November 14, 2018

Murder in Pittsburgh – My Jewish Family

Whenever there is a mass shooting in America, I watch the news in horror and cry, unable to turn off the television, naively hoping the number of dead will somehow go down instead of up. I wait for the names to be released. I want to say their names out loud and learn who they are so I won’t forget them. Whether they are Black, White, young, old, Jewish, Catholic, gay or straight, I want to know who they are. They are important to me. Sadly, we live in a country where there but for the grace of God go I. We never know when senseless killings will happen, or if they will touch close to home, to people we know.

The murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 28 hit close to home. As a Jewish woman of faith, when the 11 people in Squirrel Hill died, they died in my home. Synagogue is where I worship, so to me all synagogues are my home. A house of worship is a wonderful place. It does not matter what religion is being observed, because I respect all houses of worship the same. I am at peace whether I am in a synagogue or a church. We pray to the same God, so voices united in prayer are very powerful. For anyone to be attacked while in prayer is something I will never be able to understand.

As we learn about those who died, my heart aches so deeply I feel a physical pain. I keep thinking about the victims: 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, a vivacious regular at the temple; Cecil and David Rosenthal, inseparable brothers who had worshiped at Tree of Life since they were children; Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who married more than 60 years earlier in the same temple where they were murdered; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who helped AIDS patients when the disease first appeared in America; Daniel Stein, president of New Light Congregation; Joyce Feinberg, a fellow Canadian; Richard Gottfried, who respected faith and was to retire soon; Melvin Wax, always the first to arrive at temple and the last to leave; and Irving Younger, who always spoke about his daughter and grandson. I also think about Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who heard his congregants being slaughtered as he rushed others out of the sanctuary.

I didn’t know any of the victims personally, but as Jews they are my family and I mourn their passing. 

There are fewer than 15 million Jews in the world, and we are all connected. This was an act of hate against my people, and therefore against me. When I think of the 11 people killed in Pittsburgh, I think about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. I think about how it is possible for one human being to try to erase another one, just because they are different. We cannot allow anyone to be erased. We must speak up. We must say their names because these lives cannot and must not be erased. As human beings we must be outraged by this hate and look out for each other.

I am scared, but not so scared that I will be quiet. This is a time for action. These lovely people were executed because of hate, and this kind of hate — whether directed at people of a different religion, color or sexual orientation — runs deep. So deep that I can feel the shooter’s hate in my soul. But I must not think about that now. Instead, I must turn my fear into strength and fight for gun reform. I must say their names and continue to practice the religion I was not only born into, but choose for myself and share with my child. I am Jewish and these people were my family. It is in times of pain and sorrow that we must focus on keeping the faith.


Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog on jewishjournal.com

Love for My Daughter vs. Fear of Yoga

Photo by Pexels

The website for “Home for the Weekend — a yoga retreat in Idyllwild taking place in early November — could not be more charming. Soft-focus photos of a lovely log cabin (with rocking chairs on the porch!) trade places with pictures of gently flexible young women in yoga poses, a campy Idyllwild road sign and the majestic San Jacinto Mountains.

The reassuring copy of the website echoes the holistic vibe of the visuals. Participants are promised an experience that will return them home to themselves. There are hiking trails. One can gaze at the stars. There will be breath work and meditation. And, of course, there are the two yoga sessions per day, led by a trio of certified young yogis — Erin Ward, Leah Schlackman and Emma Goldman. No grungy hippie hangout, “Home for the Weekend” is upscale enough to provide catering provided by Honey Hi, the pre-eminent sustainable food eatery in Echo Park.

What Jewish woman could resist the prospect of returning home to herself after the monthlong rampage of holidays beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah? 

And so I signed up. 

I enjoyed approximately five hours of happy anticipation only to find myself beset by galloping anxiety, my mind working overtime. What was I thinking? Me? An overly analytical New Yorker stuck in a high-altitude area with a cohort of cosmic (and skinny) Los Angeles millennials? 

After the initial glow of imagining myself sleeping a log cabin came the dread: What about the daytime? I would have to wear yoga pants in public, twist my body into painful contortions and eat overly virtuous food!

Would there be booze? Would there be anyone my age? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s? Where was the nearest hospital?

And that is how I found myself, during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, sitting in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio known, minimalistically, as The Studio, wooden blocks beneath my butt, straps bound around my hips, shoulders thrust back. My daughter Emma — yes, the same one running the Idyllwild retreat with her pals Erin and Leah — trusses my upper arms behind my back, tight and yet tighter. Sitting in front of me, Abbie Galvin, a master restorative yoga instructor, nods her approval. As Emma pulls the straps, I envision myself as a carved figurehead on a ship from days of yore, chest defiantly greeting the wind, hair streaming behind me, sailing fearlessly into the future.

“Would there be booze at the yoga retreat? Should I shlep a stash of coffee from Zabar’s?

“So good!” exclaims Abbie, watching my face intently. “Look how you open up! How does that feel?”

Feel is exactly the right word. Since I entered Abbie’s realm, my hyperactive mind has put itself on snooze mode and I am awash with feeling. New feeling. Something profound has shifted within me. Though my limbs have been rearranged — and held in place — I feel comfortable and calm. Both lungs work in concert, drawing in air competently and evenly; a team effort. My shoulders relax, relieved of a great burden. A long-ago feeling of security blankets me.  

“Fantastic,” I report, with a smile. “I feel great.”

The private restorative yoga session with Abbie was an early birthday gift from Emma, who has studied with Abbie for years and intends to incorporate her restorative practice into “Home for the Weekend.” Noting my reaction to her upcoming retreat, Emma decided to take matters into her own hands and enlist Abbie.

The rest of the hour flows like warm honey. Abbie reads my body and posture, interpreting, gently correcting, guiding. Emma assists, lifting my hips, adjusting my shoulders, fixing the angle of my chin. 

“Wait a second,” I say to Emma as we bound down the stairs at the end of the hour. “This is yoga?”

“Yep,” says my yogafabulous daughter, my teacher, beaming with pride and happiness at my enthusiastic embrace of her practice. We walk together down the Bowery, Great Jones Street and West Fourth Street chattering.

“Feel less nervous?” Emma asks me as we enter Think Coffee. “Yes!” I sing out. She looks at me intently. “You know, you can take another private session with Abbie if you freak out anytime between now and November.”


Shira Dicker is a writer-at-large and publicist captivated by contemporary culture.

Yom Kippur Yizkor: Lessons From Monty Hall

burning memorial candles on the dark background

Editor’s note: Below is a condensed version of a talk Sharon Hall gave before the Yom Kippur Yizkor service at IKAR. 

Ten days before my mother [Marilyn Hall] died last year, my sister, brother and I were gathered at her bedside singing the Beatles catalog. She strained to look at us as we  harmonized and she seemed to smile when we broke into “Here Comes the Sun.” One of her nurses pulled me aside and said, “You need to let her go. All the attention has her attention and she can see that you don’t want her to leave and she doesn’t want to disappoint you. So figure out a way to say goodbye.”  

This was a gut punch. I couldn’t do it. Neither could my siblings. I said, “Mom, we know that you’re still going to be the helicopter mother you’ve always been, you’ll just be
here in spirit. Pick your sign to let us know you’re still around. Are you going to be a random white feather? Flashing lights? Ringing bells?” She nodded her head and we leaned in.

“Lights,” she said weakly. And so it was settled. My mother’s presence would be known when lightbulbs flickered. 

A few days later, at her shivah, we asked Hillel Tigay, our chazzan at IKAR, to play some Beatles music during our silent prayer. My Orthodox cousin from Israel turned to his sister and asked, “Is this a shivah or a summer camp?” At that very moment, a string of fairy lights embedded in a hedge of ficus trees, lights that had not worked in eight years suddenly came alive. The bulbs flickered in glittering syncopation. Our entire family freaked out. We told the guests about my mother’s deathbed agreement. We were all in awe. If my Israeli cousin could have crossed himself, he would have.  

In the ensuing days and months, I became strangely attached to that hedge. There were more flashing-light moments. It was like a party trick. It got a little weird. I would embrace the ficus branches like Kevin Costner in his cornfield, trying to conjure her. 

Talking to the ficus had become my ritual. It wasn’t scary or depressing. It was about light and chlorophyll and oxygen and life. Even with no lights, it was a practice that created a space to see and feel Marilyn Hall’s presence — not her absence.    

“Many told me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy, but I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor.

My father [Monty Hall] died exactly one year ago. On Shabbat. On Yom Kippur. Right after Rabbi [Sharon] Brous’ sermon. My phone blew up. I made my way past 1,300 Jews in white when it all faded to white. I don’t remember how I got to my father’s house to meet the mortuary van. I don’t remember much at all about that day.  

Monty and Marilyn Hall (Photo provided by Sharon Hall)

Many reached out to tell me that dying on a Yom Kippur Shabbat was reserved for holy men, for the pious and exalted. Now, Monty Hall was an amazing guy for lots of reasons, but if you want to know the truth, I think he chose that moment to go because he was trying to dodge Yizkor. 

My father was allergic to grief. He was from the “buck up” generation. I never heard him recite the Kaddish out loud. It barely escaped his lips as a whisper. He couldn’t metabolize his grief over the death of his beloved wife of 70 years. We understood but we were frustrated that this final chapter would be filled with denial and anger, and for him was devoid of spirituality.  

So when I was asked to stand here today, I thought, yes! I want to embrace this ritual. I want to take my dad’s yahrzeit as a day to make space for grief.

So, Dad, we’re not going to dodge Yizkor. You made this day all about you and so you will never miss it again. And you’ll get to see Mom, because at IKAR, Neilah always ends with a light show.


Sharon Hall is a television producer, mother of two sons, wife of Todd Ellis Kessler, and proud daughter of the incomparable Marilyn and Monty Hall.

Why the Holiday of Sukkot Offers a Reminder for Genetic Screening

With the yearly Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot underway (September 23-30), many in the Jewish community have focused their efforts on building a sukkah , a  dwelling, often in one’s backyard, that essentially serves as places to eat and—for people who choose—to sleep.

While sukkahs (this word is the common English pluralization) differ from home to home, all of them are meant to be welcoming places to gather, to converse, and to celebrate. And, as with many Jewish holidays, celebrating with family is a big part of Sukkot, too. Parents and children often build and decorate their sukkahs together in a fun and shared experience.

So, as we think about the connection from one generation to the next, and the concept of building a home, we are struck by the connection this has to our work helping young couples create families. Not just on Sukkot, but every day of the year, we promote and offer genetic screening, and follow-up counseling, to empower people with knowledge before they have children.

While genetic screening and genetic diseases are difficult topics for some to discuss, these conversations with the follow-through of screening are paramount.

“If a couple knows their carrier status prior to pregnancy, they have ample time to seek genetic counseling, gain information about the disease(s) that they carry, and make family planning decisions that will best suit them,” said Shari Ungerleider, whose son, Evan, tragically died of Tay-Sachs disease.

Within months of his seemingly healthy birth in 1994, Shari and Jeff Ungerleider became concerned as they realized that Evan was not developing at the same pace as other children his age. By the time he was 10 months old, it was clear there was a significant problem. Evan’s condition quickly progressed, and he was soon unable to move on his own, suffered multiple seizures daily, and had respiratory difficulty which required the Ungerleiders to provide chest physical therapy and to suction him regularly. He eventually became blind and deaf. They had a feeding tube surgically inserted so that Evan would be able to stay properly nourished and medicated. He had to undergo several hours a week of physical and occupational therapy so that his muscles would not atrophy. Evan lost his battle with Tay-Sachs when he was almost 4 ½ years old.

The Ungerleiders have shown great courage in continuing to speak out about their experience in the hopes that it will help families learn the important steps they can take towards starting a healthy family. Particularly timely during September—which is also Tay-Sachs Awareness Month—the Ungerleiders and JScreen, a not-for-profit community-based public health initiative, are working to teach anyone who is planning to start a family, whether tomorrow or years from now, that simple, easy genetic testing can help save them from the heartbreak of these often preventable diseases.  

Currently, 80 percent of babies with genetic diseases are born to parents with no known family history of that disease.

JScreen’s expanded screening panel tests for more than 200 diseases, a significant development from a generation ago.  

In July 2008, the United States Senate voted unanimously to name September National Tay-Sachs Awareness Month in an effort to bring additional attention to this deadly disease.  When both parents are Tay Sachs carriers, each child has a 25% of having the disease. While the incidence of babies born with Tay-Sachs has fallen dramatically due to genetic screening, affected babies are still being born to carrier couples who have not been tested.

A simple, at-home spit test can help families avoid the heartbreak of this – and other – devastating genetic diseases, and can provide essential information to help prospective parents make decisions about the future of their family. If a couple is found to be at high risk, JScreen provides invaluable genetic counseling to help them navigate their options for the future.”

It is therefore fitting that the celebration of Sukkot falls during Tay-Sachs Awareness Month. By focusing on issues that matter the most, like family, and building dwellings—like a home— Sukkot helps remind us that there are many steps that can be taken to start a healthy family and to build a happy home.  

For more information on genetic testing, and to see videos on how easy it is to take the test, visit https://jscreen.org/


Karen Grinzaid is an instructor, program director and genetic counselor at Emory University in the Department of Human Genetics. She is director for JScreen, a national online Jewish genetic disease screening program based out of the Department of Human Genetics.

Sukkot’s Blueprint for a New Home

At this moment, I can see the sky through the holes in my roof.

That’s not because I’m celebrating the holiday of Sukkot early. It’s because for several years, our roof has been leaking, and we’re now having it replaced. Lacking a roof makes you feel vulnerable. It makes you feel as though the elements are suddenly a part of your life that they simply weren’t before. It makes you worry every time the skies grow cloudy and it annoys you every time the weather gets too hot.

Lacking a roof makes you unhappy.

By contrast, the holiday of Sukkot is always a joyous time. It’s particularly joyous with children, as I’m now learning: their wonder at the beauty of the sukkah, their happiness in decorating it, their excitement at running out each meal to dine in it. What makes the sukkah so special, in contrast to your house lacking proper covering?

It’s the feeling that the impermanence is temporary. Soon enough, you’ll be able to go back in your house and live under a roof again. You’ll be able to feel the stability and protection of living in a home. Were Sukkot indefinitely long, it would be a difficult holiday.

That’s the message of Sukkot. Our world is the sukkah; our home is the broader sphere of the spiritual realm. In our sukkah, we rely on God to ensure that we’re not subject to the elements — we can protect ourselves to the best of our ability, but we’re never going to be able to avoid the vicissitudes and difficulties of life. But our lives are a mere moment in time, a time filled with great pleasure and great pain. Before and after our lives lies a fundamentally different eternity: solid and permanent, predictable and understandable. That is the promise of Sukkot.

What does this say about our politics? Something similar.

“We’re living in a political sukkah. But it doesn’t have to be that way — if we understand the lesson of the sukkah.”

It’s difficult not to be depressed watching our politics. Every day seems to bring some new storm of divisive nonsense: allegations dressed up as facts, opinions dressed up as facts, rage dressed up as facts. Every new day brings spin and anger, countered by more spin and more anger. Outrage follows outrage. It feels as though the cycle will never stop.

It will. We’re living in a political sukkah. But it doesn’t have to be that way — if we understand the lesson of the sukkah.

The reason the sukkah is only temporary is because we earn our way out of it. The Jews wandered the desert for 40 years living in booths because they refused to trust in God and live by His values. They would not believe that a more permanent state of affairs could be in the offing; they rejected the Land of Israel, believing themselves incapable of conquering it. And so God led them back into the wilderness. 

We must believe that a more permanent state of affairs is possible, but to earn our way back to that state of affairs, we have to be true to Godly values. Those values include a belief in telling the truth, no matter the consequences; valuing and having compassion for other human beings, even while fighting against sin; and recognizing that we are incapable of shaping reality to our whim. If we do that, we’ll build a new roof for ourselves, with God’s blessing. We’ll live together in the home we’ve built with one another. Impermanence will give way to permanence, uncertainty to certainty. 

With that promise, let us sit together on Sukkot and plan a more permanent home: a home where we share a common set of values and fight for the same goals. Then we can learn to enjoy the journey, even as we long for the destination.


Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” and the author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Check out this episode!

Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

Follow Rob and Ricochet on Twitter 

Check out this episode!

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Birthright, 13 Years Later

Birthright Israel

Traveling is always an adventure, the anticipation of which always inducing a certain amount of anxiety in me.

I am experiencing that now. Exactly one week from today, I will be on an El Al Airlines flight to Israel. I am traveling with my family: my parents, my sister, her husband and their son. We are traveling to the Holy Land for my sister’s best friend wedding.

This will be my fifth time in Israel and the lead-up is making me reflect on my first time there. I was 18-years-old and had just finished my first year of college at UC Santa Cruz. It is hard to believe that was 13 years—a whole bar mitzvah—ago.

I was traveling with the Birthright program, Israel Outdoors, with my friend, Daniel, who I grew up with in Los Angeles. Prior to the trip, we sat down with our fathers at Coffee Bean on Beverly Drive and talked about what we could expect. Beyond the ten days of the Birthright Israel trip, we were extending our time in the country and also visiting Greece and Italy.

Indeed, we hopped around the Greek Islands. In Italy, we went to Venice, Florence, Rome and Pompeii.

Our Birthright trip, however, is what stays with me. We hiked up and ran down Masada. Foolishly, I did the hike in Converse sneakers. I spent way too much time before the trip agonizing about what kind of shoes to bring and in typical fashion I settled on something hip and completely impractical.

Other highlights were camping in a tent among the Bedouins; joining a random family for tea in their home; posing for a photo in a tunnel at an archeological site with all my bros from the group. Of course, I fell for a girl, Rachel, a brunette from Kansas City, but I was too dumb to do anything about it. One of the guys in the group, a married, skinny 30-something-year-old with a baseball cap and a cool attitude who worked in the entertainment industry, came up to me and the other guys my age during breakfast in our hotel one morning and asked us why none of us were trying harder to hook up with any of the girls. In normal me fashion, rather than enjoying the present, I was focused on the future. I had talks with this guy on the bus about how unsure I was about what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I was thinking about a job in entertainment but I did not think I had the social skills to make it in that networking-heavy field. He told me I was crazy for thinking that.

Two of the guys in the group, who were my age, teased me for my other footwear, flip-flops, which I wore almost everywhere, even on nights out. They called me “hippie.” I am sure I wore those flip-flops while singing “Bye Bye Bye” by N’Sync in a karaoke bar in Jerusalem. My friend Daniel and our American guide, whose name I can’t remember, sang it with me.

It is unfortunate I can’t remember our guide’s name; I liked him from the beginning—and when Daniel and I drank too much one night and behaved inappropriately, even for a Birthright trip, he showed us mercy, could tell how sorry we were, and let us off the hook even though the powers that be were thinking about sending us home.

A lot of people criticize the Birthright program for being this indoctrination into blind support for Israel. I did not experience any of that. All I had was fun, and it is a shame that I don’t think about the trip more. Instead I focus on my job, or relationships, or money, or how I need to catch up on the latest Netflix show or I won’t be able to talk to my coworkers about it.

Before the trip, I had my layover at JFK Airport, where everybody from all over the country came together before the chartered flight to Israel. We were getting to know to each other, going around the circle at the gate sharing something about ourselves, and our American guide said he was a Phish fan. I nodded at Daniel in approval.

During the long flight to Israel, Daniel and I passed the time by engaging in our favorite pastime, coming up with fictional band names–Gelato Aficionado was and still is my favorite.

Music has always been a big part of my life. In the Old City in Jerusalem, I bought a Phish T-shirt from a souvenir shop. The shirt spelled out Phish in Hebrew.

How many guys my age have visited that souvenir shop and purchased that very Phish T-shirt while on their Birthright trip?

During that trip, I was tanner and thinner than I will ever be. We were swimming in a waterfall up north near the Golan Heights and Rachel’s friend complimented me on my Vs.

The hike near the Golan, and the military outpost looking out into Syria, are forever in my memory.

I have not thought about these experiences for years. I have had such great experiences in Israel, but I allow these memories to fade in favor of the meaningless problems of the day.

This upcoming trip will likely be the first of many times my two-year-old nephew travels to Israel. He’s lucky to go at such a young age. Even though he won’t remember the trip, one day, perhaps as he is preparing to go on Birthright and freaking out about what shoes to pack, his parents will tell him how he has been to Israel already—and was just as difficult to deal with then.

 

 

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Family Glue: Fun Ideas to Create Meaningful Moments during High Holy Days

The holidays are coming around again, meaning your family is probably filled with the holiday spirit. This is a great time to capture meaningful family moments though this is becoming increasingly harder in this plugged-in world. Consider the following fun ideas.

Nature Hunt

 

One interesting activity the whole family can enjoy is fruit or vegetable picking. You might think you do not live close to a farm, but the rapid rise of the family farm is making it easier to enjoy this activity. Your family should love the idea of eating fruit or vegetables fresh from the earth. There are many resources online that will help you find a farm near you.

Ceremonious Event

 

Spending time together is part of what makes the holidays important, but participating in events that honor traditions is also important. It is easy to skip events that you have to travel to, but these can be worth it. You can see these trips as mini-adventures, which the kids will love. Perhaps you should see where a Tashlich is taking place, and be sure to go. Those who live near water may see this ceremony take place as it is described in the texts. It is a great opportunity to enjoy something as a family and highlight the power of tradition.

Be a Tourist

 

You have seen tourists around your neighborhood and noticed how much fun they have sightseeing. Well, you may want to become a tourist in your own town. You might think you know everything there is to know about the neighborhood, but that may not be true. Book a tour with a professional like Central Park Tours. A professional can offer you the real tourist experience. Take photographs, enjoy the sights, and get lost in the role of your family.

Storytelling

 

Build a stage in your backyard for your family. Have each member of your family tell a different story from the Holy Book. Encourage them to get as creative as they want or touch on subjects they might have questions about. Do not be afraid to address these questions because it should help strengthen their faith. You should also take photographs, and record some of these tales so that you can share these moments with other family members. Be sure to focus light towards the center of the stage to make sure your photographs and videos come out as clear as possible.

Volunteering

 

There is no better time to teach your family a meaningful lesson than during the holidays. It would be a great idea to set up a trip for a volunteering mission. You do not have to travel to another country to do good in this world. There are a number of community efforts you can volunteer for. This activity should be especially powerful if you have never done this kind of thing with your family.

These are just some ideas to make these days more memorable. Consider your family’s suggestions at this time, too. Be sure to talk to elders of the family to get additional ideas that could be useful.

When a childhood home is demolished

The author’s childhood home before its recent demolition. Photo courtesy of Rabbi John Rosove

Eighty-three years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, my childhood home in West Los Angeles was built.

It was a charming California ranch-style home of no more than 2,100 square feet. According to neighborhood code, every home was set back 100 feet from the street.

When I was growing up, 15 mature trees populated the grounds. In the backyard, there were willow, palm, avocado, guava, kumquat, peach, plum, laurel and lemon. In the front yard grew magnolia, jacaranda, paper birch, oak, pine and maple.

Alas, all are gone now except the maple.

As a kid, I loved climbing the tall oak or magnolia whenever I needed to be alone. I also loved to climb onto our tile roof, trying to be careful not to break the tiles, which I did from time to time.

My parents bought the home in 1949, just before I was born. My brother, Michael, left for college in 1966, and after I left in 1968, my mother sold the property. The family that bought it lived there for the next 49 years until this past year.

Not long ago, it was demolished.

I loved that house. My first memories are from the age of 2. I played baseball with my dad and brother in the backyard. Michael and I dug holes lined with tin cans in the front yard so we could putt golf balls. In the back was a built-in, red-brick distressed barbecue. In the service yard behind the garage we inherited an incinerator from the 1940s and used it until the L.A. City Council banned them in 1957.

My dad played the violin and painted in the sunny lanai, a room he named for his pleasant experiences serving in the Hawaiian Islands during World War II as a physician and officer in the U.S. Navy. Our parents entertained with scotch and martinis before sit-down dinners. They drank their coffee black and hot.

My dad bought Michael and me our first bicycles. Mine was a red, 24-inch Schwinn I called “Betsy.” His was black. We rode the neighborhood with gusto. I walked to the bus stop or the mile through back streets to school from the age of 6 without my parents expressing, to my knowledge, any worry.

Our house doors were never locked. Milk was delivered in bottles and placed in a small niche near the back door. The Good Humor ice cream truck drove our streets in the afternoon. I played outside until dark and came home filthy. I knew my neighborhood like the back of my hand and knew most of the neighbors. Dogs roamed the streets unleashed.

As a little boy, I remember following my dad (whom I called “Daddy” and still do) like a puppy in the backyard, picking up the clippings he pruned. I still remember the smell of wet, cut grass and eucalyptus from the adjacent property. We fed California jays (now called scrub jays) and had names for all of them according to their markings. We collected butterflies.

In 1953, my parents bought our first television set, a 24-inch, black-and-white console. They put it in my dad’s study with his bookshelves, medical journals, desk and two red leather chairs and ottoman, on which my brother and I watched cartoons on weekend mornings, Westerns in the afternoons, “I Love Lucy” when we were sick, the Friday night fights with my dad, “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday nights.

In 1956, I remember the interview with Adlai Stevenson when the camera caught a glimpse of a hole in the bottom of his shoe. I also recall seeing Fidel Castro on “Face the Nation” in 1959 just after the Cuban revolution; John F. Kennedy delivering his 1961 inaugural address; his Cuban missile crisis speech in 1962; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963; the entire weekend after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, including the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald; Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and footage of the fighting during the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Arab neighbors that promised to “push the Jews into the sea.”

I emerged into political and historical consciousness in that house.

On Aug. 10, 1959, my world changed irrevocably. Michael (a year older than me) and I saw our father for the last time that evening as he stood in the doorway of our small bedroom to say goodnight. He hadn’t been feeling well and while we slept, an ambulance came to the house and took him at 2 a.m. to the hospital where he died 23 hours later from his second heart attack. He was only 53 years old.

My brother and I call that house “321,” a reference to its address. It has been our link to our childhoods and father throughout our lives. I visited it from time to time and even knocked on the door 25 years ago and asked to walk through. The owners remembered my family and were gracious. Although it had been owned by others, Michael and I still felt that it belonged to us. I fantasized that maybe either of us would be able and want to buy it this past year when it was put up for sale.

One doesn’t say Kaddish over a house, but its demolition is a death for both of us. As the High Holy Days approach and I ponder the past year that includes the end of my childhood home, I’m left now only with, as Jim Croce poignantly said, “photographs and memories.”


RABBI JOHN ROSOVE is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

I Love You Rob Eshman

It was announced today that Rob Eshman is stepping down from his post as editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal. When I read the news my heart paused, then I sighed, then I was sad for me, then I was happy for him, then I stared at the picture accompanying the announcement and thought about how much I love this wonderful man, and will miss him as my boss.

Important to note that my remarkable Rabbi, Naomi Levy, is married to Rob and I love her just as much, so there is no shame in professing my love for this great man. As I begin my ninth year as a writer at the Jewish Journal, I owe everything to Rob. He not only heard my voice through my writing, but fought for others to hear it, even when some wanted me to be quiet. I have built a wonderful life as a writer and I will forever be grateful to the man who started it all for me.

Rob Eshman is my hero for a lot of reasons. He loves his family in a way that makes me believe in love. He comments on my writing in a way that makes me want to do better. He inspires me to be a more informed Jew. He makes me laugh, and think, and hope, and pray. I am a better writer for having worked alongside him and will forever been honored to have been taken under his wing.

To the divine Rob Eshman, you are amazing and I am happy for you. I wish you nothing but good things on your new adventure. I look forward to buying your cookbook and seeing you in temple. You are a wonderful journalist, an exceptional human being, and I love you. Always have, and always will. Mazel Tov Mr. Eshman. Be happy, be safe, and always keep the faith.

 

 

The Space Between Us by Rabbi Janet Madden

Gried and the Space Between Us

[Ed. Note: Grief Awareness Day falls on August 30, 2017. — JB]

I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who founded a bank and a medical journal. He trained generations of physicians, funded and spearheaded disaster relief efforts and led medical missions to countries across the world in his lifelong efforts to increase medical knowledge and alleviate suffering. His family and many friends and colleagues gathered to honor his life. They derived comfort from knowing that he was able to pursue the work that he loved until the last months of his life, that his memory is a blessing to those who knew him, and that thousands of people were helped through his work. Grief at his death was balanced with the knowledge that he lived a life of passion and purpose.

Death can bring a new level of intimacy, new kinds of knowledge. When I sat with his family to plan his funeral, they told wonderful stories. I’d known that he was a child violin prodigy and I’d known about his life-long love of classical music, but I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” was his favorite song.

Three days after the funeral, when I made a follow-up phone call to his widow, I found the family in crisis. The previous night, while the recently-buried man’s seven year old great-granddaughter slept in the next room, her mother, his only granddaughter, had hanged herself. Her body had been discovered only a couple of hours before.

Distraught family members asked if I had detected anything unusual about this young woman’s grief. I had not. None of them had perceived anything that suggested that the young woman was not grieving her grandfather’s death as what death professionals assess as “appropriate.” During the following days and the excruciating experiences of police and coroner and preparing for her funeral, the family asked the same questions over and over: how could they not have known that she was in such profound distress? What could they have done differently?

As a spiritual director, a grief counselor and a rabbi, I am well prepared to encounter death. But this is a different kind of death, and the grief that has leveled this family is, I think, unique to those whose loved ones suicide. This is complicated grief—grief knotted up with self-recrimination, confusion, shame, fear, and anger.

I guided the family through this second, tragic funeral as gently and compassionately as I know how to do. I’ve been in constant touch with them. I’ve made referrals to therapists who specialize in working with the families of those who have died by suicide. For her heartbroken parents, honor and comfort and the blessings of memory are distant concepts. I cannot fathom what her seven year old daughter, who woke up expecting to get ready for a day at summer camp and found her mother’s body, is experiencing, and what she will continue to endure throughout her life.

In the days since the young woman’s funeral, I’ve reread the lyrics of her grandfather’s favorite song. What at the time of his death seemed an expression of longing seems, in retrospect, a chilling premonition:

“We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away…And life flows on within you and without you…”

I am praying for this family. I am praying for all who wall themselves off, concealing their suffering and despair. I am praying for less space between us.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

 [Ed. Note: Rabbi Janet Madden has agreed to submit a series of entries for Expired And Inspired – watch for them to appear fairly regularly, on a more or less monthly basis. — JB]

___________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

____________________

Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

Honor both sides to create an inclusive interfaith wedding

Interfaith weddings are an age-old quandry for Jews, but recent headlines suggest they may be becoming more accepted. Two prominent New York rabbis, trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, announced in June that they would begin to perform intermarriages, breaking with the movement’s long-held prohibition.

As perceptions of intermarriage modernize, so do the wedding ceremonies celebrating couples about to embark on their lifelong journey together. There now are more options and variations than ever for couples looking to host an inclusive interfaith wedding.

Rabbi Keara Stein is the Los Angeles director of InterfaithFamily, a nonprofit designed to support interfaith couples exploring Jewish life while also seeking inclusivity in Jewish communities. Part of Stein’s role is to field requests that come through the officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily. She also personally officiates one or two interfaith weddings per month throughout Southern California.

As a general piece of advice, Stein said that no matter what, all aspects of the ceremony should be meaningful to the couple.

“A wedding, no matter what the religion, symbolizes the coming together of two unique individuals, and I want everything we do in that wedding to include that,” she said.

Stein outlined six tips for having an interfaith wedding that will make both sides feel comfortable while respectiving various traditions.

1. Create an educational program

The program not only should outline the timeline of events, it should explain the significance of the traditions the guests will be experiencing during the ceremony.

“This is not a spectator sport,” Stein said. “Everyone should be included. I encourage a couple to make a program for their wedding, and I usually help them do so by explaining the meaningful aspects of the different rituals.”

2. Choose rituals and readings that either are common to both traditions or do not offend either one 

Stein cited the example of lighting a unity candle or, in one specific recent instance, a couple who asked to be wrapped in a tallit along with a handmade blanket made by the bride’s grandmother.

3. Consider an interfaith ketubah

There are many websites devoted to ketubot — Jewish marriage contracts — and to the artists who create them. Many of these artists have created works of art, suitable for framing, with customized language that can honor any partnership, ranging from LGBTQ couples to interfaith unions. InterfaithFamily has several versions of inclusive statements for the creation of the ketubah on its website (interfaithfamily.com).

4. Have in-depth conversations with your parents

Stein readily admits the biggest hurdles for couples to overcome often arise from the parents on both sides.

“It can be very difficult for parents to come to terms with the fact that the [wedding] day might look different than they had initially imagined,” Stein said. “I like to have conversations with couples about how to talk to their parents about the types of rituals they want at their wedding.”

5. Find the right officiant 

“I speak with a lot of couples exploring which type of officiant they’re going to have, and I try to find out where their desire is coming from and what is driving their search,” Stein said. “Is it a deep appreciation for ritual, is it family pressure or is it somewhere in between?”

She has co-officiated wedding ceremonies, although it was a difficult decision.

“Some rabbis have hard lines against co-officiating with other religions. Ultimately, it has been one of the most beautiful, profound experiences for me because there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

6. Talk to other intermarried couples

Stein highly recommends that couples planning an interfaith wedding should discuss with others in their community what did and did not work for them on their big day.

“Reach out to other interfaith couples through organizations like ours or synagogues in the area,” she said. “Talk to other people and see how they’ve done it. The wedding sets the stage for the marriage. All of the people attending a wedding are there to show support of a union, so show them what that means through inclusivity and love.”

Three years in Israel and a family transformed

Dr. Scott Lasensky, Representing the United States, Hadassah Memorial Ceremony, Mt. Scopus, May 2016. Photo courtesy of the Lasensky family.

It was the unlikeliest of circumstances: a collision of fate, politics and passion that occurs perhaps once in a lifetime.

At President Obama’s request, our family moved to Israel to strengthen an already strong, but often tempestuous American-Israeli alliance and to promote his Administration’s broader agenda.

Our “shlichut” in Israel—our service in the Jewish state as American emissaries—would see the tail end of war and waves of terrorism; titanic struggles over policy, including over how to stop Iran’s nuclear program; and painful rifts during the transition from one president to the next.

Intermingled with this political drama, these three years had a transformative effect on our family, giving us much to reflect upon as we prepare to move back to the United States.

The experience taught us that Israelis have a tremendous capacity for progressive social change, a phenomenon that is all-too-often overshadowed by the worsening and dangerous stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It also allowed us to experience first-hand the new dynamism and mutually beneficial connections that are defining Israel-Diaspora relations.

Israel’s Public Education Renaissance

Perhaps predictably, our family journey in Israel began with a school search.

Leaving the cocoon of a synagogue pre-school and the intimate microcosm of a Jewish day school environment, we were suddenly faced with a wide variety of choices—options that reflect a budding renaissance in public education in Israel.

Our first discovery was that Israel has more choices than ever before.

From magnet and mixed religious/secular schools, to “democratic” and non-Orthodox religious schools, to the ultimate experiment in bilingual, mixed Jewish-Arab schools, the options are dizzying. There is even an all-outdoor “forest” kindergarten.

Unlike in America, private schools remain a rarity. And yet, the public education sector is becoming more and more flexible, adaptive and better funded. Anyone fixated on the latest Kotel dispute, for example, should keep in mind that in other social arenas pluralism is the defining feature.

Many of the latest innovations have a dual-purpose to better prepare children for 21st century challenges and to strengthen social cohesion in this most diverse of societies.

We made our choice and found a cherished elementary school, one of the oldest in the country, which is co-located with a pre-school and kindergarten. The schools serve Kfar Shmaryahu, Moshav Rishpon and the southern reaches of the “Hof Ha’Sharon” coastal region near Herzliya.

Our second discovery was that we were arriving in Israel at the cusp of the Jewish State’s new, grand experiment in early childhood education.

Publicly-funded pre-school was now available to all children from the age of three. It was a decidedly progressive policy move by a government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu that is all-too-often characterized outside Israel as “right-wing.”

Our youngest son, Gabriel, who turned three just before we moved to Israel, benefitted the most and attended the same municipal “gan” for the entire three years.

Responding to more and more research about the critical role in development played by early childhood education and adapting to changing work/life patterns in a society where more families have two working parents, Israel has reset the clock and public education now begins at age three.

Moreover, the day has been lengthened, typically until 2 p.m., and the country continues to experiment with a range of subsidized summer camp models that address long-standing family needs for affordable summer programming, as well as fostering stronger community ties.

Our son Ilan took a particular delight in the municipal summer camp and its intimate, nurturing atmosphere.

Life in the “Village”

With these schools serving as the principal anchors of our family life, we were quickly swept up into the singularly Israeli experience of a tight-knit community based on social solidarity and common purpose.

Kfar Shmaryahu, a village on the edge of the greater Tel Aviv metropolis, is a storied Israeli community founded by Jewish pioneers from Central Europe in 1937, during what is known as the Fifth Aliyah.

Today—at least in the public’s imagination—it is synonymous with wealth and privilege.

Yet we discovered something else, in the “Kfar” and in its lesser-known, yet also storied neighbor Moshav Rishpon. These are uniquely Israeli communities that blend national pride; a thriving Jewish life; an independent, entrepreneurial spirit; high culture; and a zest for life that manifests in everything from the annual children’s triathlon to the innumerable enrichment activities (“chugim”).

Our oldest son, Alex, joined the local chapter of the tsofim, or Israel Scouts, part of a chapter that changed its name nearly five decades ago to commemorate three alumni who fell in the Yom Kippur war.

The town rabbi, Ori Einhorn, serves as a beloved educator, community leader and a beacon of tolerance and moderation. His regular visits to the elementary school and the kindergarten are the delight of many children and their parents, and his chairing the 2nd grade ceremony where our son received his first copy of the Book of Books was a high point of our years in Israel.

Rabbi Ori’s shul, Heichal Ha’banim, is an anchor of Kfar Shmaryahu, with open doors that welcome the devout, the secular and everyone in between.

Toby, his wife, while raising five children somehow manages to also teach and mentor other women and open doors to Judaism that are self-empowering, intellectually challenging and deeply spiritual.

The town mayor, Dror Aloni, manages to fix every pothole, ensure community safety and improve every public facility, yet he also serves as an icon and a link to the broader national fabric and social tapestry that has been re-writing Jewish history every day for the past 70 years.

Son of the fabled Labor leader Shulamit Aloni, a former MK and Education Minister, Dror manages to infuse a pioneering spirit into every aspect of municipal life.

Through the myriad celebrations, from birthdays to national holidays, alongside the unexpected tragedies, including serious illness, spates of terrorism, and tragic deaths, we experienced a collective embrace that brought meaning, purpose and joy to our family, just as it offered support during so many of our own challenging moments.

One particularly difficult decision was when one of our children transferred to a school outside the community. Yet even then, he remained part of the “village” community, maintaining friendships, attending local “chugim” (after-school activities) and perfecting his excellent, accent-free Hebrew.

Not being citizens, we were unsure how tight the local embrace would be, yet were pleasantly surprised to be pulled so deeply and so thoroughly into this community, where people opened up their homes and also their hearts.

As a Jewish family, perhaps it was easier for us, compared to most other diplomats.

But beyond the ethno-religious bond, as representatives of America we also encountered daily life with Israelis who are a proud, independent and confident people, yet a society deeply aware and appreciative of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and all that it affords the still young and vulnerable Jewish state.

For any American diplomat, even amidst ugly and bitter political debates, the sheer breadth and depth of our alliance means that you carry on your shoulders the aspirations and the collective anxieties of an entire nation.

Whether laying a wreath at a memorial ceremony, or conversing with a taxi driver, Israelis we met all have a profound appreciation for their outsized relationship with America.

A Tale of Two Shuls

Israel is a “society pulsing with Jewish life,” as Daniel Gordis has recently written, which means a family’s choice of where to gather for prayer and fellowship is almost infinite.

We hit the jackpot.

Initially, we found a Masorti (Conservative) shul in a quiet suburb in the Sharon region northeast of Tel Aviv. It is a decidedly Israeli community, but with deep American roots. It is not uncommon on a Saturday morning to see local families from outside the synagogue bring their bnei mitzvah (girls included). It was eye-opening to watch these Israeli families—most Americans would call them “secular”—enjoy the open doors, the embrace of Torah, prayer and mitzvot, and the mixed gender seating.

Moreover, it gave us great hope for the long campaign for religious pluralism in Israel and a sense that the struggle must continue to be pursued both top-down, at the political level, and bottom-up, by steadily expanding the footprint of non-Orthodox religious life.

At our shul, the front row is always available and open to anyone, it is never reserved for a donor or VIP, and the sanctuary is filled with creative, learned congregants. On many holidays, it seems the majority of Torah readers are women.

Later on, we were blessed with the sudden appearance of a new kehillah (community) in Herzliya Pituach, where we lived, the newest link in a growing chain of Reform communities in Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a captivating speaker, leading social activist and learned scholar, is the anchor of this emerging community that combines immigrants, Sabras, and itinerant diplomats and business emissaries.

The congregation’s dynamism, diversity and determination to grow is yet another sign that the cause of pluralism in Israel continues to inch forward, shul by shul, community by community.

Life in Israel always comes with questions.

From the beginning, there were the neighbors and friends who asked, in that direct and inimitable Israeli fashion: who would ever leave the comforts of America? Then, toward the end, we faced the opposite queries: why would we ever consider leaving? Why not stay? “Haven’t we heard about the upsurge in anti-Semitism in America?” one of the kindergarten teachers asked.

For some, our wandering back to America seemed to touch them personally, at once reminding them of their deep, local roots and uncompromising sense of national pride, and yet a reminder that families—including Jewish families—can find fulfilling, meaningful lives outside the Jewish state.

For our family, it was a wondrous, thrilling adventure. To be sure, we experienced all the challenges Americans are more familiar with—the hard-edge to society, financial stresses, friction between social groups, and ever-present security anxieties.

Yet we also experienced something else, something profound and deeply edifying about the way in which Israelis view their place at the center of the Jewish world and how they are striving to perfect their own society and also contribute to our common future.

For ourselves, our children and our family, we will be forever transformed.


Lasensky is a Visiting Fellow at INSS and Pressma is a health care policy expert.

When Prayer is Not Enough by Rabbi Janet Madden

Prayeng man

Dying as Part of Life

In How We Die, surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland wrote: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died—in a sense for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.”

One of Nuland’s aims was to disabuse his readers of the notion of death with dignity; he wanted to point out that in fact death is messily undignified. But as a rabbi who has worked as a hospice chaplain and who is currently working as a hospital chaplain, I find these words and thoughts beautiful, even inspirational.  Although I am a well-schooled layperson in terms of the dying process and its toll on the body, the blessing of my work is that I am not confined to care only for the body.

I have attended three deaths in the past three days, and I’ve been pondering Nuland’s words as I encounter the mysterious and mystically liminal moments of life’s sacred portals: birth and death. I know and accept the facts: everything that lives, has ever lived and will ever live will die. This reality unfurls like a news crawl in the back of my brain while I am offering prayers and blessings for newborns and their parents; these words come always to the forefront of my mind as I attend a death.

The Personal Impact

But for a woman who is sobbing petitionary prayers in a hallway outside an ICU room as a rapid response team attempts to revive her husband or for a man who seems to physically shrink day by day as he sits at the bedside of his wife, clinging to hope that a test result that will lead to a miraculous reversal of her decline, the truth that life ends holds no beauty and is not assuaged by a sense of the universal.

The learning curve for those who put their faith in the human body (“He’s always been a fighter,” “She’s so incredibly strong”) or medical knowledge (“There must be something else you can do—another test—something?”) is excruciatingly steep. Even for those who accept that life is ending and for those who find comfort in prayer and ritual, there is profound shock in coming to the moment when the veils between the worlds thin and the irrevocable divide between life and death manifests.

In addition to the death itself, there are the after-shocks. Before the bereaved become mourners, in the first moments and hours when they are confronting the painful reality of loss, they are plunged into the business of death. The newly-bereaved must sign a release form for the body, observe a time limit that dictates how long they can stay with the body in the hospital room, make decisions about the disposition of the body, notify family and friends and answer questions about when and how death occurred and begin to make plans what comes next both for the deceased and for themselves. If the newly-bereaved are particularly unfortunate, they must also deal with learning that someone has posted the news of the death on facebook within minutes of being informed of the death, thus making public what has not yet had a chance to be communicated within the family.

Prayer is not enough

In these moments, prayer–no matter how beautiful, how sublimely profound, how potentially comforting–is not enough. Those of us who midwife the souls of the dying must transition to the things of olam ha zeh–this world. We must tend to the psycho-spiritual-emotional and physical needs of the living. It is not good enough to finish a Viddui, the final confession, and express our condolences. It is not good enough to ask the newly-bereaved “What can I do for you?” or “What do you need?” Shock and grief are paralytics. This is another liminality– the “sinking-in” time, the moments when families begin to grasp how this death has forever changed their lives. The time just after a death parallels the midrashic moment at the Sea of Reeds when G-d tells Moshe that there is a time for prayer and a time for action. The liminality of this time demands that clergy must wade into the swirling murkiness of shock and grief and position ourselves as comforters and guides, sometimes reassuring families that yes, their family member really is dead, sometimes simply standing by to bear witness to the tears, anger, endearments and reassurances that emerge.

The Role of Chaplain

Clergy cannot shelter behind prayerful words. What we can best offer is our calm and consistent presence, both spiritual and physical. Unless families request that we leave, we should stay with them until they and we discern that it is time for us to leave. Whether we are educating the family about the after-death care of their family member or listening to stories about the deceased or calling the mortuary on the family’s behalf or fetching tea or a blanket or waiting with the family until the mortuary transportation arrives or making sure that their parking is validated, what the newly-bereaved most need is to be cared for, to be reassured that for those of us who routinely deal with death and dying, the death of their family member is not commonplace. No matter the specific configurations and complications of their relationships, death changes things. Whether families self-identify as observant, religious, spiritual but not religious, or non-believers, they want and need to see the death of their family members as something more than a biological inevitability.

I have the same need. For me, attending deaths and tending to the needs of families offer uniquely sacred opportunities to connect with other humans, to witness the rawness that is unleashed from broken hearts, to come tantalizingly close to being as fully human as I am able to be, to be in awe again and again.

Rabbi Janet Madden PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

___________

KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open.

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our preliminary conference program.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.

Register for the conference now.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton, but rooms are limited; please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options – contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

Questions? Email info@jewish-funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.
______________

TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email info@jewish-funerals.org.    

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

________________________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

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.