologies.

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper


It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

A mitzvah called shmooze


In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Yom HaShoah: An eternal nation, bound together by our faith


A few months after my bar mitzvah, my father disappeared.

We didn’t know what had happened to him.

In our apartment in Budapest, there was a couch under the window and I would stand on it day after day looking into the street, watching, waiting for my father to appear.

In a way, I waited for almost 50 years.

In all that time, I never forgot him.

Even in my dreams.

As I slept, I would feel him bending over me.

And I would wake relieved that he was there … and then confused that he wasn’t.

I had this dream on and off for almost 50 years.

It was only when my family found out what happened to him that the dreams stopped.

Once I knew what happened, I wanted to do something.

I wanted to honor his memory. 

But mostly, I wanted to stand in the place where he perished to see if I could feel him.

So here I am, with all of you in Birkenau.

I know he was also here, under this same sky.

Just like almost half a million Hungarian Jews, he came to this place in a wagon, and almost immediately after arriving, disappeared as smoke into this sky

I was 13 when I lost my father and now I am 82 and, you know, I still miss him.

To the young people here today, I want to say that your mother and father always matter — even when you get to my age.

And honoring your parents matters very much while they are alive — and when they are no longer with us.

I still feel the loss of my father, but there is something I have gained.

You see, there were things about him that i did not know. 

I knew he was a good man, a good father, a religious Jew who believed in God.

He worked as a travelling salesman and he was modest.

I never realized that he had strength — the spiritual strength — to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau.

No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin.

They could break his body but they could not break his spirit.

The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with god and he was ready to die for them.

And he did.

He did so in front of others who knew what was in his little bag and who tried to stop him from protecting it.

In front of all his people, he fought for his faith with a spiritual courage I never knew he had.

You see, my father was an ordinary man.

But in extra-ordinary times, people do extra-ordinary things, if they have it in them in the first place — well,  he certainly did.

Hugo’s legacy lives on in four generations. Besides me,  three grandsons and a great-granddaughter represent them here today.

Also here today are two people who are important to my father’s story.

Allan Lowy, who you just saw on the film, is the son of Meyer Lowy who witnessed what happened to my father and told us about it.

Meyer Lowy was not a relative but grew close to my father on this journey and lived to tell the story.

And Dr. Roland Huser, from Germany, is also here with us.

We found the wagon at his museum and he gave it to us to restore and place it here in Birkenau.

Three years ago when the wagon was brought here, I had the privilege to place my own tallis and tefillin in the wagon, to replace those torn from my father’s hands.

For me, this helps to heal the brokenness of the past.

Some two centuries ago, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev taught, “If you believe the world can be broken, then know that it can also be fixed.”

Fixing means understanding what happened, healing the pain, and building a better future.

The Nazi’s wanted not only to destroy the physical presence of the Jewish people, but to wipe us out spiritually as well, and leave no trace.

But look at us here today.

Perhaps all those Hungarian Jews, including my father, who disappeared into this sky are looking down on us today.

They see how young, how strong, and how full of promise you are.

They see how the plan to break and crush us, has made us stronger.

Throughout history, others have tried to destroy us as a nation but none have succeeded.

We are an eternal nation, bound together by our faith.

Am yisroel chai!


Frank Lowy, co-founder of the Westfield group, delivered this speech at the March of the Living ceremony held April 8, 2013 in Auschwitz, Poland.  The ceremony honored his father, Hugo Lowy, who was murdered in the concentration camp.  The speech followed a six minute film entitled, “Spiritual Resistance” which tells the story of Hugo Lowy. The video begins at 1:11.

Newtown temple opens fund for family of Noah Pozner


Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, was remembered at his funeral as a child who liked to explore how things worked mechanically.

Monday afternoon's funeral for Noah, a Jewish boy who turned 6 in late November, was the first among the 26 victims of Friday's massacre at the school in Newtown, Conn. The Associated Press reported on memories of Noah's inquisitiveness about things mechanical.

Teddy bears and a bouquet of white flowers accented by a single red rose were placed at the base of a maple tree outside the Abraham L. Green and Son Funeral Home in Fairfield, Conn., Fox News reported.

In advance of the funeral, the family's synagogue began collecting money for the Pozners.

[Related: Funerals begin for Newtown victims as schools confront tragedy]

Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown, Conn., posted a notice on its website announcing that it was accepting money to help support the Pozners “during this terrible time.” It also recommended two charities for the other victims: United Way of Western Connecticut and Everribbon.com.

Among the messages of condolence pouring in for the victims of the school shooting were letters from Israeli leaders.

“On behalf of the people of Israel, as friends and as parents, we stand with you today in contemplation and grief over the atrocious, incomprehensible massacre of 20 children and six adults — educators — at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote to President Obama. “No experience with death can be likened to that of a parents’ loss of their child. No crime is more heinous than the killing of a child.”

Twenty children and six school employees were killed when Adam Lanza, 20, forced his way into the school building and opened fire. Lanza killed himself at the school.

Prior to the school shootings, Lanza, who had attended the Sandy Hook school, killed his mother, Nancy, in the Newtown home they shared.

Chanukah models of courage


My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Life in Southern Israel on hold during Gaza situation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Single Peeps: Rick S.


At 48, Rick is a happy guy. He likes life. He likes smiling. He’s also a bit irritating to be around when you’re exhausted and barely have enough strength to open your eyes after a blink because you’ve been up all night with a cranky 5-month-old and a 2-year-old who’s having night terrors that she can’t explain but that have something to do with tap shoes, swimming and some Spanish words she picked up from the nanny. But I can’t blame Rick. He drove all the way from Simi Valley to meet me, and he seems like good peeps.

Rick’s a family physician who spent years as a traveling doctor. “It was really fun meeting a lot of different people, and you know it was kind of neat to just jump into a new lifestyle — different town, different people. I kind of thrived at it, because I love learning about new people and getting new life experiences. I’m really interested in learning about other people’s experiences and trying to build on learning more about life.

“The downside of that was I was living away from my home base and [wasn’t] able to establish any long-term relationships. I traveled a lot with this Jewish singles group called Amazing Journeys — they do cruises and trips all over the world. I’ve met and made a lot of friends from all over the U.S. But it’s time to meet that right girl that I can enjoy traveling [with] to new places.”

Rick’s an extrovert but says he’s not used to talking about himself. “I’m used to getting to know the person that I meet,” he says. Rick lived in Spain after college and became fluent in Spanish, which comes in handy at work. “I became a family doctor rather than a specialist because I like talking to people. I’m very busy because I give my patients time. [I’m] conscientious, compassionate and I’ve enjoyed taking care of different generations of families over the years. I love what I do. I take it seriously, but I also know how to enjoy life when I’m off. I go to conferences and take classes to stay current because I pride myself on taking the best care of my patients.”

He wants a woman in her 30s to early 40s — “Family oriented because I’m close with my family. Looking to have kids in the future. I would like to meet someone who likes to take care of herself and is interested in starting a mature, possibly long-lasting relationship. When I go on those single sites, I don’t click on any girl who’s not smiling. It’s just one of my pet peeves. I’m done traveling with work; I’m staying local and actually just bought my first house. But I’d always love a female perspective on interior decorating. I love dancing. I’ve taken swing and salsa classes, and on my singles trips I’m usually the one out on the floor dancing. I love dogs. I don’t own one yet, but I am considering that. I almost became a veterinarian but I decided on becoming a people doctor because they could tell me where it hurts.”

Rick tells me a story about a date that didn’t work. But they became friends, “which I’m always a fan of.”  He likes to be liked. He tells me he doesn’t discuss politics “in mixed crowds.” I’m not sure what that means but I assume he means among acquaintances. While talking, he uses the term “BS” instead of the more colorful curse word. I ask him if he’s always careful about his language. He says, “I have a pretty easygoing temper. I lose it every once in awhile … not in mixed crowds. That’s not who I really am.” 


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife two children. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

 

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


[SAT SEPT 29]

MUSEUM DAY LIVE!

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


[SUN SEPT 30]

 SUKKOT PICNIC

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

11TH ANNUAL WEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK FAIR

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


[MON OCT 1]

“VOICES UNITED”

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


[TUE OCT 2]

MAC MILLER

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


[THU OCT 4]

“IS ALTRUISM A WONDER DRUG?”

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

“RECOVERED VOICES”

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

 

“UNAUTHORIZED: THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN PROJECT”

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

‘The Ariela Foundation’: A family in grief chooses life


In July, Ivonne Goldberg was at the park with her 3-year-old son, Mikey, and with Nofar Mekonen, a sunny 14-year-old girl visiting from Israel. Nofar was chatting on and on about her trip to Los Angeles, her family, her school.  

“Where did you get your English?” Ivonne asked her, amazed at Nofar’s fluency. 

“It’s thanks to Ariela that I have this English,” Nofar answered.

Ivonne’s heart swelled hearing Nofar’s answer.

Nofar was referring to the Ariela Foundation, an organization that helps highly motivated and gifted young Israelis of Ethiopian origin, like Nofar, get the extra support and guidance they need to thrive. The Ariela Foundation provides Nofar with English and math tutoring, as well as science enrichment and a mentor. 

The foundation is named for Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg’s daughter, who died in a drowning accident five years ago, when she was 19 months old.

When Nofar, or the 60 other young people being aided by the foundation, talk about how Ariela has helped them, they usually use just the girl’s name, not “The Ariela Foundation.” And each time the Goldbergs hear what Ariela has accomplished, Ivonne and Daniel feel empowered and proud, knowing that their daughter, who brought so much joy to their lives, is still affecting others in a positive way. 

Daniel’s brother, Eric, runs the Ariela Foundation from Israel, and Daniel and Ivonne spend considerable hours working for Ariela US, an independent nonprofit that raises funds to support Ariela’s programs. 

“When you go through such a difficult experience, you of course reassess your priorities,” Daniel said. “The desire to do something good to express your loss in a positive way becomes very strong. We heard about using all those feelings as a motor for change, to express your loss by helping others,” Daniel said.

[For more on the Ariela Foundation, read 'Ivonne and Daniel Goldberg said they were open to all paths of healing after the June 2007 accident.

For those who might think, “I could never go on after something like that,” the Goldbergs offer an example of how to go on.

With depth and spirit, Daniel and Ivonne, and their children, Ilan, Talia and Michael — ages 15, 12 and 3 — have worked to heal themselves, and in the process they have become an inspiration to the friends, family and communities that surround them (among whom I count myself).

They have not denied their pain or hidden from it. But, at the same time, they have chosen to live. And through that choice they have affirmed their belief in their marriage and their family, they have turned to God and to people, and they have learned how to be joyous. 

They have asserted that life is stronger than death, that giving is stronger than what was taken from them.

On Yom Kippur, when tradition demands that we examine how we live, the Goldberg family is a model for how circumstances — even nightmarish circumstances — don’t have to upend guiding convictions that are backed by unwavering values. 

“We heard that a very difficult or tragic experience can have a strong effect, and it can be either positive or negative. Families can either split apart or grow together,” Daniel said, holding the hand of his wife as they sat on their living-room couch on a recent morning. “So we made an immediate decision that we were going to go through this together and become stronger as a family — in memory of our daughter and for all of us. And making that decision was very important, because it directs your actions toward that goal.”

They said they were willing to try anything anyone suggested that might make them whole again — therapy, support groups, prayer, yoga, spiritual counseling, charity, community support. 

 “One of the things we heard, but it takes a long time to understand, is that you can be both happy and sad at the same time, and being very sad doesn’t prevent you from expressing happiness,” said Daniel, 50, a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about Crypto-Jews in Mexico and the Southwest United States —  people who retained traditions although their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism centuries ago.

The Goldbergs are originally from Mexico City. They moved to Toronto in 2003 and to Los Angeles in 2005 — just a few months before Ariela was born.  Ivonne, 44, is a clinical psychologist who worked in schools and private practice before she stopped working to care for her family.

“It makes me feel very happy to talk about Ariela,” Ivonne said.

She holds a small stack of Ariela’s baby books and albums on her lap.

She flips open a calendar titled “Our New Baby Daughter,” in which she meticulously documented small milestones in Ariela’s life on pink-polka-dot framed pages, starting with Ariela’s birth in November 2005.

Ariela had her mother’s big brown eyes and springy curls, and a spark that brought immense joy to the whole family. 

“She loved music,” Daniel said. “From the moment she was able to stand up, she started to dance whenever there was any type of music.”

Ariela and Talia, who was 6 when Ariela was born, shared a room, and Ivonne would often open the door in the morning to find them snuggling together in the crib. Ivonne had always wanted Talia to have a sister.

Ivonne thumbs through the books and albums as she talks, wearing the wistful smile of a mother who knows she’ll never get back those early days. Sometimes the tears flow, especially when she talks about the two sisters together.

“I got some very good advice in the beginning. Someone told me if the pain comes, let it be, and it will pass. Don’t resist it,” Ivonne said. “That was very wise.”

On a Thursday in June 2007, Ariela fell into the pool in the family’s Beverlywood backyard. She lived for four days in the hospital connected to life support. 

Through that blur of days, the Goldberg’s school and synagogue communities converged in the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center waiting room, holding prayer vigils, bringing food and keeping the family company. Friends and family flew in from Canada, Mexico and Israel. Ivonne talked to Ariela constantly, and Ilan and Talia hung drawings in her room and sang to her.

But although one doctor said he had seen miracles in these kinds of cases, most doctors offered little hope. The whole family came to say goodbye when it was clear she would not survive.

Daniel remembers vividly what Ilan, then 10, said to his sister.

“Ariela, you are going to go up to heaven, and you are going to be very close to God,” Daniel recalled, speaking through tears. “And in heaven, you are going to meet the souls of great people. You’re going to meet the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and you are going to meet the soul of Moshe. Please thank them for giving us the Torah.”

Talia, 8, showered her sister in kisses.

“We’re going to give you many, many kisses,” she told her sister, “so you can take them with you, and keep them very close to your heart, and every time you miss us, you can take one of these kisses and put it on your heart,” Daniel remembered.

“It is hard to describe in words,” Daniel said. “We were devastated. We felt this emptiness, this void that nothing could ever fill. But at the same time, we knew we had to be strong for our two older kids. Friends told us, ‘You have to be strong. You have to continue living and get up for your children. They will help you. Taking care of them will help you.’ ”

The house teemed with visitors during the shivah, the seven-day mourning period. Many had advice that Ivonne and Daniel couldn’t absorb at the time but came back to later.

“One piece of advice we heard was that only God brings consolation. And we understood that God brings consolation through people,” Daniel recalls. The Goldberg kids attend Pressman Academy, and they are members of Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea. Both communities stepped in with tremendous support and deep friendship, Ivonne said.

Particularly helpful were visitors — strangers, mostly — who had themselves lost children. 

One visitor had lost his daughter about 10 years before. He said he thought of his pain as a sheet of paper. “Sometimes he folds it up neatly and puts it in his pocket. It’s still there, but it’s all folded up. And sometimes he opens it up if he has to,” Daniel said. “He said there is always something that brings up the pain, so you have to accept it, but then you are able to fold it back up and put it in a different compartment.”

Perspective often came from unexpected sources, such as Ilan.

“One person during shivah came to us and said, ‘I’m sorry something so bad happened to you.’ And Ilan was sitting on the armrest next to me, and he immediately reacted. He said, ‘How do you know it’s bad? It’s very sad, but not necessarily bad,’ ” Daniel recalls. “That was an amazing thought.”

Ivonne surrounded herself with strong women. In the hospital she asked women to pray, and during shivah and for months after, she invited family and friends to sit with her.

Sometimes they sang, prayed or studied Torah. But for Ivonne, the main thing was their presence.

 “It was very scary to me to be alone with my loss. I needed people around me, and women especially inspired me. I needed to see them close to me,” she said.

The days right after shivah were the hardest. 

“There was a woman who had lost her son. And I called her a few days after shivah, and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’ And she came right over, and I remember her standing by my bed, and just for me to see her — she had lost a son in a very similar way, at a very similar age, and I could identify with her. And she was standing and she was strong,” Ivonne said.

She remembers wondering whether she could walk Talia into day camp. But she did. Later, they sent Ilan to Camp Ramah, as planned, and they went to Israel as a family.

“Much advice was given to us in shivah, and one was to take care of your marriage,” Ivonne said. “And I decided that was my No. 1 priority.”

In counseling, they learned how to respect  one another’s different ways of grieving. They learned to express themselves and to listen. 

“I remember thinking, I lost Ariela, I cannot lose anyone else in my life,” Ivonne said. 

They attended a retreat for bereaved parents through Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports families with seriously ill children. They are still friends with some of the parents they met there.

“We had all of this inside of us and we had to let it out by all means available,” Ivonne said. 

After checking with rabbis, Daniel decided to say the Kaddish mourners’ prayer for a full year, not the customary one month. Ivonne remembers absorbing the power of the congregation the first time she said Yizkor, on Yom Kippur. 

“God gave us a lot of strength and faith, and that was and continues to be one of the ways in which we have been able to cope,” Daniel said. “We believe in the afterlife and in the soul, and that is part of what gives us faith.”

A few months after the accident, the Beverly Hills Moms Club, a group Ivonne and Ariela had belonged to, sponsored a backyard benefit concert in Ariela’s memory. 

For what would have been Ariela’s second birthday, in November 2007, the Goldbergs sponsored a birthday party at a low-income school, bringing in cake, a magic show and presents.

On the first anniversary of her passing, her yahrzeit, the Goldbergs hosted a Saturday afternoon get-together at B’nai David, which they called Shirat Ariela (Ariela’s Song), to thank the Beth Am and B’nai David communities and leaders. 

Because it was Shabbat, there were no instruments, and the Goldbergs had designated some friends to lead soulful singing for the hundreds of guests.

“We had no idea what was going to happen. The singing was so beautiful, and suddenly the kids began to move and to crawl and to dance, and then we were all dancing and it was beautiful. It was a simcha, and we were celebrating life, and that we were together,” Ivonne said. 

The Ariela Foundation was established about a year after Ariela died. Many people donated money after the accident and asked the Goldbergs to designate a charity.

They opened a donor-advised fund at the Jewish Community Foundation with the $10,000 that had come in. They made some initial distributions, mostly for children in hospitals, but still wanted a long-term project. At the same time, Daniel’s brother, Eric, who has lived in Israel for more than 20 years and works in international marketing and business development, had been thinking about doing something to give back. He established the foundation in Ariela’s memory and is its volunteer director. About a year later, Daniel and Ivonne established Ariela US.

The visit this summer from Nofar Mekonen and Aviva Dese, 24, an aspiring young singer also being helped by the Ariela Foundation, marked the first time Daniel and Ivonne made such a public appeal for the foundation, and to them it felt right to bring in the community that had so supported them. 

There was also one piece of advice that Ivonne resisted. People told her that true healing would happen if she had another baby.

“I didn’t want more kids. She was a miracle, she was perfect,” Ivonne said. “It was so hard for me to hear the idea that one baby could replace another baby. It made me very angry.”

But, slowly, Daniel warmed to the idea and over time Ivonne began to hear him.

“I remember thinking, I trust you, and I need to trust you because I want to survive, and I want to live again,” Ivonne said.

Michael was born on March 3, 2009.

Ivonne said that her commitment to Talia and Ilan was what initially made her want to live again, and Mikey’s birth brought in new energy.

“Every single minute with Michael has been like a remedy for each one of us. One hundred percent. I think that is what is behind everyone saying, ‘Have another baby’ — it brings the force of life back into your life,” Ivonne said.

The family tells Mikey all about the sister he never knew. He associates bubbles with Ariela, because the family has a stash of bubble bottles from memorial events.

The Goldbergs have also kept Ariela as a living presence in their family through photos and stories.

“She continues to be our daughter even though she is no longer here physically, and we love her as much as we love each one of our children,” Daniel said.

On Ariela’s yahrzeit this year, Ilan chanted a portion of Torah at Camp Ramah in her honor, and his friends stood up with him when he said Kaddish.

Talia keeps a big picture of her sister right on her desk. Ivonne said just looking at Talia brings Ariela back to her.

It’s on Friday nights that Ariela is most present with the family.

Ariela used to love the rituals before the Shabbat meal, in particular the hand washing, and always chimed in with “amen.” So, they look at a picture of her on the wall by the sink and remember her amens. And every Friday night, when Daniel puts his hands on each of his children’s heads and recites the priestly blessing, he blesses Ariela as well.

For Ivonne, just looking at her family makes her feel lucky to be alive, she said, and grateful to have so much joy and so many options ahead.

“Life is the strongest thing. There is nothing stronger than that,” Ivonne said. “The life in my children’s eyes is stronger than the death of my daughter.

“Life is stronger than death.”


For more information about the Ariela Foundation, visit ” target=”_blank”>ArielaUS.org and

Kenneth Feinberg: The 9/11 mediator who listens


When massive tragedy strikes in the United States, when half a dozen or a score or thousands of people are killed in a single incident, when disaster hits a region, Kenneth Feinberg often gets a call.

The Washington attorney is perhaps best known for his work as the administrator of the fund that paid restitution to the families of 9/11 victims and the one that compensated individuals and businesses harmed by the BP Oil spill in 2010, but his phone rings on all sorts of unhappy occasions, most recently in the wake of the shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in August.

They call Feinberg because he has made a career in mediation, dealing with particularly complicated situations involving death, environmental disaster and financial upheaval. They call him because he’s been called “Solomonic” on more than a few occasions — a label that Feinberg rejects — and because he has demonstrated an ability to exercise and implement good, fair judgments.

But as Jews around the world, Feinberg included, prepare for another season of holidays centered on the theme of judgment, it’s notable that a major element of Feinberg’s process is something deceptively simple: He listens.

“When you have face-to-face meetings, you give victims an opportunity to vent, and they welcome that opportunity to vent,” Feinberg said, speaking to the Journal by phone from his Washington, D.C., office in August. “I find that these one-on-one meetings are very important in convincing claimants in grief about the bona fides of the program that you’re trying to run.”

Feinberg was referring to the more than 900 meetings he had in the aftermath of 9/11 with families of victims, a process he repeated in administering a much smaller fund compensating the victims injured and families of victims killed in the 2007 shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech. In both cases, Feinberg remembered that most of the people who chose to meet with him did not talk about dollars and cents, but came to tell stories, sometimes with photo albums and mementos in hand, “in order to validate — on the record, in writing, face-to-face — the memory, the good works of a lost loved one.”

In compensating individuals in the wake of tragedy, Feinberg has found the meetings to be essential, because they show that somebody is listening.

“There is an individual — not a bureaucratic device, but there is an actual human being listening to what I have to say about my dead wife or husband or brother or sister, son or daughter,” he said.

Individual meetings aren’t always possible, particularly when dealing with large numbers of claimants who have all suffered different kinds of damages, as Feinberg did when he administered the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which paid out more than $6.14 billion from BP to more than 500,000 claimants from all 50 states and 38 foreign countries.

But in many instances, direct listening in face-to-face meetings can have a strategic purpose, as well. In his role as the U.S. Treasury Department’s “pay czar,” tasked with setting the compensation of 175 high-ranking executives at the largest of the financial firms bailed out by the American taxpayers in 2009, Feinberg heard petitions from CEOs, CFOs and their lawyers.

That role was a distinct reversal for Feinberg. “There I was fixing the compensation of alleged, not victims, but perpetrators, who had caused the 2009 financial meltdown,” Feinberg said.

Which is why, as he wrote in his book “Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval,” published by Public Affairs earlier this year, one of the ground rules Feinberg set for the meetings with the executives of bailed-out companies was that they had to take place in Washington, D.C.

The Tribute in Light is illuminated marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, on Sept. 10. Photo by REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

“As an experienced mediator, I knew the importance of conducting meetings in the most effective venue,” Feinberg wrote. The “lavish and imposing” Treasury Building fit his aim perfectly, making immediately clear to the corporate officials “that they were up against a formidable negotiating partner — the federal government.”

In their own ways, the meetings Feinberg had with the companies’ officials didn’t focus on money — or at least not the immediate exchange value of money.

As the “special master” of an office in the Treasury Department overseeing executive compensation, Feinberg and his staff were dictating to these seven companies the exact amount they could pay their top employees. The goal was to balance the interests of the executives and the firms, who wanted to be able to compete on hiring with other corporations, against those of the taxpayers and congress, who had loaned these companies billions of dollars and wanted that money repaid as quickly as possible and in full but who also wouldn’t tolerate excessively lavish compensation.

In the meetings with executives, Feinberg said that the conversations were never about money or material gain — “I need money to buy another summer home, I need money to send my kinds to private school” — but instead were about compensation as a “litmus test of self-worth or integrity or contribution to society.”

“ ‘Look, Mr. Feinberg,’ ” Feinberg said, recalling the executives’ emotional pleas, “ ‘what you’re paying me demeans my value to society, it demeans my value to the community, to my family. You are getting very personal; you are reducing my compensation, thereby diminishing my overall self worth.’ ”

Feinberg’s ultimate decisions were, in his words, “very cold and calculating.”

“I looked at statistics governing compensation — what is a CFO worth, or a CEO worth — studied the competitive pay scale of others similarly situated, looked at what incentives should be incorporated into a compensation package, and calculated the actual awards,” he said.

In administering the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — which Feinberg said is still the most challenging assignment he’s ever faced — Feinberg’s meetings were very different. They took place all over the country, often in the offices of law firms. And while the meetings were essential to convincing some of the families of victims (particularly those of the wealthier victims) to join the fund and not litigate their claims in court, it’s clear that the emotional tenor made them difficult for Feinberg.

“Unless you have a heart of stone, you can’t remain dispassionate,” he said. “You try and … limit the impact of that emotion, but you cannot help but be affected by the death and tragedy involved.”

And, Feinberg learned, people react differently — unpredictably, even — to tragedy. The group meetings he held for victims’ families in California, Feinberg said, were “very touchy-feely,” particularly in contrast to the meetings he’d held in New York and Virginia.

“Everybody wanted to hold hands and pray collectively and to reinforce each other,” Feinberg recalled.

And if half of the families of 9/11 victims decided that the tragedy had “ended, once and for all, any belief they may have had in God or religion or an afterlife,” the other half, Feinberg said, told him that “the tragedies reinforced their religion and their beliefs.”

“Do not attempt to predict human nature,” Feinberg said.

Feinberg doesn’t keep in touch with the families of victims, nor does he have a particular way of commemorating the anniversary of 9/11. This year, on the 11th anniversary of the attacks, Feinberg was scheduled to speak at a conference organized by an insurance group in Canada.

On Rosh Hashanah, Feinberg said, he would be thinking about the future, not the past.

“I think about the year to come, in hopes that I and my family can enjoy health and happiness,” Feinberg said. “And on Yom Kippur, I sort of muse and reflect on the year gone by and what I could’ve done differently, or better.”

Feinberg described himself as “a believer,” so it seemed fair to ask him whether he feels that there is a listener to his prayers.

“I don’t put it in those terms, is someone listening,” Feinberg replied. “I’m hoping that — by raising the level of thought to a conscious level, so that I’m actually reflecting on the past and the future — I’m listening. And I think that’s what’s important.”

High Holy Days: Father and son


On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …

Dear Dad,

This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.

I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back. 

I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,

Your son.

An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:

Dear Son,

One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together. 

There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.

Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply. 

My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.

It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, 

Your father.

E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral. 

In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel. 

Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!

You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?

When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. 

You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,

Your son. 

E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur: 

Dear Son,

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.

We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love. 

You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox. 

Dad.

Text message sent immediately:

Is there really room for us? 

Text message sent in reply:

There is always room for you.

Text message sent in reply:

Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.

Text message sent in reply:

I love you, too. 


This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.