Purim with the cows

What blew me away about the synagogue wasn’t the painting on the wall of the old Moroccan rebbe Meier Baal Ness, which I had never seen anywhere else — noteven in Sephardic synagogues — and which brought back memories of going on pilgrimages with my family as a child in Morocco.

Nor was it the charity baskets — one at the entrance of the shul that contained food for a homeless shelter, the other in the back of the shul that was part of a bat mitzvah charity project.

Nor was it the megillah reading by a Portuguese Jew with a melodic style and Ladino enunciation I had not heard before.

No, those things were interesting and aroused my curiosity, but what really blew me away were the cows.

Hundreds of cows.

Cows that I saw as I drove for miles through the rugged farmlands of Central Oregon before reaching a dirt road that took me to a little synagogue planted right in the middle of five acres of prairie desert.

It was a shul called Shalom Bayit, the pride and joy of the Jewish Community of Central Oregon.

The first person who greeted my daughter and me was a man in his mid-50s dressed in drag, with a bright green wig, lots of jewelry and a pretty red dress with an open back. His name was Rabbi Jay Shupack, and he reminded me that everyone must get dressed up on Purim and be really silly. He wasn’t too impressed with the clown bowtie I was wearing on my all-white outfit, so he quickly rummaged through a basket of costume hats and offered me a few.

This was my introduction to the little Jewish community of Bend, Ore., where my daughter Shanni goes to school and where I found myself last week searching for a Purmim party and a megillah reading — 700 miles and a few worlds away from Pico Boulevard.

As the rabbi was reading the megillah, engaging the congregants with questions and drawing parallels between Haman and Ahmadinejad, one thought preoccupied me: Who are all these Jews in weird costumes, and how did they get here?

There must be millions of stories throughout the ages of how little Jewish communities came to be, many of which we never hear about because they don’t have any particular drama or relevance beyond their immediate surrounding — quiet stories that stay forever lodged in the memory of the locals.

The story of the Jewish community of Bend is one of them. It’s about a group of Jews from places as far away as South Africa, Denmark and Israel, and from areas all across America, who found themselves and each other on a wide-open land and became Jewish settlers.

It’s about Jews like Izzie Oren, an Israeli rancher who fought in the Yom Kippur War and who decided one day to open a dude ranch in Oregon, who became a founding member of Shalom Bayit.

It’s also about Alice Shapiro, who was living in Ohio 15 years ago when she decided to look for another place to live. She remembered that on a cross-country tour she took with her family years earlier, she had fallen in love with “the special air of Bend,” a fragrant mountain and desert air she yearned to rediscover.

In the midst of the Purim partying, Shapiro recalled that when she first came to Bend, there were only a few Jewish families who would arrange occasional prayer services in church basements and private living rooms.

Eventually, they all decided to get serious and hire a rabbi, and out of the five rabbis they interviewed, guess which one they picked? The one who did a puppet show with his wife to tell the story of Chanukah — during his interview.

Rabbi Jay Shupack, a yeshiva boy from Philadelphia who was part of the Jewish Renewal movement and who was once a cantor for a Chabad in San Diego, is one of those Renaissance Jews who’s hard to figure out, because you get a sense he’d be comfortable with any Jew, from the most ultra-Orthodox to the most liberal.

He’s also very comfortable with nature, which might explain why the Shalom Bayit synagogue is powered by 36 solar panels that produce one-third of the electricity they need, and that he dreams of building a windmill one day that will power the whole shul.

While Rabbi Shupack was going on about the great leaders of the shul — people like Steve Leventhal, who was there at the very beginning — he also mentioned the shul’s resident “bubbe,” Marion Tannen, who’s almost 90, and its resident “zayde,” Monroe Weinberg, who’s in his 80s and who still writes songs that he plays on his ukulele to entertain the kids.

Today, the community has reached a milestone: With about 100 families and a budding Sunday school program, it has outgrown its space. So they’ve set up a committee that is helping plan their future and answer questions like: Should they do a major expansion? Should they invest in more educators? Should they start a new building fund?

You hear all these familiar issues, and it’s tempting to think that Shalom Bayit is just like any other shul you might find here in Pico-Robertson.

But it’s hard to forget the cows.

I took a walk outside during the Purim festivities, and as twilight fell on a land that looked like it reached all the way to the sun, I couldn’t help asking myself: Which neighborhood is more Jewish, the one with a hundred shuls and kosher markets and storefronts that bathe your eye in Jewishness, or the neighborhood with one tribe of Jews surrounded by miles of endless land?

I thought I knew the answer a week ago, but after my Purim in Bend, I’m not so sure.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Spectator – A Three Nyuks Salute

Three Jews are in a room screaming at one another, poking each other in the eyes, hitting each other on the head with objects ranging from frying pans to anvils. It’s either a meeting of the synagogue’s board of trustees or a Three Stooges film festival. Fortunately, this time, it’s the latter, a quick but lethal — and lethally funny — display of Stoogehood by the American Cinematheque as part of its year-end festivities from Dec. 28-Dec.30.

Why the Stooges? Well this is the 70th anniversary of the inestimable trio’s signing by Columbia Pictures, the momentous contract that locked them into the comfortable prison block of the short-films unit at the studio. (Given that the Stooges started with the “Lady With the Lamp” in 1934 and released their first short for Columbia, “Woman Haters,” that year, logic would seem to dictate that this is the 71st anniversary, but logic seldom came onto the horizon where the Stooges are concerned.)

The Stooges would toil long and hard making films that ranged from 15 minutes to the much rarer expansiveness of 20 minutes. By the time the boys had reached the pinnacle of the industry, Jerome and Samuel Howard (better know as Curly and Shemp) had been dead several years, and Moe Howard (ne Horwitz) and Larry Fine (ne Feinberg) were well past their prime. Adding Joe Besser and Joe DeRita (a.k.a. Curly Joe) in succession as third Stooges did nothing to help, and the scripts that the boys were saddled with can best be judged by a trip to Cinematheque for “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules,” a woeful 1962 extravaganza that suffers from too little money, too few gags and too much running time.

The Stooges shorts are sharp, savage, funny and, yes, vulgar. The comedy short never lent itself to great sophistication. When geniuses like Keaton and Chaplin wanted to explore more complex modes of moviemaking and richer thematic relationships, they moved into features.

The Stooges were never so fortunate, but the best of their shorts, like “You Nazty Spy!” is pointed in its satire of Hitler (here played by the oldest Howard brother as Moe Hailstone of Moronica), and goes for his jugular with a gusto that prestige features of the time didn’t dare. Were the Stooges comic geniuses? No, but they had the sterling comic timing of the professional funnyman, hard-won in a thousand tank towns on the vaudeville circuit, and that is more than enough.

The American Cinematheque is showing the Three Stooges in “You Nazty Spy!” before the screening of “The Cocoanuts” on Wednesday,Dec. 28 at 7:30 p.m.; “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules,” preceded by “We Want Our Mummy” will be shown the following night at 7:30 p.m. Finally, on Friday, Dec. 30 at 7:30 p.m., the Cinematheque comemorates “The Three Stooges’ 70th Anniversary with a program of six of their best shorts, “Men in Black,” which merited their only Oscar nominee for best live-action short “Horses’ Collars.” “From Nurse To Worse,” “Squareheads Of The Round Table,” “An Ache in Every Stake” and “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” which concludes with of the greatest pie-fight sequences ever perpetrated. All programs will be shown at the Aero Theater (1328 Montana Ave. at 14th Street) in Santa Monica. For more information visit http://www.americancinematheque.com/Aero/tickets.htm’Tickets.

George Robinson is film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

Spiritual Redevelopment

Cantor Mark Saltzman spent Sunday, Oct. 28 wearing a smile that could solve California’s energy crisis.

Leading his congregation in a member-composed rendering of "Ki Bayti" ("Because This Is My Home"), Saltzman had reason to smile. After nine years of searching, fundraising, working and praying, Congregation Kol Ami inaugurated its 7,000-square-foot permanent home in West Hollywood.

The afternoon’s festivities began with a procession, as Rabbi Denise Eger led congregants, friends and community supporters down two closed-off lanes of La Brea. From there, the Kol Ami crew filed into a tent in the synagogue courtyard for a dedication ceremony, and then finally home, into the new building.

Founded in 1992, Kol Ami is West Hollywood’s only Reform synagogue. The 250-member congregation is the first predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue in the United States to construct its own building, an achievement made possible by an ambitious campaign which raised $2.4 million in pledges.

Kol Ami’s mission of providing a nurturing environment for Jews of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles extends beyond its core gay and lesbian membership. As State Senator Sheila James Kuehl, the first open lesbian in the California Legislature, noted in her remarks to the congregation, "This house is not our house, it’s God’s house."

In its 10-year history, Kol Ami has become "part of the fabric of West Hollywood’s community life," Eger says. Previously, Kol Ami held services at West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. With a home of its own, "the synagogue will function as a center for activity and social action," Eger says.

Situated at the Northeast corner of West Hollywood in a redevelopment zone, the synagogue represents another aspect of Kol Ami’s place within the fabric of the city — what Eger calls "the mitzvah of redevelopment."

Among the celebrants carrying Torah scrolls, before joining Eger on the podium for the dedication service, were West Hollywood Mayor Jeff Prang; assemblymember Paul Koretz; state senator Kuehl; and county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who have "all been good friends of the temple," the rabbi says. Yaroslavsky congratulated the congregation on its success in facing the numerous hurdles to building. "I know what it’s like to build a synagogue," he said, "I know even better what it’s like to get zoning for a synagogue."

The Kol Ami building was architect Josh Schweitzer’s first synagogue. "And, since he’s not Jewish, he was kind of like a blank slate," Eger says. To prepare, the rabbi and the architect studied Torah together, particularly sections of Exodus "so he could understand this process and tradition of freedom."