Shavuot Gets Hip


Is Shavuot becoming hip? The holiday, which begins June 12, may be one of Judaism’s three major festivals, but it had never caught on in America like its more popular cousins, Passover and Sukkot.

The tradition of tikkun l’eil Shavuot, the all-night study session that marks the commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, is celebrated by most Orthodox Jews and many Conservative congregations. But for many unaffiliated and non-Orthodox Jews, the holiday has gone fairly unnoticed.

Until recently.

In the past few years there’s been a resurgence of interest in tikkun l’eil Shavuot. Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar it’s this one, with its focus on intellectual exploration and spiritual self-examination, that is being seized upon by a new generation as a day — or, rather, night — ripe for reinvention.

It’s been happening in the synagogues. Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said 200 to 300 Reform congregations now hold tikkun l’eil Shavuot sessions.

But beyond the synagogue walls, something even more interesting is taking place: Large-scale alternative Shavuot night happenings are being held in clubs and JCCs on both coasts, where participants prepare themselves for the morning’s revelation with sunset-to-dawn smorgasbords of text study, lectures, music, film, discussion groups, folk dancing, performance art and, of course, cheesecake.

In New York, more than 1,500 came to Alma Tikkun, an all-night study and cultural extravaganza held simultaneously at the Manhattan JCC and 92nd Street Y.

In Los Angeles, synagogues around the city are also sponsoring events — from a cheekily titled “Jews for Cheeses!” at Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica to a social justice event at the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, sponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Ikar, a year-old nonaffiliated congregation.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, Ikar’s spiritual leader, said her group will study traditional texts — Torah, talmudic and Chasidic writings — but will use them to discuss hunger and warfare in Africa, immigrant rights and “our commitment to a pluralistic, diverse world.”

Other progressive prayer groups, such as Rabbi Naomi Levy’s Nashuva, will also study mystical teachings in honor of the holiday. At Shomrei Torah in West Hills, the evening fare will discuss “What Is Shavuot Really About?”

Why all this interest in Shavuot?

Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma College in Tel Aviv and the spiritual force behind the Alma Tikkun in New York, said Shavuot is also compelling to her generation because “it wasn’t ‘taken’ yet.”

“As young secular Israelis, it wasn’t relevant for us in the agricultural sense anymore, but we saw it could be relevant to us as the People of the Book.'”

For more Shavuot events, see our Calendar.

 

New Channel BeamsJewish Programming


The soap opera, argues Shlomo Ben-Zvi, is the most Jewish of all television formats.

"Every 15 seconds, you have a dilemma of interpersonal relationships — and you have to solve them," he said

Ben-Zvi, who emigrated from England 20 years ago, is putting his money where his mouth is. This spring, the 38-year-old, modern Orthodox entrepreneur launched Techelet, a Judaism pay-TV channel, on Israel’s cable and satellite networks, and he’s already commissioning Hebrew scripts for "the first-ever Jewish soap opera."

Titled, "The Rebbe’s Court," it is set in an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. The Chassidic patriarch, Rav Azriel, has a large and quarrelsome family, shepherded through its tales of wise and wicked sons by Sheyndel, his university-educated rebbetzin with a mysterious past. "Dynasty," you might say, with fringes, "Dallas" with a sheitel (wig).

Techelet (Hebrew for light blue) won the rights for a "Jewish" channel against stiff competition. Its strength, Ben-Zvi claimed, is that it has no party affiliation and no theological ax to grind. "We are," he said, "inclusive and accepting."

The channel transmits 19 hours a day for 12 shekels (less than $3) a month. Half its wholesome programs are locally made; the rest are imported from the United States and Britain. They don’t have to be specifically Jewish.

Ben-Zvi lives with his wife and six children in the West Bank commuter settlement of Efrat, between Bethlehem and Hebron. Starting in the property business, Ben-Zvi branched out into information technology and now, with the U.S. cosmetics heir Ron Lauder as a minority shareholder, he has moved into the media.

Techelet’s target audience, Ben-Zvi said, is not so much the organized religious world as the two-thirds of Israeli Jews who don’t eat pork, who do have a seder at Pesach, light candles on Shabbat and want their sons to be circumcised and their daughters to be married under the chuppah.

Many of the 37 full-time staff at its designer studios in the Neve Ilan Television Center outside Jerusalem are secular young women in jeans and T-shirts. If there’s a resident rabbi, he keeps out of sight.

Techelet is emphatically not an on-screen yeshiva.

"People, especially nonreligious people, want to know a lot more," explained Ben-Zvi, the chief executive and majority shareholder. "They are tired of feeling foolish. They want to understand the rituals they keep in any case."

So the channel spotlights Jewish and Zionist history and explores the broader message of the Jewish festivals. It also aspires to foster debate about where Judaism is going.

"We want to provide a platform where people can be challenged to come up with new answers to old problems," Ben-Zvi said.

And it offers two and a half hours a day of "high-quality, clean" children’s programming.

"We make sure," he said, "there’s nothing parents would find offensive."

The channel has already shown "Anne of Green Gables" and has imported a BBC nature series called, "The Really Wild Show," for which popular Israeli singer Danny Bassan has recorded a Hebrew voice-over.

Techelet has bought the rights to rerun "Pillar of Fire," a 19-part Israel Television series on Zionist history last broadcast 17 years ago. It will also be showing the four-part biopic of Golda Meir, starring Ingrid Bergman.

One hour a night is devoted to the cycle of the Jewish year.

"We’re trying to take the festivals out of the closet and give them an airing," Ben-Zvi said. "We’re not focusing on the ritual aspects, but on the ethical teachings. We want to make the festivals relevant to modern life."

For Pesach, for instance, the theme was redemption from slavery. Programs included the 12-part adaptation of Alex Haley’s "Roots," as well as documentaries on a U.N. campaign to eradicate latter-day slavery in Africa and a look at sex slavery in Israel. For Shavuot next month, the theme is making commitments.

The channel does not broadcast news but has two daily talk shows. One is a women’s program with what Ben-Zvi called "eight very good-looking girls from different religious backgrounds."

They are, he explained, trying to broaden discussion of where Jewish women are going. One show featured single religious women who decide to have a child before their biological clock stops ticking.

Longer term, Ben-Zvi is working on an English-language Techelet for distribution in the United States.

"We know there’s room for an international Jewish channel," he said. "We’re putting together a first offering in Greater New York. It will be a mix of our better programs and new material made in English. We also plan a daily English-language news."

Techelet projects itself as pluralistic, but pluralism has its limits.

"Everybody is welcome so long as they have a serious commitment to Judaism," he said. For example, Meir Azari, a leading Israeli Reform rabbi, recently appeared on a talk show.

"We don’t go out of our way to invite spokesmen for non-Orthodox streams," Ben-Zvi said, "but we don’t go out of our way not to invite them. We haven’t felt the need to disqualify anyone at this stage."

That might not be enough for Israel’s small, but growing Reform and Conservative communities. Rabbi Uri Regev, a veteran of many High Court recognition battles who now serves as executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, is already sharpening his quill.

"We shall be pressing for more access," he warned. "They won a license to run a Jewish channel, not an Orthodox one."

Do Film Festivals Build Jewish Identity?


One Sunday in November, 1,200 people at the vintage
Cooalidge Corner Cinema in Brookline, Mass., nibbled Jewish-flavored barbecued wings. Film screenings
sandwiched around the chicken, coleslaw and cornbread included “Shalom, Y’all,”
and “Kinky Friedman: Proud To Be an Asshole From El Paso.”

Those two documentaries about Jews and the South were among
dozens of offerings at the 14th annual Boston Jewish Film Festival last fall.

Though not exactly glatt kosher, the films — and meat — were
“a fun way to do something more” at the festival, executive director Sara Rubin
said.

Perhaps much more, when it comes to filling Jews’ appetite
for greater identity, according to a new report by the Jewish Outreach
Institute in New York.

The study, “Can Watching a Movie Lead to Greater Jewish
Affiliation?” insists that the burgeoning Jewish film festival scene holds not
only big box-office potential, but the possibility of moving unaffiliated Jews
“along the continuum of Jewish involvement.”

The institute examined 46 festivals. One-quarter of them are
independently run, while the others have some kind of sponsorship Jewish
institutions or organizations, such as Jewish community centers or federations.

“Film festivals serve as an entryway into the Jewish
community,” institute spokesman Paul Golin said.

For no Jewish obligation or commitment stricter than the
price of admission — and the report urges discounts — any Jew can explore new
Jewish worlds in the anonymity of a darkened movie theater.

Hannah Greenstein, the Jewish Outreach Institute’s program
officer and co-author of the film festival report, said festivals should view
their audiences the way advertisers would target buyers.

“Jewish film festivals must have an outreach goal, they must
seek out marketing opportunities to the unaffiliated or the disengaged,” she
said.

Those opportunities are booming.

The pioneering Jewish film fest, launched in 1980 in San
Francisco, has spawned more than 60 similar events annually in the United
States, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Philadelphia. Another half-dozen are held
in Canada, and about two dozen globally, from London to Hong Kong to Sao Paulo,
Brazil.

In one sure sign that the festivals have arrived, the
National Foundation for Jewish Culture sponsors an annual Jewish Film Festival
conference. The third such conference, set for San Diego in February, will
explore issues such as curating films about Israel in the Diaspora.

The foundation also receives up to 70 applicants each year
for the $150,000 it awards annually for Jewish documentary filmmaking.

Jewish “film festivals are one signal of a Jewish
renaissance” culturally, said Richard Siegel, the foundation’s executive
director. “They’re multiplying, so clearly they’re hitting a responsive chord.”

The box office is heating up too, opening the doors to even
wider Jewish involvement, the report said.

San Francisco has grown into the biggest event, attracting
34,700 people watching nearly 50 films in 2002. Toronto is next with some
15,000 people seeing over 60 films, while Boston drew a record 13,000 people
this year, up 18 percent from the previous year.

The institute’s report urges fests to program “next steps”
to greater Jewish activity. Ideas include information tables, panels of experts
around film topics or even crossover events to other communities featured in
some of the films.

Synagogue affiliation or ties to organized Jewry might come
later. But Siegel said traditional notions of Jewish affiliation — such as
synagogue membership or federation donations — must be expanded as well.

Jewish film-going is “not affiliation, it’s participation in
an active and meaningful way,” he said. “Why should a synagogue dues-payer who
attends three times a year be considered more engaged than an active
participant who debates films at a festival?”

What’s more, the film-going experience — a collective act
that is experienced individually — is “essentially what the prayer experience
is,” he said.

If Jewish film festivals are becoming the spiritual realm of
the barely initiated, then film topics run a gamut almost as wide as the great
Jewish texts. From gay Chasidic Jews (“Trembling Before G-d”) to the toxic
effects of vinyl siding on Jewish suburbia (“Blue Vinyl”) to Tel Aviv
20-somethings (“Giraffes”), Jewish filmmaking is blossoming, in part to meet
the demands of the festival scene.

In San Francisco, for example, festival officials screen 240
films a year, selecting about 50 for the annual event, Executive Director Janis
Plotkin said.

In Boston, Rubin said festival officials screened 450 films
before picking this year’s selections.

But Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National
Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and an associate professor of
Jewish film, sees a downside to the Jewish film explosion. The center, which
with more than 200 titles is the world’s largest distributor of Jewish film and
video, represents 108 filmmakers seeking distribution through the Jewish
festivals.

Whether such festivals can raise Jewish consciousness
remains an “amorphous” equation, said Pucker Rivo, who doubts that 40 good
Jewish films are produced each year.

Jewish film festivals often show films “that didn’t make it
commercially: Either they’re really lousy films or they’re inaccurate,
historically,” she said. “But the imprimatur of a film festival gives it
legitimacy.”

Just what makes a good Jewish film remains a matter of
dispute: Plotkin, for instance, gave a thumbs down to the film “Schmelvis:
Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots,” while Toronto’s 10th annual festival
hosted the film’s world premiere.

Quality aside, Pucker Rivo also remains skeptical about the
Jewish film festival phenomenon. Today’s festivals, she said, are the
successors to yesterday’s “film series.”

Whether film festivals can raise Jewish consciousness
depends on where they’re held, she added.

The most effective use of Jewish films as a hook for Jewish
involvement is to show them in venues “that have an ongoing mission which is
not just entertainment, but life cycle, whether a synagogue, a Jewish community
center or a university,” she said.

But some disagree. Plotkin, said independently run
festivals, like San Francisco’s, are accountable only to their board of
directors rather than some outside agency sponsor, and so have “complete
curatorial” freedom.

Not all Jewish film festivals even list “outreach” as part
of their picture. But San Francisco’s, among others, seeks not only to
celebrate Jewish “diversity” but to “reach out to the young and unaffiliated,”
Plotkin said.

In fact, she was “thrilled” by the outreach report, which
“validated” her festival experience. An audience survey at this year’s San
Francisco festival found that nearly 60 percent of the 34,000 patrons said they
were returning for the third straight year. Five percent said they had been
returning each year for a decade. Some 30 percent were newcomers, according to
a 2001 survey.

Those results reflected what other festival officials
sensed: They’re attracting old and new audiences who are prime outreach
targets. In San Francisco, for instance, the 2001 survey found 80 percent of
film-goers were Jews, while 64 percent were married to non-Jews.

“Secular Jews,” Plotkin said, “come to the Jewish film
festival as it if were their High Holiday.”

7 Days In Arts


7/SATURDAY

Got some time between services and your next Rosh Hashana meal? Unwinding with a book may sound nice, but perhaps that Jackie Collins paperback isn’t quite appropriate to the day. Try “Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul,” instead. Based on his work experiences, the book by Rabbi Levi Meier, Jewish chaplain of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, presents his thoughts on death and dying. He discusses subjects like dying with dignity and mystical concepts like the soul and angels.

Pitspopany Press, $24.95. Available in bookstores andonline. For more information, visit www.pitspopany.com .

8/SUNDAY

Day two of the Jewish New Year festivities. By now you’ve OD’d on mom’s famous brisket and small-talk topics – from the AMBER Alerts to Iraq – have deteriorated into dust bunnies behind Grandma’s plastic-covered sofa. What to do now that it has ended? Make a break for Café des Artists, where goyishe food and literary salvation await. Strong-jawed beauty Minnie Driver and doe-eyed ex-brat packer Andrew McCarthy take part in “Literary Stages,” reading from works by Oscar Wilde and Jewish author Tod Goldberg. Goldberg will also be on hand to sign copies of his novels.

6 p.m. (buffet dinner), 7:30 p.m. (reading). $25 (in advance), $30 (at the door). 1534 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. For reservations call (323) 465-1010.

9/MONDAY

No neurotic Jew, she. Siona Benjamin, a Sephardic artist raised in Bombay could’ve had one heck of an identity crisis. But instead, she’s embraced the influences of the many religions and cultures that have surrounded her while growing up. The result is “Finding Home: A Series of Gouache-on-Paper Works by Siona Benjamin.” Her vibrant works mix Hindu and Jewish images, as in one self-portrait in which Benjamin, as multiarmed Hindu goddess, becomes a menorah. The exhibition is on display at the USC Hillel Jewish Center, and you can hear Benjamin speak during Hillel’s Yom Kippur evening services.

Runs through Oct. 25. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday-Friday). Free. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 747-9135.

10/TUESDAY

Those of you long-time West Coast transplants yearning for bygone days of Coney Island hot dogs and stickball may find comfort at the Beverly Hills Public Library today. Currently on display is a series of images by street photographer Martin Elkort. The photographs depict scenes from New York’s Lower East Side and Coney Island, five years after the end of World War II. Elkort captures the period’s general optimism and innocence through these documentary-style pictures. Kind of like a “Time Warp” minus Tim Curry in drag.

444 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 288-2220.

11/WEDNESDAY

It’s hard to believe one year has passed since Sept. 11, 2001. And while we’ll each find our own ways to personally commemorate the day, there are also public memorials and television specials planned. For those of you planning to stay home with your families, you may want to consider Showtime’s “Reflections from Ground Zero.” Spike Lee hosts this showcase of nine short student films. They range from Serguei Bassine’s animated piece about a woman trapped in the World Trade Center to Rachel Zabar’s documentary “One Life,” about David Harlow Rice, a man who died in the attacks.

5:45 p.m. Showtime. Also airs Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. For moreinformation, visit www.sho.com

12/THURSDAY

You’ve heard all the “Fuhrer Furor” in the pages of this paper. Along the same vein is a panel discussion at the Getty Center about “Biography on Film.” Academy Award-winning documentarian Mark Jonathan Harris and artist Péter Forgacs discuss their approaches to documenting the Holocaust. Special guests from various academic institutions are scheduled to attend as well.

7 p.m. Free. Museum Lecture Hall, J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-7330.

13/FRIDAY

It’s low-brow night at the Alex Theatre as the Alex Film Society presents “Vaudeville Returns.” World Hula-Hoop champion Mat Pendl astounds and amazes; “Top Banana” Bruce Block yucks it up; and for the main event, the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” is also on the, ahem, bill. So don the Groucho glasses proudly. After all, what’s Friday the 13th without a touch of the bizarre?

8 p.m. $15 (adults), $12 (children). 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. For more information, call (818) 243-2539.

Reading Into the Holidays


A few years ago, Aish HaTorah Rabbi Yaacov Deyo (of SpeedDating fame) presented me with a book before Rosh Hashana. With this simple, gracious gesture he changed forever the way I relate to what can be the most daunting time on the Jewish calendar.

Passover seders, Purim carnivals and the lighting of the Chanukah menorah all have a festive air. The High Holidays are a sober contrast, observed primarily in temple. People who may never set foot in synagogue the other 360 days of the year attend lengthy, solemn services throughout Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Even in our jaded culture, these days are approached with a sense of reverence. Yet this reverence, that binds us so strongly as a community, can also block us from connecting to the holidays on a personal level.

Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles which can help make the start of the Jewish year a time to be embraced rather than endured.

A good place to begin might be "Tastes of Jewish Tradition — Recipes, Activities and Stories for the Entire Family" by Jody Hirsh, et al (Wimmer Cookbooks, $26.95). Produced by the JCC of Milwaukee, this book is extremely accessible. There is a chapter devoted to every festival on the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat. A historical/biblical overview of what the holiday is about is accompanied by lesser-known information (such as a description of a North African Rosh Hashana seder). Then there are recipes — some classic, some innovative. Finally, as the title promises, there are activities to appeal to the whole family. Crafts are geared toward younger kids, while projects such as creating a "Book of Life Scrapbook" offer a chance for people of different ages to reflect together on the past year.

Another book that is both reflective and interactive is Shimon Apisdorf’s "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit" (Leviathan Press, $14.95). Apisdorf writes with a soft-spoken intimacy, as though he were sitting across the table with a cup of hot tea. Discussing the short teruah notes of the shofar, he encourages, "Before you rush in headlong to the New Year energized by your rekindled convictions, pause for a moment. Let the sense of inspiration settle in. Let it fill your soul."

Throughout the text, he manages to bring to life the poetic, meditative essence of Jewish worship. A more cerebral take can be found in "Entering the High Holy Days — a Guide to the Origins, Themes and Prayers" by Reuven Hammer (The Jewish Publication Society, $29.95). This book examines the rituals and themes of the holidays with the aim of showing "how they are woven together to form a magnificent tapestry that encompasses the many facets of life."&’9;&’9;

This incredibly thorough volume is replete with details. There is a step-by-step outline of a Rosh Hashana ceremonial meal. Translations of entire prayers appear with commentary. What is most impressive about this work is that it is consistently didactic without being pedantic.

There are also a number of Web sites where people can tap into the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One that stands out in particular is the World Zionist Organization’s site www.wzo.org.il. Holiday articles can be accessed by typing "Rosh Hashana" into the "Search" box on the upper right corner of the page. These articles offer thoughts that blend the traditional with the personal. They are informative and witty, and they offer fresh insights in a decidedly casual tone. For instance, in "TENtative Thoughts — the Ten Commandments and the Ten Days From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur," Robin Treistman addresses Web surfers directly: "Here’s my idea: I will present a guide for each day parallel to each of the 10 categories. The only rule is there are no rules."

To their credit, Treistman and the other contributors successfully maintain a degree of levity without crossing into disrespect. It is a tribute to these writers and a testament to the real-world orientation inherent to Jewish spirituality.

The books and articles available on the High Holidays are as varied in style as the Jewish community itself. What’s important to remember is that there really is something for everyone, an open door for anyone who’ll knock. Happy reading.

Local Rabbi’s Suggestions for High Holiday Reading

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, educational coordinator, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jewish Studies Institute: "’Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)’ by Agnon. Nobody tells it better."

Rabbi Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple: "’Finding God’ by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. Selected reading on this topic does exactly what the title indicates."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, faculty, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles; Sidney M. Irmas chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School: "The single book that I recommend the most is ‘On Repentance’ by Rav Soloveitchik. It is deep, beautiful, and inspiring."

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, University Synagogue: "Milton Steinberg’s novel ‘As a Driven Leaf’ brings up Jewish identity in a complex modern world. How a Jew deals with these things is especially important at this time of year."

Rabbi Samuel Lieberman, Congregation Beth Israel: "I would say to read ‘Shaarei Teshuva [Gates of Repentance]’ by Rabbeinu Yona, and anything on Jewish law, to know how to conduct oneself during these days and throughout the year."

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, currently teaching for Isralight: "There’s such a wealth, such an ocean of material on the Internet — and articles are much more digestible than books. So it’s a wonderful, practical way to go."

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Makom Ohr Shalom: "’Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters’ by Adin Steinsaltz. This book lives up to its title. A master of Jewish thought shares meditations on words, good, evil, envy, death, family, love, God and even Hollywood."

Eli Stern, outreach director, Westwood Kehilla: "I would suggest reading through the ‘Artscroll Machzor.’ It gives commentary and explanation throughout all the services, so it’s a good preparation."

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr Hatorah: "For the moral dimension, I always study ‘Cheshbon Hanefesh’ by Menachem Mendel of Satanov. I tend to focus on Chasidic texts."

Aaron Benson, rabbinic intern, Congregation Beth Meier: "Just look through the Machzor itself. Look at it as literature and poetry, rather than just an instruction manual." — Denise Berger, Contributing Writer