Apologies in the age of #SorryNotSorry


By now, just about everyone knows the art of hashtags — a word or phrase preceded by a # sign used either to tag a conversation so people can easily follow it, or as a sarcastic and often deeply truthful commentary on the statement that had just preceded it. Some hashtags resonate deeply in public consciousness for various reasons, such as #BringBackOurGirls or #BlackLivesMatter, which have helped shape social media activism. Others, such as #FirstWorldProblems, are meant as wry commentary, in this case to acknowledge that what is being complained about is a problem only for the privileged, and not so important when you consider other “real” problems in the world. 

One hashtag on the rise is #sorrynotsorry, a phrase meant to indicate that the apology — the “sorry” — comes because it’s expected of you, but not necessarily because you mean it. Invoking the #sorrynotsorry can be a proudly defiant move when, for example, pointing out something unpopular or in poor or questionable taste that you know will upset other people (real example: “not all babies are cute #sorrynotsorry”). In such a case, it serves as a righteous proclamation that the writer feels justified — perhaps even righteous — for speaking up.

For me, however, #sorrynotsorry reminds me of the High Holy Days. 

Back in yeshiva day school (elementary school through the end of high school), our teachers made it clear that even more important than clearing your record with God in that big Book of Life was making sure you were square with the people around you. So, every fall, students ran around to everyone — their closest friends, mortal enemies and even acquaintances — demanding forgiveness. “Do you moychel [forgive] me?” they’d ask, fueled by a pedagogically imparted imperative to seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, arrived. If someone wouldn’t forgive you, you had to ask him or her again. After asking for the third time, if you still weren’t forgiven, the onus was no longer on you. 

This “Do you forgive me?” exercise drove me crazy — yes, in part because everyone suddenly inserted a Hebrew word in the middle of an English sentence, but also because it was thrown off casually, and — no matter what high school torture the asker had inflicted on you before that question — you had to say yes. Then the person you’d just “forgiven” would be back to torturing you by lunchtime. When my high school enemy — who regularly made me feel bad about myself — asked me cavalierly, “Do you moychel me?” my mouth said yes because I was expected to, and my heart said, “No, no, a million times no.” Technically, she was saying “sorry” in that moment, but when she went back to insisting that I allow her to cheat off of me during an exam later that same day, her actions said, “Not sorry.” And because this happened annually, my “I forgive you” was really an “I don’t forgive you.” So even though “sorrynotsorry” is now an Internet term, its roots go much deeper, back into all those times we’ve said sorry because it was expected, not because we had considered our actions and realized we were wrong.

Think about the last time you asked someone to forgive you for something you’d done. Or about the last time someone came to you and said, “I’ve been thinking about that thing I said, and I’m really sorry. I hope you can forgive me.” It rarely happens. And I can’t help but blame “Do you moychel me?” a lesson without depth, an educational imperative that didn’t trust us to process the active ideas and intentions behind forgiveness. It became a joke, thereby becoming the opposite of what “sorry” was supposed to accomplish.

In the Internet space and in life, an attitude of #sorrynotsorry undermines the practice of cheshbon ha-nefesh (taking an accounting of our souls), of examining our actions and trying to modify our behavior. It’s an apology backtrack, a proud proclamation that the rules of society don’t apply to us — we’re right, so we shouldn’t have to apologize, not to anyone. 

What might have happened if any of those kids when formulating that question with their throats, tongues and lips had actually put their brains, hearts and souls into it? Maybe it is a lot to ask from children or Twitter users. But I believe there’s a way to explain that “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” are phrases that accompany, but don’t replace, the imperative to plumb the depths of your soul, not just because you’ve been told to, but as part of an overall annual (or more frequent) emotional inventory. 

Perhaps I’m being unkind to my teachers, about whom I will definitely think during the appropriate space in the Al Chet confessional prayers on Yom Kippur. But since we’re speaking of Al Chet, it’s worth noting that this litany of sins we confess and beat our breasts about are a confessional between God and us. Perhaps our teachers’ approach was more about giving us the other half of that recitation: getting us in the habit of speaking words intended to connect us with other people, creating a muscle memory of sorts. Then, when we became adults, we’d know the script and speak the words with intention and contrition. Maybe it was an unsung success; there are likely a good number of us who do just that. 

When words are hollow, they nevertheless contain a space of potential at their center. It’s up to us to take the words requesting forgiveness, consider them seriously and speak our lines with intention so that “sorry” means something deep and true, something that would never be followed by “not sorry.” 

Esther D. Kustanowitz, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is a writer, editor and consultant with nearly two decades of experience as a Jewish nonprofit professional. She is currently the editorial director of GrokNation.

When saying sorry, don’t just speak–act


Last week, I betrayed a trust.

It was accidental, a seemingly small, ordinary mistake rooted in simple human forgetfulness (and perhaps a speck of carelessness if I’m being honest about it), but a mistake that nevertheless affected a friend’s life in a serious way. I felt awful, so I did what little I could to repair the shattered trust: I apologized sincerely. I promised myself I wouldn’t slip up again. And, when saying sorry didn’t feel like enough, I wrote a check.

Donating money to my friend’s favorite charity wasn’t designed to win her forgiveness or absolve my responsibility. That may be beyond my reach. But it was an action that I hope reinforced to both of us the seriousness of my regret. I may never erase that wrong, but doing some amount of good in her honor felt like a step in the right direction, a reminder to keep trying amid and despite moments of personal failure.

In Judaism, a sense of justice rarely ends at apology alone; it’s laced with action, too. Admitting mistakes to oneself and to others helps maintain the social glue that keeps us able to function as a community. But written Scripture and oral tradition also demand a moral and legal reckoning for putting wrongs to right. Concepts such as tikkun olam, or repairing the world through just action, go hand in hand with virtues of apology to God and to our fellows. Together, these ideas interlock into a pattern of behavior that’s often held aloft as the paragon of an ethical Jewish life: Doing the right thing not to reach some higher echelon after death, but for the sake of goodness alone.

To me, the ancient and modern actions that buttress apology — settling a fine with livestock, cooking someone their favorite treat or donating funds electronically — aren’t just punitive. In fact, I’ll argue that capping off an admission of guilt with a kind gesture can do as much for the “transgressor” (to use the language of the High Holy Days) as it does for the wronged. The way I see it, attempting to correct a mistake has the added effect of mentally repaving the principled path we’re meant to follow year-round — as Jews, yes, and as ordinary people, too. 

The moral math I’m proposing isn’t exactly tit-for-tat. Does buying a few extra boxes of Girl Scout Cookies make up for speeding off after tapping a car in a crowded parking lot? Of course not. How about holding open a door for someone after snapping at your parent or spouse? Not a chance (but hold the door anyway). 

Whitewashing bad behavior with good doesn’t do enough to address the initial complaint, especially when there’s an opportunity to smooth things over one on one, as uncomfortable, awkward and clumsy as that discussion may be.

In traditional Jewish belief, asking for forgiveness from the person we impacted is the only way to adequately settle the score, but we have no control over the outcome of that exchange, especially if the degree of hurt is more severe than “sorry.” What if they don’t forgive? And are placating words really enough?

Think back. Has there been a time of true remorse in your life that you’d rather spackle over than leave exposed? I’m guessing that for many, doing something the wrong way leaves a mark on us as well as on the person we’ve mistreated, intentionally or not. If you feel unworthy after extending the olive branch, like I did, now is the time to telescope your apology into something bigger. Engaging in a selfless act, such as picking up a shift at the local food bank, could help soothe your damaged sense of self while also doing right by someone else.

Every fall, the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays offer a framework for admitting personal and collective wrongdoings. I take comfort in their formal, ritualized mechanism for expressing contrition: the vocal admission of all the not-so-nice things we humans are capable of, and the chest-tapping that physically warns against our baser instincts.

Together, we may not have embezzled great sums from our workplace or “run to do evil,” but the sentiment is clear: You may not have done this, but you’ve probably done something.

A central tenet during the High Holy Days season is the Hebrew word teshuvah. It embraces the concept of “returning,” and is a kinder, gentler alternative to the more prescriptive, condemning idea of “atoning” for one’s sins. Teshuvah invites us to return to blameless behavior and to pick up where we left off, forging the best version of ourselves we can possibly be. But what of our “sins,” which still lead back to us like a trail of blackened breadcrumbs? These cannot be returned. Unable to go back, to sweep away past actions we’re ashamed of, we must do our best to step forward.

It pains me to admit that my uglier instincts aren’t as straitjacketed as I’d like them to be. Every week I seem to behave in ways I wish I hadn’t, snapping at people who don’t really deserve my ire, or acting selfishly when it wouldn’t kill me to be a bit more patient and generous. I suspect I’m not alone. We hear it all of the time: Humans are fallible creatures, prone to rampages of egotistical self-importance, and bound up in micro-dramas of daily life. But I can’t help but think that if, after apologizing, we start to counterbalance bad deeds with better ones, then we again silence our ever-escaping demons and again encourage ourselves to live the right way. And if, in the process, our homes, our relationships, our neighborhoods benefit, then I wouldn’t apologize
for that. 

A California native, Jessica Dolcourt has nurtured a lifelong passion for Jewish issues and writing. She also writes about technology for CNET.

Oh so sorry


I’m sorry I haven’t eaten more hot dogs. 

Saturday is Selichot, the time when the whole Jewish world sings with Connie Francis, “I’m sorry,” and vows to do better next time. Many of us are focused on the wrongs we’ve done to others, or even to God. 

This year, however, as I contemplate in yet a new way the impact of lung cancer, there’s no one to whom I owe apology more than myself. 

Yes, many of my apologies go to me. I should have eaten more hot dogs, with mustard and sauerkraut. And even more hush puppies, which in Jewish delis are hot dogs wrapped in potato knish, served best (if not only) in New York. 

I know what you’re thinking: you were only watching your health. But if you want a hot dog and never give yourself a hot dog, what are you accomplishing? Fear of food is, I think, a crime against the soul, the shutting down of the appetite by which we show our confidence in being alive. 

For years I refused to eat popcorn at the movies. I was a college student and deemed myself too good for plebeian food. That year, a New York theater started popping its kernels and brewing its own coffee to sell with the latest Belmondo film. Popcorn brought great enjoyment to my next James Bond movie. Sean Connery is such a hunk, and I apologized profusely to myself for having missed out on the great all-American experience — albeit without butter. 

If I’m going to keep the appetite going, I have to respond to where the taste buds tingle. 

Since I received a lung cancer diagnosis, I’ve been macrobiotic, lived on smoothies, Chinese herbs, Ensure shakes. But even before I was fanatic. I ate pasta with broccoli. Broccoli, with Vitamin C, may reduce breast cancer. I never smoked cigarettes, which is linked to 85 percent of lung cancers. 

Today, when it might help, my body is in overdose. I avoid any food colored green. I’m no doctor, but any one of these regimens destroys appetite in all its meanings faster than a hot dog now and again. It’s the luck of the draw. Eat a hot dog or not, you can get cancer anyway. Might as well live. 

And although early on I cut out sugar and dairy, ice cream is now my dinner of choice. 

I begrudge myself nothing. If you don’t express your appetite, what comes next? Soon you won’t have any. A friend will ask if you want to eat by the ocean, and you won’t know. Soon enough, you miss the summer sunset, and the blooming begonia, and the loveliness of a child’s smile. It takes will to live. 

More hot dogs. More fun. 

Lung cancer taught me that what we do today is fun. Tomorrow the bill comes due. Develop taste. Don’t be a snob. Don’t live in regret. Don’t worry about where your cancer is going to come from. When you have to know, you will. 

One year, when I was new to Selichot, I sent around a list. I knew what I had done to everyone. They, of course, had long ago forgiven me. But it’s different to pardon myself. 

At the base of the apologies I owe myself, is a youth spent trying to stay in control. I thought I had it covered. I didn’t know anything. 

S’lach lanu. Forgive us. Forgive me for thinking I had anything under control. 

That’s not the only amends I owe myself. I’m sorry I kept slipcovers on the living room couch for more than a decade. I regret that it took me years to decide to paint the kitchen, and less than a month to get the job done. 

I underestimated the pleasure that comes from pleasure; that playing the piano badly is not a crime against humanity; that nothing beats the joy of making up my own mind and paying my own way. 

I’m sorry, but I’m not guilty. I’m sorry for the false truths accepted and fun cut short without thought. I’m aware of hours spent trying to explain myself — what a waste. Years spent pursuing trivial goals — why? I was definite about ideas I knew nothing about. 

So much gets squeezed on to a hot dog.

Chesed by choice


For many of us, the month of Elul and the High Holy Days are our personal and communal time for introspection. The work we do for ourselves as Jews is significant as we take the opportunity to make teshuvah (forgiveness) to others and to God and to improve our lives. 

This year, I believe that recent experiences in my life offer powerful lessons for growth. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can lend consolation to anyone who has been mistreated by words and to prevent others from repeating the wrong done to me. 

Fifteen years ago, I became a Jew by Choice. I made this transformational decision willingly and with a whole heart. I was married under a chuppah, and, two years later, my husband and I were blessed with our first son. We rejoiced in the life of our son — another Jew to be counted in the world. We were highly motivated to give him a strong Jewish identity and education, so we enrolled him in the nursery school at our synagogue and immersed ourselves in our new role as parents. 

The battery of questions began immediately from people we barely knew. “Did you convert?” “How does your family and your husband’s family feel about your conversion?” “Do you celebrate Christmas and Christian holidays?” “How are you raising your children?”

I understood that people were naturally curious, so I welcomed the opportunity to introduce myself to them, to be open and frank, and to tell my story and even share personal experiences with them. 

A few years later, our second son was born. By now, we were “tenured parents,” yet the routine questions about my conversion still persisted from parents who were new to us. This time I resented the questioning and thought people were out of line. After all, we had been members of the synagogue for five years, and I felt so at home and comfortable in my Jewish skin. We celebrated Shabbat, kept a Jewish home and had our children on a secure and substantial Jewish path of learning, both at school and at home. 

I suppressed my longing to resist and not answer. Instead, I decided to be a good sport with the understanding that this was a new and curious group of folks who wanted to learn about me, or, at worst, felt entitled to ask any questions they wanted. I became a pro at answering them and could even predict which questions would come first, second and third. I literally could have passed out an answer sheet, because the questions were so predictable and repetitive. 

Fast forward to now. I am an involved parent and resident in my local community. Recently, I was in the presence of two friends having a conversation about local politics. One of them cautioned me about getting too involved in the local scene and told me that I would be looked upon as a “convert” and that my “children are not really Jewish.” I immediately responded that I never wanted to hear that said to me or anyone and that the comments were offensive. Unfortunately, the other person present remained silent in the face of what was said.

I felt consumed with shame and sadness, but most of all I felt as though someone had literally put a stake into my heart and soul. This was a transgression committed by a Jew against another Jew — the convert. I was unprepared for the unfurling of such hateful words, even in politics. I wanted to tell my mother and brother, but I could not bring myself to do that. What would they think of my life, my community and the lives of my three children? I told my husband, which proved to be an extremely painful experience for both us. 

So why am I writing this today? As a Jew by Choice, I know there are some who will never see me as an authentic Jew. That does not bother me as much as the vulgar and judgmental remarks about my children’s Jewishness. As a Jew by Choice I chose my life, but my children came into the world through me and know no other life. Yet some Jews feel entitled to judge my children openly, as well as through whispers. This experience has allowed me to understand prejudice not from outsiders, but from those within my own community. The enormity of the lesson here is that in the absence of courage, silence is wrong, and that words have tremendous power. 

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed writes, “After a person converts to Judaism, he is like any other Jew. In fact, one must be more sensitive to his feelings than those of other Jews. This is because of the extreme difficulties that a convert faces.” This year, these words have resonated through my experience and have served as a pillar of strength during the month of Elul. 

As the High Holy Days approached, I recently spoke to my rabbi about this experience. I asked him, “How do I forgive the other, when that person has failed to ask me for forgiveness for the hurt and pain they caused?” He paraphrased a teaching by Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, who defined chesed (which we often translate as “loving kindness”) as acting more generously toward someone than they deserve. And the greatest act of chesed is life itself, given to us by God, because who among us earned consciousness before we got it? My rabbi also passed on a wonderful drash by Rabbi Shai Held. Held speaks of our signature role in life being to pay chesed going forward by acting more generously to others than even perhaps they have earned. One way of doing that is by granting forgiveness, even if it has not been begged for. It is an act of chesed not only to the other, but to the self, because it frees the self and the soul from the gripping tension of being angry, even legitimately angry. 

I remain on the path I began 15 years ago and can reconcile myself with my creator, and I go forward with Jewish wisdom as my touchstone. Today, I choose chesed. This year, more than ever, I understand the powerful opportunity we as Jews are given year after year to forge new beginnings. It is an amazing gift, and I feel deep appreciation for the personal meaning and significance of the High Holy Days. Fifteen years ago, I chose the path of Ruth, and today, more than ever, I remain deeply committed to the teachings of the Torah that are alive for me and for each and every one of us. 

L’Shanah Tovah.

Love in the time of Elul


I confess there’s something that’s always bothered me about this time of year, when we put such a big emphasis on reflecting on our mistakes. Why only now? Isn’t this something we should be doing all year? As a community, we certainly do plenty of it, through the very act of constantly challenging one another.

We don’t wait for the month of Elul to expose our communal failures. We do it every day on Facebook, on blogs, in our community papers, in letters to the editors, at our Shabbat tables, at conferences and anywhere else we come into contact with Jews with whom we disagree.

The essence of this time of year, however, is very personal, and it calls for repentance — the notion that after we identify our mistakes of the past year, we must repent to God and to those we have hurt.

But if we have to repent, why wait a whole year? 

Wouldn’t it be better to ask for forgiveness promptly, while the mistakes are still fresh in everyone’s mind and before they have a chance to fester?

This is why the year-end ritual is often not taken seriously, with many people asking for mechilla (forgiveness) just to be safe, without being exactly sure how they messed up.

I understand the religious timing. The 40 days that comprise the month of Elul and the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur symbolize the 40 days some 3,300 years ago at Sinai when our ancestors wondered if God would ever forgive them for their fling with the Golden Calf.

When Moses came down from the mountain on the day that is now Yom Kippur to announce that God had indeed forgiven the Jews and given them a second chance (and a second set of tablets), it gave these 40 days a halo of Divine goodwill.

“During the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, so to speak,” Rabbi Yossi Marcus writes on AskMoses.com. “During the rest of the year He is like a king sitting in his palace, receiving guests by appointment only. … Not so during Elul. Then the King is ‘out in the field.’ He’s in a good mood and anyone can come and talk to him. The protocol of the palace is discarded.

“Elul is the time when we are given a leg up, a Divine boost, in our spiritual careers.”

I get that, but it still bothers me. First, God can’t forgive us for our sins against other people, and those people are always available if we want to seek forgiveness. And two, as far as our sins against God, shouldn’t an all-powerful Creator always be in the field to listen to our pleas and help our “spiritual careers”?

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we took more of a yearlong approach to the spiritual staples of Elul and the High Holy Days. What, then, could we focus on at this time of year? What spiritual staple could we add? 

I would vote for love.

Yes, love.

It’s a word Christians use religiously, but Jews evidently find too shmaltzy and nebulous.

But here’s the point: Until we remind ourselves of what and why and whom we love, we can’t truly repent and, ultimately, renew ourselves, which is the highest purpose of the High Holy Days. Love elevates and deepens the whole process.

The more we love, the better we repent, the deeper we renew.

We can deepen our love in countless areas. There is our love for the gifts God has given us; our love for the world He has created, with all its imperfections; our love for our people and our story, with all our imperfections; our love for our family, our Torah, our friends, our community, our soul mates, and the needy stranger; our love for repairing the world.

Just as we delve into Torah study, we can delve into love. We can study what our Sages, holy books and commentators say about love. We can contemplate the unique power of this commandment and why it’s a lot more complicated than just saying or thinking, “I love you.” 

By developing a deeper spiritual and intellectual attachment to love, we may also find it easier to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

Of course, the more we refine and practice love, the less we’ll hurt people and have to ask for forgiveness in the first place. 

Elul itself suggests love. In Hebrew, the word is also an acronym for “I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine” (“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”), the famous quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the “I” is the Jewish people. What better way to honor the month of Elul than through a reaffirmation of our love for all God has given us, including love itself?

Jews are very good at the tough stuff — the criticism, the tough love, the arguing, even the diligent davening. Maybe what we need now, in preparation for the hard work of repentance, is to immerse ourselves in the even harder work of internalizing that elusive and transcendent commandment we call love.

How could God not love that? 


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

High Holy Days: The curse of being right


How many of us have been going around during these Days of Repentance apologizing to those we have wronged during the past year? Be honest. Have you made your list of the people you have hurt and the offenses that have hurt them? When you have apologized, have you settled for the classic cop-out: “If I have hurt you in any way, please forgive me”? Or have you simply asked for mechilla — forgiveness — and moved on?

Here we are facing one of the most important acts of the Jewish tradition —asking forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed against God’s children, and for which God cannot forgive us — and so many of us are left bewildered, paralyzed, distracted.

It’s so much easier to ask God for forgiveness than to ask another human.

If you lost your temper with your mother, or made too much noise for the neighbors, or were rude with a customer, or flaked out on your brother, or ignored your wife when she needed you, or yelled at your kid who deserved better, or mistreated your business partner, or bullied one of your suppliers, will you go to each one individually and ask for their forgiveness for that specific offense?

Why is it so difficult to say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up”?

I’m no psychiatrist, but I have this theory that one of the greatest human pleasures is to be right. In fact, it’s more than a pleasure — it’s a deep need. Being right is like an emotional fortress that we build for ourselves to provide shelter against a cold and scary world. The minute we sense that we’re “wrong” about something, we feel the walls of this fortress start to crumble. The enemy called Doubt has breached the walls and threatens to destabilize our lives. 

That’s why it can be so hard to say, “I’m sorry.” An apology is an admission that we’re wrong. It’s as if we were attacking our own fortress of certainty.

This certainty makes sense for some core principles and ethics, but when it infiltrates all of our views and our general attitude toward life, we pay a heavy price.

For one thing, certainty stifles curiosity and leads to a duller life. If you spend most of your time with people who agree with you and reinforce your certainty, how interesting is that?

But much worse, certainty makes us do things we end up regretting. When do we get angry and say hurtful things? When we’re sure we’re right. It’s like a narcotic that hypnotizes us into acting like someone else. I’ve seen kind, civil people get really angry when their positions of absolute certainty are challenged.

It’s easy to be humble when you know for sure you’re wrong, as when you’re facing a traffic cop who’s about to nail you for burning a red light. But what about when you know for sure you’re right, as when you’re sitting across from a Romney or an Obama supporter and all you want to do is throw that baba ganoush salad their way?

And what if you end up hurting that person in some way? Come the Days of Repentance, will you apologize to them, even though you know for sure you were right? 

How many of those moments have happened to us this past year that we wish we could take back? A rude e-mail? A sarcastic remark? A hurtful outburst?

Do we have the strength to breach the walls of our fortresses and say, “I was wrong”?

I once heard a rabbi say that Jewish holidays are annual reminders of lessons we must apply throughout the year. So, if we’re having trouble saying “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” during these Days of Repentance, it’s surely because we haven’t had much practice during the year.

But here’s a comforting thought: The guilt works both ways. People can be as bad at receiving apologies as they are at giving them. Why? Because we’re all afflicted to a certain extent with the “curse of being right,” which makes it so very tempting to receive an apology as further proof that we are, in fact, in the right.

One of my favorite tests of character is to see how someone responds to an apology for something that really hurt them. If they accept the apology with grace and a generous spirit, they’re my kind of people. But if they use the apology to rub it in and show how right they are, well … let’s just say I won’t go out of my way to befriend them.

Maybe, then, this is the missing ingredient in High Holy Days sermons encouraging us to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

We talk so much about the importance of making apologies, but too little about the importance of accepting them.

The truth is, they feed into each other. The better people accept apologies, the more people will make them, and the more sincere they will be.

And on that, I’m almost sure I’m right.


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

Robert Downey Jr. asks forgiveness for Mel Gibson


Robert Downey Jr. at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles urged the Hollywood community to forgive Mel Gibson for his recent troubles.

Downey paraphrased the New Testament when he said to the audience at the American Cinematheque Awards ceremony on Oct. 14, a week after Yom Kippur, that “unless you are without sin … you should forgive him and let him work.”

He added, “I urge you to forgive my friend his trespasses. Allow him to pursue this art without shame.”

The two actors appeared together in the 1990 film “Air America.”

But the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier said that only Gibson can seek and receive forgiveness for his sins, which include anti-Semitic rants, racial tirades, and spousal abuse.

“The sins between man and his fellow man can only be forgiven if the person who committed the sin asks for forgiveness from those whom he shamed and insulted and caused harm to,” Hier said Monday.

Hier said Gibson’s plans to make a movie about Judah Maccabee won’t help his cause.

“You can’t ask forgiveness indirectly through a movie,” Hier said. “You can’t do it by saying, ‘Look at the part that I have. I’m producing a film about a Jew.’ “

In September, the Anti-Defamation League asked Warner Brothers to remove Gibson from the Judah Maccabee film.

It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry…


Jews tend to be a forgiving people. We also tend to be an apologetic people. There is good reason for this: We are commanded to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. We also are encouraged (strongly) to accept apologies from others when they are sincere.

Forgiveness is such an integral part of Jewish culture that we actually have liturgy dedicated to the act. If you’ve ever participated in a High Holy Days service, you might have seen people beat their chest during Ashamnu (which translates as “we have trespassed”).

But when we pray during services, we are asking forgiveness from God. Asking forgiveness from others actually can be more difficult. And, since the High Holy Days are the Super Bowl of forgiveness-seeking, you might want to get started on your list of apologies before you even think about the food for your break-the-fast party. With so many potential transgressions for which to apologize — betrayal, obstinacy, provocation, slander, etc. — it can be tough to know exactly how, and from whom, to ask for forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is the most essential element in allowing human beings to change and grow,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “Asking for forgiveness requires the courage to go back and revisit the regretted action,” Vogel said. “The first question we must ask [ourselves] is, ‘Would I do the act again?’ We don’t want to repeat negative actions in our lives.”

True apologies and forgiveness thus require a good bit of introspection, and, Vogel says, “It is only through this process that we can grow. It is only by first going backward that we can go forward.”

In addition, it’s not meaningful simply to apologize for something if you don’t truly believe you were at fault. Kind of like the child who hits his brother, then says, “I’m sorry.” Is he really sorry? Maybe. He’s probably sorry he was caught, but chances are he’s not sorry for the action.

Of course, this ideal requires us to admit we’ve done something wrong — not a simple task for most people. With adults, there are likely times when an apology is appropriate, but the inner feeling simply is not there. But that’s the key: The feeling and the action must be genuine.

So, if you’re ready to seek forgiveness from someone you have wronged, there are a couple of ways to do it. You can approach the person directly and ask them for forgiveness, though that’s not always the best method.

“While the preferred method of forgiveness is verbal, there are some situations in which a letter might be preferable,” Vogel said. “The problem with speaking directly to people is that they often stop listening early on in the discussion. Either they hear something they disagree with or respond before the entire apology has been uttered.”

Sometimes it’s better to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

“A well-crafted letter can give a larger context of the situation and allow the recipient to digest the entire apology,” Vogel said. “A written letter of apology should always end with an invitation to speak directly.”

While it’s always a good idea to make things right with those we have wronged, the High Holy Days tend to put these sorts of things into focus for many Jews.

“The High Holy Days are when we realize our mortality,” Vogel said. “When we celebrate creation on Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, we are symbolically acknowledging that time is finite. Yom Kippur ends with a ritual that is reminiscent of the Jewish prayer Vidui that is recited on our deathbed.”

The immediacy of the High Holy Days tends to encourage people to act.

So, as we reflect on our sins against God, we should reflect on our sins against each other, too. The shofar blasts call us to attention and to action: “Do we deserve this gift of time? Will we make good use of that time? It is the acceptance of our mortality that should inspire us to act with immediacy,” Vogel said.

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach


Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com

Sermon of the Year


There are many unique quirks in the Orthodox tradition, but few that I love more than the late-afternoon sermon on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that falls betweenRosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Here in Pico-Robertson, it’s the sermon many people wait for all year— the one that rabbis often spend months preparing.

Even its time slot is unique. Unlike regular sermons that are part of the morning prayer service, the Shabbat Shuva sermon has its own time and space: late afternoon, when the big meals and rituals are behind us, the light of dusk beckons, and everyone knows there are precious few moments left of their holy day of rest.

Film directors call this end-of-day light the “golden light.” It’s not the bright, naked light of the mid-day, nor the dramatic darkness of the night. It’s the light that bridges those two worlds. Spiritually, it’s the time when the past and the future caress each other — the day is still fresh in our mind, but we can feel the breath of the approaching night.

On Shabbat Shuva, the time of year is also golden: We’ve just left the bright intensity of the Day of Judgment and are about to enter the somber and moody intensity of the Day of Atonement.

It is under this golden, transitional light that hundreds of Torah-observant Jews migrate through the streets of Pico-Robertson every year to hear their respective rabbis give what is affectionately called “the Shabbat Shuva drash.”

It’s a sermon that comes with an ancient pedigree. Over the centuries, the tradition was for rabbis to give only two sermons a year, on Shabbat Shuva and on the Shabbat before Pesach. Today, of course, rabbis of all denominations have become human sermon machines, giving sermons every Shabbat and on all the holidays.

In the Orthodox world, however, maybe as homage to our ancestors, the rabbis still treat their Shabbat Shuva sermons as their most important of the year. There’s a sense of anticipation you don’t feel any other time of the year, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A rabbi friend of mine, in trying to explain the uniqueness of the Shabbat Shuva sermon, has this theory that the sermon itself is part of the process of teshuvah (repentance or return) that is our central spiritual task at this time of year. In this view, the sermon is not just a sermon, but a deep personal act, one that can lead to some uncomfortable moments.

I’ve seen it happen. At Young Israel of Century City, I once saw Rabbi Elazar Muskin, during his Shabbat Shuva drash, express his personal embarrassment at a letter he had received during the previous year. It was from a visitor who did not feel welcomed at his shul. In front of a rapt audience, the rabbi stood there and took the heat. Then, in the spirit of teshuvah, he implored his flock to be welcoming at all times so the shul would never receive a letter like that again.

The most uncomfortable I’ve felt at a Shabbat Shuva drash was last week, when Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation meditated on the touchy subject of ulterior motives in religious practice.

I sat a few feet from the rabbi. While people were still shuffling in, I could see Kanefsky, dressed in a white robe, closing his eyes in deep concentration as he stood at the lectern.

He picked one phrase from the Shabbat prayer — “And purify our hearts to serve You with truth” — and asked: “Do we have a prayer?”

He spent the first 30 minutes making the case that no, we don’t have a prayer. Through the words of King David, Rashi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides, Isaiah and even Sigmund Freud, he dissected the simple reality that human nature is innately driven by self-interest and ulterior motives.

Yes, even when we live a religious life. We might tell ourselves that our motives are noble and Godly, but deep down, we know we are motivated by more mundane things, like a need for community, a desire to belong and feel accepted, the security of an orderly lifestyle, a craving for honor and recognition, and so on.

Kanefsky made it a point not to denigrate these motives, because they are part of human nature. But Judaism at its best, he explained, helps us transcend our natures in the service of a higher and holier ideal.

This is where it got uncomfortable.

Kanefsky accused himself of often having ulterior motives when he prayed enthusiastically on Shabbat. Why? Because deep down, he knew this behavior was expected of him, and it was hard to separate the motive of “playing to the crowd” from the purer motive of “serving God with truth.”

This might look like someone being too hard on himself, but if you were up close like I was, you could see that Kanefsky meant it. Evidently, he was going through his own teshuvah in front of his flock. He was telling us that while no one will ever have the purity of Abraham, the essence of being religiously observant and of doing teshuvah was to aim for a greater purity in our relationship with God.

To help us in that journey, he enlisted the words of Heschel from “God in Search of Man”:

“This is how we must begin in our effort to purify the self: To become aware of our inner enslavement to the ego, to detect the taints in our virtues, the tinge of idolatry in our worship of God…. The sting of shame is the only pain the ego cannot bear…. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection.”

As people filed out of the shul and into the twilight on Pico Boulevard, I had this feeling that the rabbi had given us enough taints, tinges, stings and hopes to last us until the next sermon of the year.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Yom Kippur 5769: The Art of Forgiveness


On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in 1995, Eva Kor, then 61 and a real estate broker in Terre Haute, Ind., stood outside a gas chamber at the infamous camp and offered her forgiveness out loud to the late Dr. Josef Mengele for the inhumane medical experiments he had performed on her and her twin sister.

She forgave every other Nazi, as well.

“I, Eva Mozes Kor, a twin who survived as a child of Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz 50 years ago, hereby give amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others,” she said that day, reading from a prepared statement. Even in our culture of apology, where “I forgive you” flows freely and often speedily from the mouths of perpetrators and politicians, parents and children, spouses and complete strangers, Kor’s apology stands out.

“I call forgiveness the modern miracle medicine,” she said last January in an address to congregants at the Nachshon Minyan in Encino.

Many people believe that forgiveness is an all-purpose panacea that can free people from rage and resentment, from deep depression and high blood pressure. Over the past 10 years, in fact, the John Marks Templeton Foundation and others have donated $7 million in a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to fund more than 45 projects studying forgiveness benefits. Books and Web sites devoted to the topic have become ubiquitous, including forgivenet.com, where a person can anonymously send an e-mail requesting forgiveness, along with a book or flowers.

In Jewish tradition, the act of seeking forgiveness from someone we have harmed is clear and specific.

“For transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another,” the Talmud states. But the act of granting forgiveness, especially to someone who is not repentant or who has not transgressed against us directly, is more complicated and controversial.

Mark Borovitz, rabbi of the spiritual and therapeutic Beit T’Shuvah community, makes a distinction between unnecessary pain and existential pain, which he said is part of the human condition. He maintains that happiness is a choice.

“You can get rid of resentment, but forgiveness is something [the other person] has to ask for,” he said at a forgiveness workshop on Sept. 7, attended by about 70 Beit T’Shuvah residents, their families and others.

David Wolpe, senior rabbi at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood, maintains that forgiveness can actually equalize a relationship.

“When you hold a grudge, you create an imbalance,” he said. “That is, you feel superior, and the other person is less, because they feel bad.”

Wolpe also believes there is such a thing as “unearned forgiveness,” which can be offered to someone who has not sought it.

“You are not obligated to forgive, but you may,” he said, pointing out that anger can take a steep toll on your internal life.

“Forgiveness is in the power of the forgiver, ultimately,” he said. And vicarious forgiveness does not exist in Judaism; you can only forgive someone who has harmed you directly.

For Karen Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and licensed marriage and family therapist, Judaism and psychotherapy do not separate on the forgiveness issue.

“The question is: How does this burden benefit me? Can I look at the potential of forgiveness as a way to clean some of what I carry?” she said.

Sometimes, as in the case of a rape or an abusive parent, for example, when forgiveness isn’t forthcoming from the person who caused the harm, you have to forgive yourself, she said.

“Unexamined hurt ultimately hurts the one who’s holding it.” Not letting go can lead to obsession with the incident, which isn’t healthy, she said.

But the ideal doesn’t always easily translate into real life. This has been the experience for James, 44, a resident of Beit T’Shuvah whose last name has been omitted for this article.

James had worked as a chef for a certain caterer for more than three years when he was abruptly and abusively fired last November.

“I should have seen it coming, but I was his confidant because of all my experience,” James said, explaining that he had often witnessed the man acting bitterly and vindictively toward other employees as well as his own wife.

In addition to firing James, the caterer also fraudulently reported his tax liability to the Internal Revenue Service, essentially doubling James’ taxable earnings and making it appear James had lied to the IRS on his tax return.

James is currently in contact with the IRS, straightening out the financial damage and feeling good about standing up for himself. Still, he doesn’t expect any communication from the caterer.

“It feels like unfinished business,” he said, adding that he’s reviewing his own actions to try to figure out his own part.

While he’s reserving a final decision on forgiveness, he said he’s relearning that he doesn’t have to make everything right.

“I’m grateful for the situation,” he said. “Life doesn’t ever have easy answers.”

Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Got forgiveness?


Would you believe that most Jews, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, don’t fully observe the High Holy Days?

I don’t mean the basic rituals, like going to synagogue, reciting the prayers, listening to the shofar and the rabbi’s sermons, having the holiday meals and saying the blessings. Most Jews do all that.

And I also don’t mean the spiritual element, like using this time of year to contemplate our mortality, reflect on the purpose of our lives, ask God for forgiveness and resolve to become better people and better Jews in the coming year.

No, what I mean is that most of us neglect what is arguably the most difficult and meaningful ritual at this time of year: Going to the people we’ve hurt, recognizing our hurtful actions and asking for their forgiveness.

This can be awkward and embarrassing, but our Jewish tradition has given us the perfect little window to help make this happen.

It’s called the month of Elul, a time for self-examination and repentance that culminates during the High Holy Days. As the month of Elul comes to a close and we begin the daily selichot (prayers of forgiveness), the mood of repentance becomes more urgent.

This is the moment we are about to enter right now: The zero hour of repentance — the Days of Awe before the Day of Atonement when one of our key obligations is to muster our courage and humility, go to someone we have wronged and say “I’m sorry, I messed up, please forgive me.”

The problem, of course, is that while we routinely do this with God, it’s a lot less comfortable to do it with our fellow humans.

But the other, more acute, problem is that our Jewish faith has this little wrinkle: God cannot forgive us for the sins we’ve committed against another person until we have first obtained forgiveness from that person.

Ouch.

Theoretically, this means a rabbi can tell you that until you obtain the forgiveness of those you have wronged, it’s useless to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and ask God for His forgiveness — because He can’t give it to you.

If a rabbi did that, who would show up to the big show?

Most rabbis challenge us at this time of year to engage in things like more mitzvahs, more tikkun olam, more tzedakah, more Jewish learning and more spiritual connection. But in truth, if they really wanted to challenge us and encourage personal transformation, they’d pick the one mitzvah that requires the biggest emotional sacrifice: Having to suck it up in front of someone you’ve hurt and ask for their forgiveness.

To his credit, the ultra-Orthodox writer Jonathan Rosenblum, in an article from a few years ago, took his own denomination to task on this subject:

“Too often we arrive at Rosh Hashanah feeling woefully unprepared and wondering what happened to Elul. As Kol Nidre approaches, we rush around to those nearest and dearest to us to seek their forgiveness. But our requests lack the specificity that would indicate that we have given any serious thought to how we have wronged the particular loved one whose forgiveness is sought. Nor are our ritual assurances that we forgive with a whole heart worth very much.”

For too many of us, the modern-day excitement and pageantry of the High Holy Days — the marquee events, the glamorous sermons, the fancy clothes, the elaborate meals — have eclipsed the essential ritual, the one that deals with the pain we inflict on each other.

If I forget to pray one day, I’ve hurt no one except maybe for God, and I know He’ll forgive me. But if I offend, deceive, mock or dishonor another person, I’ve introduced real human pain into this world. And by hurting one of His children, I’ve also hurt God— who must surely be spending the holidays waiting for us to forgive each other.

I count myself in the group that God has been waiting for. I’ve done the basic High Holy Day rituals and recited the prayers asking God for His forgiveness. But when it came time to recognize my mistakes and ask people for their forgiveness, I’ve chickened out and used the classic cop-out: “If I did anything to hurt you, please forgive me.”

Like Rosenblum explains, “without a real chesbon hanefesh, some form of regular spiritual diary — of both the positive and negative — we are in no position to ask Hashem or our fellow man for forgiveness. Where there is no recognition of our failures, there can be no genuine regret, which is the starting point of teshuvah [repentance or return].”

On a more romantic level, Rabbi David Aaron of Jerusalem, in a recent article, reflected on the intimacy of forgiveness:

“The best time to remember your mistakes and wrongdoings and ask forgiveness of your beloved is in moments of love. The contrast between the bad times that were and the good time that is happening right now generates even greater feelings of love and appreciation.”

Imagine, then, the love and appreciation that would filter through our community this year if the sound of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah became our clarion call to seek out those we have wronged — whether it be our spouse, sibling, mother, father, child, friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, client, business partner, supplier or stranger — and, with love and courage, admit our mistakes and ask for their forgiveness.

By returning to each other and paying our spiritual dues, we would repair our souls, enter the Day of Atonement with cleaner hands, reduce the amount of pain in our little worlds and allow God the chance to forgive us.

Not a bad way to kick off a new year.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

‘Tis the season to be sorry


Just so you should know, the reason I did it the way I did was because I didn’t want to get into it. Really, what was the point? It’s not my job in life to change people or tell them where they’ve gone wrong. Besides, people don’t really want to hear about their faults anyway.

So that’s why, seemingly out of the blue, I ended it with Josh with no explanation, save the vague, “I just don’t feel we’re exactly right for each other.”

And I did it on his voice mail.

Before you say anything, let me tell you that this guy was mean. He’d said some questionable things on the first date (“I found your writing amusing”), elaborated on it on the second date (“What did you want me to do, lie? Did you want me to say that I fell on the floor laughing? I mean, we all have dating stories!”) and was too critical to merit a third. But it took me a while to figure this out, so when he first called me after to tell me what a wonderful time he’d had (with whom?) I said, “Me, too.”

I lied.

Then I called back and left that vague message on his answering machine. Another lie — maybe a white one, but what was I supposed to say? “You’re a critical idiot with a Napoleonic complex, and your money doesn’t impress me!”? Still, I feel bad. I feel bad that Josh thought it was going so well and then this.

I’m sorry for that.

I’m also sorry I said I wouldn’t write about him, but I am.

It’s the season to be sorry. It’s that time of year when we go over all of our deeds, things we have done to others, to God, to ourselves and ask for forgiveness — and grant it to those who need it from us.

What does it mean to forgive someone? “Let it go,” is the big New Age mantra. “If you don’t forgive someone, it’s like drinking poison and expecting it to kill the other person,” these Zen people proclaim. And it’s good advice in relationships to forgive our loved ones. But in the dating world — in this modern day of fly-by-night, I-can’t-remember-your-name, didn’t-we-go-out-once-already? dating — miscommunications, slights, insults and downright mistreatments can pile up in a year.

So how do you repent with people you’ll never talk to again?

Sometimes you just talk to them.

For example, Jon tried to contact me a number of times in the year since we split, but I avoided him; he’d lied to me. But when he wrote me an e-mail beginning with, “I really hope you’ll read this,” saying how he was really sorry, and he knew he messed up, I said it was OK.

And it was. Somewhere along the way, I’d realized he was only being his messed-up self and wasn’t doing anything to me. I was just in the path of his tornado.

But forgiveness has its limits too; I absolved Jon, but I wouldn’t date him again.

Eric, on the other hand, I not only forgave, but became his friend. He’d never lied to me or anything; just sort of neglected for a while to tell me we were breaking up, hoping I’d get the message the passive-aggressive way. That stung pretty bad, too, but after a couple of weeks of wailing to friends about the crappiness of it all, the hellishness of dating and whether or not I lost weight in the ordeal, I realized it was just Eric’s way of being.

OK, I’m not really that centered. What happened was that Eric called me and said he really, really wanted to be friends, and I went out with him with the hopes that maybe we’d get back together. Somewhere during our téte-a-téte, I realized he wasn’t interested, and that I was OK with that. It was the rejection, not the loss of him, that had bothered me, and besides, there was someone else I was involved with who was about to reject me.

I’m joking. Not everyone rejects me. I do my fair share of rejecting, too. If I am going to be honest — and you can’t really lie in during the Days of Awe — I also do my share of rejecting, insulting, snubbing, avoiding, flaking, slandering and (white) lying, too.

And for these things, I ask forgiveness. Just as I will search inside myself for all those petty hurts that have built up over this year of dating and release them, I hope others will do the same for me. And while all this chest-beating over my past is cleansing, the most important step is the future.

Because teshuvah — real repentance — means admitting what you have done wrong, apologizing for it, and vowing never to do it again.

Of course I have little control over how others behave toward me. Nevertheless, this Yom Kippur I vow to behave better toward them. And hope that it will be my last year of dating.

Amen.

Courting Forgiveness


In this season of atonement, Jews of every stripe of observance stream into temples, synagogues, shteibels and shuls to recount their wrongs. Beating their
breasts in repentance, they beg for absolution for the sins they have committed in their daily human interactions over the past year. On Yom Kippur, many wear canvas sneakers, the plainest of shoes, in a show of simplicity and humility.

As singles, trying on different slippers and hoping for a perfect fit, we have assayed to squeeze ourselves into many an improper shoe during the past year, blistering ourselves and others in the process, becoming callused as we try to move our lives forward. This battered state yields an impressively long list (and uncomfortable memories) of dating-related crimes and misdemeanors. It is only fitting that past and current singles seize this moment to take stock of the unique ways that we have wronged each other, as men, as women, as eligibles populating the same singles pool. Once and for all, let’s take the sin out of singles.

Just like the Al Chet — the prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy wherein the individual confesses to a litany of collective sins — that inspired this original reading, this one is also written in third-person plural. We may not recall having committed each of these individual sins, but as members of the global singles community, we admit to every transgression in the New Year’s hope that the memory of this confession will make us think twice before committing future infractions.

Preliminary studies suggest that this reading is at its most potent when read responsively before or after a singles event. For maximum dramatic effect, read the first two lines in each stanza responsively, first men, then women. The third sentence should be recited by men and women together. And while we’re asking God for forgiveness, remember — it can’t hurt to beg for a vision or a bat kol (heavenly voice) that reveals the e-mail address of your beshert. Or at least a location, so you know whether you’re trying on uncomfortable shoes in the right city.

Forgive Us: A Reading for the Dating Penitent

For the sins of men against women. And for the sins of women against men. For all of these transgressions, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.

We said we’d call. We said we’d call back. We were dishonest with you and with ourselves.
We have let the ball drop. We have refused to pick up the dropped ball. We have preferred the safety of solitude to the instability of possibility.

We have rejected you for being too fat or too plain. We have rejected you for being too short or too bald. We have judged you according to external appearances and drawn assumptions from the superficial.

We have detested you for being too materialistic. We have detested you for being too superficial. We have hated you in our hearts.

We have told you that you were “like a sister” to us. We have told you that you were “a really great guy.” We have lacked the fortitude to transition friendship into romance, and consigned you to the torment of “The Friend Zone.”

We have blown you off on the street and in front of our friends. We have pretended not to see you in bars and at singles events. We have behaved poorly and inhumanely, in favor of maintaining our own comfort.
We have demanded too much, too soon. We have pressured you into emotional commitment. We have operated according to our own interests and agendas, unconcerned with your feelings or opinions.

We have eschewed dating in favor of hot wings and professional sports. We have eschewed dating in favor of Cosmos and “Sex and the City.” We have escaped into comfort zones of food, alcohol and television to avoid potential heartbreak.

We have asked for your business cards at parties, even though we had no intention of calling. We have waited by the phone for the call you had implicitly promised. We have lived in communicational deception and delusion.

We have bantered too freely, creating a perceived depth to dialogue that was meant only at face value. We have flirted without follow-up, using subtle encouragement to convey enigmatic interest. We have left you in confusion, pondering the true intentions of our fearful hearts.

We have proposed second dates we had no intention of confirming. We have accepted second dates we had no intention of attending. We have chosen a slow fadeout over honesty, denying you the dignity of a truthful closure.

Together:

For the sins of men against women. And for the sins of women against men. For the sins of dating on the Internet. And for the sins of dating in real life. For all of these transgressions, O God of forgiveness, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.


Esther D. Kustanowitz is the regular singles columnist for the New York Jewish Week, where this article first appeared. You can reach her at jdatersanonymous@gmail.com.

Film: Too soon to forgive Dr. Mengele?


Just when the film world seems to have examined the Holocaust from every possible angle, a new film comes along that shakes up our complacency.

“Forgiving Dr. Mengele” focuses on the story of Eva Kor, one of the so-called “Mengele twins,” who along with her sister was subjected to the Nazi doctor’s experiments. Most notably, it deals with the forgiveness of Nazis, a concept antithetical to many Holocaust survivors.

The documentary, directed and produced by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh, also taps into a “universal theme of how one grapples with and moves beyond the trauma of the past,” Hercules said in a phone interview from his office in Chicago. “It could be about a rape victim.”

Released by First Run Features, “Forgiving Dr. Mengele” will have a one-week run at the Laemmle Grande in downtown Los Angeles.

The film is set primarily in the present in Terre Haute, Ind., where Kor, a septuagenarian dynamo, is shown bustling about in her job as a real estate agent. A zaftig woman with a cherubic face, Kor wears cheerful, bright blue and red outfits with matching scarves, including one in the pattern of the American flag. We see her working out on a treadmill and lifting weights, driving her car around town with prospective home buyers, cooking grilled-cheese sandwiches with an iron to demonstrate how she used to make them at a time when the family was very poor.

The film also flashes back to scenes at concentration camps, including archival footage of the Soviets liberating Auschwitz. Remarkably, Kor and her twin sister Miriam were captured in that film: two girls dressed in striped prison-like attire and holding hands at the front of the line.

Kor, who years after the Holocaust donated a kidney to her sister, who had suffered organ damage from Mengele’s injections, has engendered controversy from those who claim that she has no right to forgive murderers. But the controversy actually comes down to a question of semantics, since Kor has not really forgiven the Nazis so much as she empowered herself by exorcizing that evil from her past.

The real controversy of the film lies in the fact that it draws a moral equivalence to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that lessons learned from Kor should be applied there, as well, a subject that seems to have no place in a film about the Holocaust. Kor reveals her own discomfort with this issue, looking restless in her seat at a Palestinian home, but she remains dedicated to “spreading this idea of forgiveness all around the world.”

“Forgiving Dr. Mengele” will be screened at Laemmle’s Grande, 345 S. Figueroa, from Nov. 17 through Nov. 23.

Exercise your right to read — without censorship


The last week of September is Banned Books Week.

Ever read a book from the “Harry Potter” series or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? Then you’ve read a banned book — a book taken off of shelves in a classroom or library at one time because people complained about it.

Sometimes, people who want to ban a book get so mad they actually burn copies of it (like in “Pleasantville” and “Footloose”).

The American Library Association got more than 400 requests to ban books last year. But most of those requests were unsuccessful, because of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other people who make sure books stay on shelves.

Use this week to support your right to read. Here are some banned books to consider reading this week:

  • “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, which someone wanted to ban because it was “a real downer.”

  • “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume
  • “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier
  • The “Goosebumps” series by R.L. Stine
  • The “Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pilkey
  • “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl
  • “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss
  • “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson
  • …. And don’t forget the Torah and the Talmud

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>Kids@jewishjournal.com with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

Holy Moly! Robertson Apologizes


The Rev. Pat Robertson has long preached as though God is on his side — including when he recently cast the stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as God’s punishment for “dividing” the Holy Land by pulling Israel out of Gaza.

But last week, Robertson apparently decided that he’d better have the government of Israel on his side, too, especially if he wants to build a sprawling evangelical center on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

In a letter to Sharon’s sons, Robertson asked forgiveness for his comments.

“My zeal, my love of Israel, and my concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief experienced because of your father’s illness,” Robertson wrote.

He also mentioned his concern over the danger to Israel posed by two terrorist groups — Hamas and Hezbollah — as well as by Iran and international anti-Semitism.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said he believed that Robertson had taken to heart the outrage over his comments.

“I felt he was very sincere. He is a great friend of Israel,” Ayalon said.

Ayalon added that he expected that Robertson will again be allowed to participate in the evangelical project. Plans for the site include an auditorium, a broadcast center and a chapel, as well as paths to connect holy sites, according to the Associated Press.

Robertson’s contrition did not arrive in time to head off a rebuke by David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“Robertson’s comment,” he said, “reflects the height of insensitivity and is also a perfect example of what happens when theological fanaticism clouds good judgment.”

And there was this from fellow evangelical Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: “I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke, were the judgments of God.”

On the other hand, the episode does suggest a name for Robertson’s proposed theme park: Holier-Than-Thou Land.

 

Yom Kippur: Day of Reality for Refugees


On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we ask: Who shall live and who shall die? This year, I will observe Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish year — with refugees from Darfur in camps in Chad.

These survivors have sought sanctuary hundreds of miles from home, in a harsh and barren landscape. For them, the question of Yom Kippur is not posed within a context of comfort, but is a reality in which death permeates every minute of every day. As a rabbi, I choose to spend my day of fasting with others whose fasting is not by choice but of necessity.

Yom Kippur is a day devoted to self-assessment, forgiveness and change. We distance ourselves from the concerns of daily life to take personal stock, seek renewal and determine what matters most. We reflect on the shortcomings and failings of the past year, and resolve to change in the year ahead.

On Yom Kippur, Jews confront mortality. But Darfur’s refugees confront mortality daily. Bearing witness to one of today’s most urgent, human crises distills the meaning of Yom Kippur: We must repent for our personal and collective failures, and strengthen our commitment to alleviating anguish and fostering dignity for all human beings.

I observed Yom Kippur in a Chad refugee camp last year. I will return to the sacred, scorched earth inside the camps and to the dignified and downtrodden people from the Fur, Masalit and Zangawah tribes.

These refugees are victims of intolerance and cruelty. They yearn for food, water, health care and security. They search for hope, love and support in the eyes of others.

At their core, they are no different than you and I. But the situation differs enormously. In the United States, victims of circumstance (like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) are assured support and a voice. Yet little has changed in Chad — one year later, refugees still need basic necessities, medical care and a global voice.

There is great danger in forgetting them. Twenty-million people are currently displaced by violence, famine and collapsed states throughout the world. How can we atone for that?

In Chad, I will bear witness to the people who have lost their homes, their loved ones and their way of life. I will be with people — most of them Muslim — who are suffering and living through the unspeakable horror of what people can do to each other.

Amidst these indescribable conditions, I find extraordinary dignity among a welcoming and gracious people. I will sit with them. I will show that the world cares about their plight — that we will do everything possible to bring them food, water and medicine.

I will bring hope, joy and laughter to the somber refugee camps. Playing with the children will not bring peace, but it may provide a smile and a glimpse of joy, a reprieve from their degraded reality.

They will know that the West does care, that we have not forgotten them and that they, too, are citizens of the world. The world stood by while 6 million Jews and 5 million others died during the Holocaust. As a Jew in 2005, I feel the urgency “not to stand idly by.”

I go to Chad believing that my actions make a concrete difference. My trip will bring both financial and emotional support to the camps.

Bearing witness and bringing hope are critical, but contributing to a solution is paramount. The money will provide the refugees with medicine, food and education. I could not go without the funds or without the conviction that my contributions are assisting with a solution.

But these contributions are mere steps. Much more is required to restore refugee lives: political stability, self-sustaining economies and international financial support are necessary to affect real change.

I am outraged about the plight of so many and pained by the iniquities still found in our world. In these camps, I am reminded of how fortunate we are in the West. I am reminded of the blessings of my life.

There is no better place for me to spend Yom Kippur, than among the dispossessed and the forgotten. As I sit in the sub-Saharan desert with people created in the image of God, I will be mindful of the value in each and every life. Unless we enrich the lives of others, we diminish the meaning of our own. My resolve will be deepened.

So, I choose to be with the refugees on Yom Kippur. I hope to give them a small part of what they give me — a reminder of the fragility of life; the kindness that can exist even in the worst circumstances, and the ability of human beings to retain hope.

It is there that my prayers for atonement and renewal may be answered. I will see the beauty and splendor of human life, and the potential we have to make life better. We all bear the burden of accountability: Who shall live and who shall die? May we all have a chance to fully live our lives.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is special adviser in global strategy for International Medical Corps and a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute.

 

A Critical Question


One of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves, particularly as we approach Yom Kippur, is: How will we be remembered?

An incident in the life of Alfred Nobel illustrates how he was unexpectedly forced to face that important question. It is reported that when Nobel’s brother died, the obituary column had a terrible error. Instead of eulogizing Alfred’s brother, the paper eulogized him.

The eulogy indicated the following: Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite, one of the most destructive forces known to humanity, died yesterday a wealthy man.

Upon reading his own obituary and seeing how he was to be remembered, he decided to make a change in his life. He took some of the profits from his creation of dynamite and used it for an altruistic purpose.

Today we remember him for the good he achieved in his life.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize.

The important question we should each ask ourselves during the High Holidays is: How will I be remembered if, God forbid, my life ended today?

If you are not happy with the answer, take the gift of transformation that Yom Kippur offers. Modify the way you speak, the use of your spare time, your charitable habits or the way you vent anger. If you are not treating those in your household or those with whom you work with dignity, pledge to change that.

But begin the work soon for life is fleeting.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of a psychiatrist who suggests that we could probably put the same inscription on 90 percent of all tombstones in the cemetery, “I should have loved them more while I could.”

We all make the mistake. Our priorities become confused and we often let the immediate desires drive away the important ones.

Yom Kippur is our spiritual wake-up call. It reminds us that not only our lives, but the lives of those dearest to us will some day end. If we take that seriously, then we should more frequently say, “I love you” to our wife or husband, to our father or mother, to our children, and to our friends.

We should also seek forgiveness … a difficult task for most of us. Many see apologizing as a sign of weakness. We cannot quite bring ourselves to admit fault to a co-worker, a friend, a parent, a spouse or our children.

Yet, apologizing is a courageous act. Which takes greater strength of character, ignoring a wrong or confronting it? Ask yourself, if someone came to ask your forgiveness, would you not gain respect for such a person?

When a bone is broken in our body one would think that the point of fracture would, after healing, be the weakest part of that bone. Yet the place where the bone healed, in fact, becomes its strongest part.

Confronting those fractured parts of our lives and ourselves makes us stronger as well.

Here, too, however, there is a price for waiting too long.

The Torah recounts the lives of twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who have a terrible argument and become alienated from one another. When the day comes that the brothers must face each other for the first time in many years, the Torah says that Esau falls on Jacob’s neck and they both cry. But the Torah does not say why they cry.

One explanation that I find particularly moving is that the twin brothers looked into one another’s face and each saw how the other had aged. This moment was a reflection of the many years that had passed. Further, as twins, they realized that in each other’s eyes they saw a mirror image of themselves. They recognized the wasted years, born of the anger, which consumed them, and they cried for the loss of time.

We can, of course, change our lives and ask forgiveness any day of the year. If, however, you are reading this in the hours before Yom Kippur, think of this sacred day as an opportunity to look into your soul and affirm that life is beautiful, inherently optimistic, yet sometimes fragile. And though our lives seem to pass swiftly, it does not preclude each of us to be forgiven and to forgive while we are here.

What an empty feeling to realize too late that there were words that needed to be said that were never spoken. If you have someone in your life with whom you are estranged — and would like to reconcile — take the step.

Then, when the shofar sounds at the end of Yom Kippur, you will leave your synagogue with a full heart, with a soul that has been refreshed and with a renewed vigor to begin the New Year, grateful to God for one of the greatest of all gifts … the gift of life.

David Woznica is rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. He can be reached at dwoznica@sswt.org

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Teshuvah for Tots Sets Right Tone


The concept of repentance is hard enough for grown-ups to get, so how do educators make the central themes of the High Holidays real for children?

While projects like tempera-painted honey dishes and party-whistle shofars are de rigueur, preschool and elementary school teachers take seriously the idea of having the High Holiday message of personal accountability set the tone for the whole year.

The Jewish Journal spoke with a few educators to get their thoughts.

Preschool

Nettie Lerner, director of Chabad’s Garden School preschool on Pico Boulevard, teaches about God’s closeness during this time of year through analogy:

“We teach them the story of the king in the field. The king is in his palace the entire year, and once a year he comes out of his palace to meet with all the different people, to get to know them and see how they are doing. He does this for a month all around the kingdom and then goes back to his palace and feels like he knows how to be a more effective king,” she said.

The Garden School also uses the High Holidays to establish rules of engagement among the kids.

The school practices conflict resolution, where a teacher stops the offending action and has each child articulate feelings and establishes empathy. Then, together the children and teacher come up with a resolution.

“We do this over and over, and that’s how we’re able to bring this concept of teshuvah to a preschooler,” Lerner said.

Kindergarten-Second Grade

At Stephen S. Wise elementary school, director of education Metuka Benjamin encourages teachers to use project-based activities around the High Holidays to emphasize Jewish peoplehood.

“First and foremost, we want to help children understand that being Jewish means they are part of a community,” she said. “This community has a shared history, ancestry and value system. We want them to understand that there are Jews all over the world, yet there is a connected spirit that ties us together. At this early age, understanding community is critical to helping them acquire a sense of pride about their backgrounds, while also feeling tied to Jewish friends and family here and around the world.”

Third-Fifth Grade

Rivka Ben-Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Heschel West in Agoura, has the whole school — and parents — blowing shofar every morning leading up to the High Holidays.

She concentrates on the idea of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. The word “chet,” Hebrew for sin, comes from the root of deviate — indicating that someone has missed a goal they set.

Ben-Daniel has students break into small groups to write a personal and communal “Ashamnu” confessional prayer, focusing on wrongdoings the class may have done as a group, and, privately, what they have done as individuals.

“We put them on paper and then we go to Malibu Creek Canyon, one grade at a time, and we read out loud the class sins, and we say goodbye to the sins and promise to start anew and welcome a new year by promising to strive to be better for the coming year,” Ben-Daniel said.

Teachers

Ben-Daniel goes through a similar exercise with teachers, asking them to account for their wrongdoings with students, teachers and parents.

“We ask the teachers to acknowledge what they have done wrong and to ask for forgiveness, to forgive other people, and to forgive yourself for what you have done wrong,” she said.

In addition, teachers are asked to write goals for themselves “in an area where they want to improve in their educational lives.”

 

Guilty of Being Too Guilty


Yom Kippur reminds me of the time I spent in couples counseling with a serious boyfriend. My boyfriend believed he could be cruel or invasive or dishonest, but as long as he copped to his "sins" once a week, he’d be absolved (especially if he used bogus touchy-feely phrases like "I’m sorry you feel that way," "I validate your experience," and "I respect your boundaries").

"Sweetie," he said at an early session. "I know we talked about forgiveness, and I have something to tell you."

Then he took a deep cleansing breath and smiled sheepishly: "I’ve been reading your journals."

"You what?" I replied incredulously.

"Remember the four F’s of forgiveness," my boyfriend cautioned, basking in his expiation.

"I’ll give you four F’s!" I screamed — and believe me, they were not the four F’s of forgiveness.

For my boyfriend, going to couples therapy became his version of Yom Kippur. If I got angry at him for, say, "forgetting" to give me a message from my ex, he’d hold my hand and reply sanctimoniously, "But at least I’m admitting it. Isn’t that the most important thing?"

No. It wasn’t. You can’t erase a misdeed — or your guilt — simply by "admitting it" and asking for forgiveness. It’s far more complicated than that.

So here’s my High Holiday confession: I don’t believe in Yom Kippur. And I’m not asking for forgiveness.

It’s not that I don’t feel guilt — I do. But my therapist — who’s Jewish — says this is a problem. He thinks I feel too guilty. Each week I sit across from him, whip out my journal and enumerate my so-called sins. While worshippers from Brentwood to Jerusalem literally beat themselves with their fists each September in shul, I metaphorically beat myself up each Thursday in a Santa Monica office suite.

I feel guilty for avoiding a coworker going through a breakup because whenever I say, "How are you?" he replies with a 15-minute sob story and all I have time for is "Good, and you?" Or for buying a friend’s 4-year-old a toy labeled "6 to adult" because it was on sale, then explaining, "This way, he’ll have something to grow into." Or for giving a guest at my house orange juice from concentrate and saving the fresh-squeezed juice for myself.

As a child, I remember dutifully writing out my "sins list" each Yom Kippur, the way my Christian friends wrote out their "Santa lists" three months later. My list was always longer. There was so much to feel guilty for: Saying you hate your brother when he won’t let you listen to his new Peter Frampton album. Lying to your parents about what time you went to bed at a sleepover. Wishing that your clueless teacher would go the hospital for a few weeks so that you could have a cool substitute instead.

While making that list, I became a conflicted combination of self-righteousness and self-flagellation. Why did I need to ask God’s forgiveness for some minor slip-ups, while my mostly considerate behavior went unacknowledged — where was that holiday? And why did I promise not to do these things the next year, when it was nearly impossible for a normal girl not to feel, think and act out the "sins" I’d supposedly committed? Meantime, I felt guilty for questioning my guilt. Yet not once did I atone by fasting — in my mind, putting on an itchy dress, sitting through mind-numbingly boring services and wondering how I came to be such a bad person were punishment enough. Almost. At 11 I became anorexic and went on a perpetual fast, but I’d recovered by the time Yom Kippur came around — and actually felt guilty that I hadn’t timed my anorexia more appropriately.

Extreme? Maybe. But guilt is in my bloodlines. Whether we’re raised Orthodox or "culturally Jewish," most Jews grow up like mini-schizophrenics, with multiple voices in our heads that continue to haunt us into adulthood: "Rachel’s mom says her daughter writes from camp every day — and my daughter, she could be dead and I wouldn’t know!" Or "Sure, you can wait to have grandchildren — we just might not be around to meet them." And "How nice of you to acknowledge my birthday — your brother called three hours ago."

Then there’s that special brand of Jewish not-quite-enough guilt: You’re educated, kind, do weekly volunteer work with kids. But what about that time that you didn’t visit Uncle Merle in the hospital? He’s having his chest opened like a chicken, and you couldn’t take half an hour out of your busy day before the MCAT exam?

Eventually, I lost interest in Yom Kippur, but I never lost that sense of guilt. I’ve spent years trying to give myself room to fail, to be less of a perfectionist and more self-forgiving. It’s not that I want to shirk responsibility, or grant myself carte blanche to misbehave. It’s about having realistic expectations. At least, that’s what my therapist says.

In a twisted way, I’ve always envied people who don’t live under a cloud of guilt. In college I briefly considered becoming a lawyer because I was fascinated by the murderers and rapists who — knowing full well what atrocities they’d committed — could stand up in front of a courtroom and say with a straight face, "Not guilty, your honor."

Or take the guy who broke up with my friend but asked to continue sleeping with her — and feels no compunction. Everyone’s guilt (and chutzpah) barometer is different. Just look at Ken Lay, or the shameless contestants on the reality show "Wife Swap."

I wish I could say that my neurotic fixation with guilt has kept me from typing e-mails to my friends while distractedly mumbling "Uh-huh" on the phone with my mother, or from nearly having an affair while in a committed relationship. It hasn’t. But how does beating our chests in front of God once a year help us or those we’ve hurt? I’ve tried looking at God as literary trope for our conscience, but in what Fitzgerald famously called the "3 a.m. of the soul," we have only ourselves to answer to. God doesn’t need to take Ambien to sleep at night. We mere mortals do.

Which is why I have such a problem with Yom Kippur. While my friends with office jobs are disappointed that it falls on Saturday this year (no extra day off), I’m thrilled that it won’t disrupt my work week. Each year I try to ignore the holiday, but it’s not so easy.

The other day I was explaining this to my friend Lynn in New York. She’s married to a very wise rabbi who can quote "The Simpsons" as fluently as the Talmud, so I got him on the phone and asked how a guilt addict might approach this ritualized annual guilt-fest.

"Isn’t Yom Kippur counterproductive?" I asked her husband, Rabbi David Adelson. "I mean, so many Jews feel burdened by guilt all year round. It’s like making a culture of drug addicts celebrate Crack Day."

Lynn is a neurotic writer like me, so David knew what he was dealing with.

"It’s not a holiday about guilt," he explained. "The Jewish attitude is that you reflect on your life, see what needs work, and incorporate those lessons into your future."

"Fair enough," I said. "But what do we do with the crippling guilt that this reflection brings up?"

"Well, you can redirect that reflection in a healthy way," he replied. "If what you’ve done in the past hasn’t worked for you, try something new. Yom Kippur isn’t so much about guilt as it is about reorienting. "

His insight was so simple that it blew my mind: reorient. That’s exactly what my shrink has been noodging me to do for years. So this Yom Kippur, I’ve decided to "reorient": I’m going to try to spend the entire day without feeling any guilt. Instead of my usual guilt-fest, I’ll go on a 24-hour guilt fast (and yes, I’ll still eat). I’m not sure how God will feel about this, but at least my therapist will be proud.

Besides, if I start to feel guilty about not feeling guilty, I can always repent next Yom Kippur.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the memoir “Stick Figure:
A Diary of My Former Self” (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

Got Closure?


I’m 18. I’m flipping through my yearbook, reading over the cursive messages of my friends: “Stay sweet” and “Great sitting next to you in French” and “Have a great summer.”

On the next page, there are a few more notes advising me not to change, to remember that night at the beach drinking wine coolers, to “keep in touch.”

I have a couple days left of high school, but in my mind I’m already gone. I have no idea when I turn the next page that what’s written there will keep me from really leaving for several years.

Across two blank white pages is scrawled, “UR UGLY.”

I snap the yearbook shut. I snap it shut with enough force to make a whooshing sound. I wasn’t sure — perhaps because the forensic humiliation team was off-duty that day — but it looked like each letter had been written by a different person.

I later found out who stole my yearbook and, with his crappy-hearted little buddies, jabbed a ballpoint pen into my paper-thin self-esteem. If you think they owe me an apology, “UR RIGHT.”

That was many Yom Kippurs ago. And what do you know? I’ve never gotten one. While I’m tempted to have you feel sad for that poor, innocent schoolgirl who never got the apology she so richly deserved, I’ve done worse, way worse.

Well, ’tis the season to be sorry. Or at least to think about what sorry is, to whom we owe an apology, to whom we owe forgiveness and, frankly, what good is any of this repentance anyway?

Moses begged God’s forgiveness for 40 days and 40 nights, Kobe Bryant’s going on at least that long plus a $4 million sorry ring. We all have our ways of expressing remorse, but what are we buying with our flowers, phone calls and fine jewelry? Maybe the more observant among us are trying to be “inscribed in the book of life,” to obey strict talmudic laws, but people like me, we just want to feel okay about ourselves. We’d like our names erased from the Book of Guilt.

And here’s where I unearth the “buried lede.” I said a big sorry this year and it changed everything. I was dreading it, I was nauseous when I did it, but it finally became obvious that I was carrying around guilt like rocks in my pockets — my hands were still free but I couldn’t quite get comfortable.

I had to do it; I had to call an ex-boyfriend and hope he’d be big about my saying he was … small. You know what I mean — down there.

If you’re a male reader, or maybe just a member of the human race, you are probably wincing. I still can’t believe I did it. I know it’s not murder or adultery or stealing or any of the big biblical sins, but it’s the most personal kind of attack, a surgical strike designed to go right to a the core of a man’s sense of well-being and blow it to smithereens.

No one ends up dead, but it’s this kind of cruel remark that erodes your confidence until “UR IN THERAPY.”

I could make excuses for why I said it — we were breaking up, I was devastated and hadn’t slept in days, he was so perfect there was no other target but the one below the belt — but those don’t matter. Beyond the fact that it wasn’t true, it was a bell you can’t unring.

“Even if a man only spoke badly about another man, he must appease and beseech until he is forgiven,” said Maimonides, who may not have had this sort of slight in mind, but you never know.

The 12th-century theologian also specified that the only person who can grant forgiveness is the person who was wronged. There was no getting around it, no asking to speak to the supervisor and going right to God. According to Jewish law, I had to repent, had to mean it, had to swing at forgiveness at least three times before giving up.

Years had passed since the day I broke up with that guy, the day I said the bad thing. I talked to him on occasion, his birthday or mine. We made small talk, but never about the “small” talk.

I wondered if he even remembered.

In 12-step programs, there’s a powerful concept very similar to the Jewish High Holidays and their focus on deliverance through atonement. In order to stay sober, one has to “become willing to make amends.” Because more of the people I know practice the 12 steps than traditional Judaism, I’m more familiar with their amends process. It’s methodical, and like Judaism, the focus is not on gaining God’s forgiveness but on making it up to the person you harmed.

Both traditions suggest that the only real redemption comes from being faced with the same situation again and doing it right the next time.

From the Babylonian Talmud: “How is one proved to be a true penitent? Said Rabbi Judah: If the opportunity to commit the same sin presents itself on two occasions, and he does not yield to it.”

Well, the universe has been kind enough to provide me many an ugly breakup and I knew better than to go back to my original sin. By acting better, I was making what 12-steppers would call “living amends.” Still, in the parlance of “recovery,” I hadn’t “cleaned my side of the street.”

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous gives some pointers I found useful, suggesting, “We should be sensible, tactful, considerate and humble without being servile or scraping.”

I could do that. I made the call.

After some chitchat, I slowly lowered my sorry. It went something like this: “When we broke up, I said some very cruel, very personal things. I said things that weren’t true and for that I’m deeply sorry.”

It was as if he’d been sitting by the phone for years just waiting to hear that. He knew exactly what I meant. There was a pause.

“Yes,” he said. “That really hurt. I’m glad you called. Thank you.”

As guys do when faced with intense emotional situations — and when living with their new girlfriends who are probably in the next room — he hustled off the phone right quick. And the deed was done. Or undone.

I’m not being overly dramatic when I tell you I hung up that phone and walked lighter, sat straighter, not weighted down by those rocks. And something unexpected happened. I didn’t miss that guy in the same deep-down way I had for so long, because partially I was tethered to him by a past I couldn’t put away until I took it out for show and tell and made it right. I guess anything that can keep an addict clean and a people together for thousands of years must have some magic in it.

My guy accepted the apology with grace. But what about the yearbook guy? Could I forgive someone who never repented?

To be honest, the yearbook guy is just one portrait in my Gallery of Grudges, an easy example, because it’s far away and time has blurred the anger. It hangs next to “Evil Stepmother in Repose,” “Still Life of Guy Breaking Into My Childhood Home” and “Portrait of a Teacher Who Said I’d Never Amount to Anything.” What about them?

I took the question to a couple of rabbis.

“There is no obligation to forgive someone who has never apologized. There is a benefit, however,” said Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. “Hatred corrodes the soul, while not usually hurting the hated at all. It ties knots inside of us, which can’t really be unraveled by another’s apology as much as by our own willingness to let go.”

Oh, that old “letting go” thing. So much easier said than done. Have you noticed that spiritual teachers in almost every discipline won’t let go of telling us to let go? Dr. Phil practically has it tattooed on his tush.

Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple agreed, saying, “Forgiving relieves us of the burden of bitterness. It can help take the chip off our shoulder and that is always a good thing.”

Chips off the shoulder, rocks out of the pockets, I think I get it. Let go and the heavy stuff lightens up. Life gets better. We act better.

Leder hit me with perhaps the most persuasive quote I’ve heard all year. From Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach: “If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating. But since I have only one soul, I do not want to waste it on hatred.”

I should talk to rabbis more often.

As for letting go, that happened with yearbook guy when I put it into perspective. Was it all about me? Was he a second-string sadist coming off the bench to impress his friends? Was he an angry kid with problems of his own? More importantly, was I truly ugly? I was no cover model, but I was holding my own. I can see that now. The question is, what was he holding? And is he still holding it?

This is where Leder dropped some more wisdom on me. He said, if possible, we should let someone know that they’ve hurt us, giving them the chance for repentance. If they repent, we forgive.

This seems fair. Fair, but at this moment, utterly impossible for me in most cases. Not to mention the fact that there’s probably a statute of limitations on petty high school hurt feelings crimes. As for the other grudges, I’ll have to think about it. A soul is a terrible thing to waste.

Teresa Strasser will join other Journal Singles
columnists at Friday Night Live on Oct. 10 for “Dating Dos and Don’ts” at Sinai
Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Visit Teresa Strasser on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

Students Seek Forgiveness, Too


Adults aren’t the only ones planning to ask God for forgiveness during the High Holidays. As the Day of Atonement approaches, youngsters around Los Angeles are already contemplating the mistakes they’ve made over the past year. Here is what eight young Angelenos plan to repent for during Yom Kippur.

Sophie Kay

Age: 12

7th Grade

Brentwood

I will repent for gossip. When one of your friends doesn’t like another one of your friends, they talk about the person. Of course, I try not to take part in it, but it’s hard.

Zack Hirst

Age: 12

8th Grade

Castaic

I think I’ll ask forgiveness for everything I’ve done bad this year, like not being honest with my parents.

Erin Blagman

Age: 11

6th Grade

Hancock Park

I’ll probably ask for forgiveness for not working to my full ability in school. Also I’ll try not to be so sarcastic all the time with my family. Mainly, it’s my timing with that one!

Spencer Anson

Age: 11

6th Grade

Los Angeles

My sister and I got into a couple of fights lately. I’m going to apologize for whenever I was mean to her.

Rebecca Shapiro

Age: 13

8th Grade

North Hollywood

I’ll atone for mistakes I made that hurt other people. I don’t mean to hurt them, but sometimes I do. I’ll also atone for the opportunities I had to do kindness and didn’t do it.

Staav Goldreich

Age: 14

9th Grade

Woodland Hills

I don’t know what I’ll atone for. I’ve been a good child this year. I’ve been mean to my sister, but she deserved that. How about I’m sorry that I ate so much chocolate?

Natasha Rosenfield

Age: 12

7th Grade

Granada Hills

Mostly, I’d like to ask forgiveness of some of my friends, because we fought and to my parents because we disagree a lot and get into fights sometimes. I’ll probably confront them all.

David Hermel

Age: 13

8th Grade

Sherman Oaks

When I think of teshuvah, which means "return," I think of how I can be a better person and return to my Jewish values by doing mitzvot and chesed (acts of lovingkindness). At this time of the year especially, I ask my friends and family to forgive me for sins I may have committed against them.

Teachable Moment


The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that we are created with yetzer hatov (good inclination) or yetzer harah (bad inclination). And, like Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort, they’re engaged in a never-ending battle. And have been since birth.

Indeed, with apologies to John Locke, the 17th-century philosopher who claimed that human beings are born a blank slate to be imprinted upon by family and society, I can tell you that my four sons emerged from the womb fully wired with good and bad proclivities and with essentially the same personality, and personality quirks that they possess today.

And while they didn’t arrive with an instruction book — only a no-exchange, no-return policy — they did come equipped with free will, giving them the ability to make decisions regarding their actions. Of course, not necessarily decisions that further their best interests, decisions that require harnessing, suppressing or redirecting their bad inclination.

But that’s our job as parents — to help our children make sound choices, control their bad inclination and become solid Jewish citizens.

“I thought your job was to make us happy,” Jeremy, 14, says.

“No, our job is to educate and civilize you,” I answer.

“You can’t tame us,” Danny, 12, protests.

“Maybe we should be reading ‘The Training of Wild Animals’ instead of ‘The Good Enough Parent,'” my husband, Larry, says.

Here’s my unscientific take on parenting: Kids are hard-wired at birth. We can do myriad things to mess them up — and a few things to improve them. But mostly they learn through example. Our example.

I also believe that kids are not innately bad, despite the fact that our family used to sing “Bad to the bone, bad to the bone, B-B-B-B-Bad to the bone” to Danny as an infant to calm him down.

Kids certainly act mischievously. In preschool, one of mine, who shall remain nameless, would check to see that his teachers weren’t watching and then slug his archenemy classmate. Kids also act selfishly, refusing to share their toys or snacks. And they act meanly, by boasting, teasing, hurling hurtful adjectives at each other and forming impenetrable cliques.

But I’ve also seen my sons spontaneously befriend a shy or less-popular classmate. I’ve seen them berate other children for their prejudiced or nasty behavior. And I’ve seen them collect food and clothing to give to the needy.

In my experience, when kids exhibit abnormally unkind or otherwise egregious behavior, it usually signals some kind of emotional or learning issue that needs attention rather than punishment.

Additionally, despite its name, the bad inclination is not an entirely bad thing. In one midrash, Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman even calls it “very good.” He says, “Without the yetzer harah, no man would build a house, take a wife, beget a family or engage in work.”

It energizes us. And without it, no person would appreciate or do good things.

And so, our goal is not to eradicate, but rather to monitor and master the bad inclination, which is not dissimilar to what psychologist Carl Jung calls the shadow, the unpleasant and negative side of the personality that we keep hidden.

But there’s nothing hidden about the bad inclination this time of year. For during this penitential period, which begins on the first of Elul and extends through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to scrutinize our behavior over the past year, especially confronting those instances in which our unattractive, antagonistic and animal nature prevailed.

“Have you done anything this year that you’re not proud of?” I ask my sons.

“A few years ago, I pushed a kid’s head against a brick wall,” Danny volunteers.

“What about this year?”

“I can’t remember.”

This is not an easy exercise for children. It’s even more difficult for them to ask forgiveness from people they have injured or harmed and from God for any promises they have broken.

But that’s how moral growth takes place, by confronting these issues step by step, year by year. And Judaism has granted us this phenomenal, what educators call, “teachable moment.”

Does it mean anything to kids that on Rosh Hashanah we are given an initial ruling — life, death or undecided? That we have 10 days to kick our good inclination into high gear and, through repentance, prayer and mitzvot, avert an adverse decree? And that if we are successful, we are inscribed in the Book of Life at the close of Yom Kippur and essentially given a year’s reprieve? No, probably not.

But this is an opportunity for kids to begin to reflect on their admirable and less-admirable actions. It is an opportunity for them to vow to live more virtuously.

As Mark Twain once observed, “There is a great deal of human nature in people.”

We Jewish parents have always known this. It’s the good and the bad news.


Jane Ulman and her husband live in Encino and have four sons.

Blessings Over Curses


This week’s Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.

The blessings and curses can also be read as a loving explanation of consequences. When a doctor warns a diabetic that eating sugar will make him sick, she is trying to help him, not wishing him ill. Torah laws are instructions for how to live in the world from the One who created the world.

Curiously, in Ki Tavo, as in parallel ancient Near Eastern texts, curses far outnumber blessings. But maybe the weighting of blessings and curses is not as disproportionate as it seems.

The whole premise of the High Holidays is that forgiveness is more powerful than a grudge. Repentance conquers sin. Good is stronger than evil. "The wicked spring up like grass" — quick to grow and easy to trample. "The righteous grow like a cedar" — slow to mature, but substantial and enduring (Psalm 92:8,13).

So, too, blessings carry more weight, and last longer, than curses.

In the holiday liturgy, we recite from Exodus 34:6-7, "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, patient and abounding in goodness and truth. Keeping lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity…." We emphasize God’s blessings using God’s own self-description.

But verse seven continues: "Yet by no means clearing the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the ancestors upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation." The prayer quotes only the blessing, but children inherit iniquity.

No less a figure than Jeremiah objected: "They shall say no more, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the sons’ teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:28-29).

In truth, if not in justice, the curses of sin are commonly passed down for three and four generations. A man beats his daughter, and it affects her parenting. Her wounds wound her child. Then that child raises children, reacting to, and perhaps passing on, the consequences of a grandfather’s sin. Certainly, the cycle can be broken, but three and four generations live and make choices in the shadow of the sin. Our verse is not prescriptive: here is your punishment for an ancestor’s sin. Rather, it is descriptive: here is a lesson about how sin works in families.

It is harder to understand the blessing. Can we really fathom that God’s grace lasts 1,000 generations? Is lovingkindness that powerful?

When I study Torah, I feel my zeyde’s zeyde with me. Something ineffable — love, communal memory — is passed down with the text. The principle of zechut avot says that we inherit the merit of our ancestors for an unlimited number of generations. No explanation sounds complete or logical — the merit inspires us, it rubs off on us, it shapes our collective unconscious, it delights God. Yet, I have sensed, as I hope you have, that when a crowd gathers on the High Holidays, it is not just the people in the room who are present. Past generations assist us in the work of repentance and forgiveness. Their loving energy remains long after any sins and torment have dissipated.

Lovingkindness enjoys not just longevity, but immediate power. As a rabbi, I have witnessed devastating passages that most of us, thankfully, will never experience. Parents stand by their child’s hospital bed, praying for healing and, if not, at least for release from pain. An accident wipes out a young father’s memory, so that he cannot hold a job — or a coherent conversation.

In such terrible situations, people become exquisitely sensitive to blessings. Sometimes blessings can even eclipse the suffering. Every kindness by neighbors and nurses, every moment of peace and clarity, is felt keenly and deeply. Through the pain, love touches the heart and revives the soul.

High Holiday liturgy and theology acknowledge two types of blessings and curses. There are blessings we merit by practicing repentance, prayer and charity in the face of our own troubles. And there are blessings gifted to us by God’s grace. There are curses we bring on by our own poor choices. And there are "natural" curses — fallout from prior generations, random suffering we cannot explain or justify, and death itself. Life’s blessings make the curses bearable. Blessings have a unique power, regardless of whether they — or we — can fix everything.

This season, we seek to control what we can. We challenge ourselves: What harm am I committing or perpetuating — to others and to myself? How can I maximize blessings in the world?

The Talmud Megillah teaches: "[We read Ki Tavo] before the New Year … so that the year may end along with its curses."

By our actions and God’s mercy, may the coming year bring blessing, life and peace.


Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

‘Camera’ Exposes Director’s Past


While growing up on his Encino cul-de-sac in the 1980s, Darren Stein made films with his father’s video camera, bossily directing the other Jewish kids like a baby Roger Corman. The sets were backyards; production was every afternoon save for Hebrew school hours at Leo Baeck and Stephen S. Wise temples. The scripts included zombie flicks, campy gay comedies and a Holocaust drama in which a bicycle pump doubled for a canister of Zyklon-B.

Today, the movies and the adult Stein and friends are the subject of an edgy documentary, “Put the Camera on Me,” which premieres at Outfest 2003 July 10-21. Narrated by Stein — who is gay and the director of several feature films such as “Jawbreaker” — it explores the power structure of a neighborhood clique through the eyes of a child auteur. The portrait is reminiscent of films, such as Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which expose the darker side of childhood in Jewish suburbia.

The bully of “Camera” is often Stein, who relished the power he wielded over his neighbors because he felt powerless and unpopular at the formerly all-male Harvard prep school.

“I gave orders. I was the provocateur,” he said.

His “Camera” co-director, Adam Shell, noted how Stein would promise him a role, then give it to another boy.

Another friend recalls in the film: “If Darren said, ‘Dress up in your mom’s tights,’ you dressed up in your mom’s tights.”

Cut to 1999, when Shell and Stein were discussing how to restore the videotapes — then stored in a torn-up shopping bag — and came up with the idea for a documentary. The two-year production was sometimes painful because “we were forced to deal with our childhood antagonism toward each other,” Shell said.

But the process was ultimately healing. “It was profound for me to be able to ask for forgiveness,” Stein, 31, said of his years as a tyrannical child director. “But I’m still bossy.”

For information on “Camera” screenings at Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, call (213) 480-7065 or visit www.outfest.org/fest2003. Other Jewish-themed Outfest films include the feature “Yossi & Jagger,” about male lovers in the Israeli army.

Louie, Louie … Oh No


In my family there were no stories, and there was certainly no forgiveness.

Grandpa Irving, my dad’s dad, would never talk about the past, about his father, the Russian Jewish patriarch who brought the family over from the Old Country. Whatever this guy — my dad said his name "might have been" Louie — did was unforgivable.

This is a word you hear a lot in my family. For example, sleeping with my boyfriend in college without first consulting my mom was unforgivable. Like so many families, we have an eternal litany of things done unto us that are unforgivable (and unforgettable). There are lots of people we just don’t talk to.

I grew up in Covina, the eldest daughter of a couple of kids from Brooklyn who — like their families before them — escaped the East for the promise of the West. Not too many Jews in Covina.

So, we’re Jewish, and we’re not really from Covina, because nothing here is as good as it is in New York, and we’re from New York, but really we’re from Russia, but there are no stories about Russia, because grandpa’s father did something terrible, and he won’t tell anyone what it was.

The year is 1996. I’m in New York. Grandpa is 95 years old. He and his wife are visiting, and he winds up in St. Claire’s Hospital. Prostate trouble. It’s not that serious, but it’s the first time in his life my grandpa’s been in the hospital, and he’s scared silly. He weeps, whispering, "My father… my father." I hold his hand to comfort him.

As soon as he’s out, I go to visit, and I ask, point-blank, "What happened with your father?" And grandpa has a fit, and his wife throws me out of the house because I’m giving him heart attacks.

Yes, it’s cruel to poke at an old man, but shame dwells in his silence. Hatred festers there. I had felt the shame of whatever this guy Louie did all my life, despite grandpa’s heroic attempt to conceal it from me.

Yes, he desperately wanted his children, his children’s children to be able to have a new life. He wanted me to have the life he was promised when he boarded the great ship Lucania on Feb. 28, 1904, in Liverpool, England, and set sail for the United States.

But I could not have that new life without knowing his story. Shame — especially shame without a name — creeps through from generation unto generation: I wind up Jewish and other in the suburbs of Southern California, with the vague and haunting sense that I, personally, have done something horribly wrong. Which I haven’t.

It’s 1997. Grandpa is 96 years old, and I’m determined to get his story before it’s too late. I ask if he’ll talk to me on videotape about his life. Eventually, he agrees, and after a couple of days painting a rosy picture, on the last day of my visit he comes clean. He tells me about his father. And what Louie did was unforgivable.

I’d been making up sexy little stories (murder, incest, arson) about the guy all my life. This was not what I expected. I needed help.

I found a rabbi who knows a lot about forgiveness, and reading Talmud with this rabbi, I discovered that telling the story is the first step. There is no possibility of teshuvah (literally, "return") or rachmonas (compassionate pity, or release of bitterness and hatred) without story. It’s part of the deal.

When you do something that hurts, to ask for forgiveness, you have to say what you did. To let go of a grudge when you are the one hurt, you have to say out loud the reality of the situation. You have to say what happened.

Grandpa’s story needed telling. The promise of the video camera helped open the way. It made him feel honored ("I’m gonna be famous on the TV!"). His stories, kept in silence for more than 90 years, were to be preserved, cherished.

And, together, in piercing that silence, we shattered the shame. In doing so, I believe that we changed the face not only of our relationship, but of all our relationships, and those which are to come in the future of our family. Grandpa’s past, which had been solely a source of pain, became a source of painful pride, when he saw its richness through the eyes of others.

Grandpa Irving, age 100, died this past April. The doctors told him this was it: He wasn’t going to walk again, his diaphragm was tired of going up and down — his strong body was, bit by bit, calling it quits.

A nurse from the hospice came to the hospital. I was in the room. Grandpa told him he was ready. "I’m a goner," he proclaimed.

The guy asked grandpa where he was from. "I was born in Manchester. Manchester, England!" he answered, proudly. And then he looked at me, turned to the man, and with equal pride, added, "My father, my father was born in Kiev!"

What Louie did was not OK. It will never be OK. It was unspeakable, and for many years went unspoken. But my grandfather finally talked about it. And when grandpa died, he — who had lived his entire life without a father — died with a father. Not a nice father, not the father he deserved, but a human, erring father.

When grandpa told his story, he returned to his relationship with Louie, with all its horror, rage and need. That’s teshuvah. It may not be pretty, but that is the power of story.

For more details on Louie’s crime, see "Looking for Louie," written and performed by Stacie Chaiken, from Oct. 6 through Nov. 19 at the Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 465-1010.


Stacie Chaiken is a writer, performer, teacher and co-creator of the Young Actors Academy.

Kristallnacht, Six Decades Later


In April of last year, I received the following letter from the city of Graz, Austria, where I was born.

"On November 9th, 2000, the newly erected synagogue in Graz will be returned to the Jewish community. The return of the synagogue is a visual appeal for forgiveness for the atrocities and unjust criminal actions that were dealt our Jewish fellow citizens in the year 1938. This new House of God for the Jewish Community in Graz, which now stands at the very same spot where the former synagogue stood, should be a symbol for new respect for human rights and human kindness here in our city."

"The curators for the rebuilding of the synagogue and the Jewish community have the pleasure of inviting you to be a party of this meaningful event. You had to leave this city many years ago with bitter experiences and great danger. It would give us great pleasure if you would return to our city, where we would like to ask for your forgiveness. We know that terrible memories are connected with such a visit, and we have great respect for your decision."

Immediately after the Anschluss — the union of Nazi Germany and Austria on March 12, 1938 — the Graz Jewish cemetery was desecrated. Local officials sought to make Graz the first town to be Judenrein.

On the nights of Nov. 9 and 10 — Kristallnacht — the main synagogue was dynamited and burned to the ground. All Jewish residents were driven from their homes. Their subsequent fate is unknown, though most perished in the Holocaust.

In spite of many misgivings, I decided to take the invitation and return to Graz. I took my daughter, then 46, with me.

Municipal officials throughout the event repeatedly emphasized it was "somewhat late" to apologize for what happened 62 years ago, and asked for forgiveness. As the saying goes: "Better late than never."

We were treated royally — wined and dined from morning till night. A very large group came from Israel and several groups from the United States.

The new synagogue is beautiful in its modern structure and simplicity. Its 12 beams upholding a glass cupola symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel. There is a big Magen David on the top, and all over the glass dome are excerpts of the Torah in Hebrew letters.

On Nov. 8, the day before the synagogue’s official opening, the site was renamed the David Herzog Platz in honor of our old rabbi, David Herzog. He was already 70 years old on that fateful night of Nov. 9. A mob beat him and threw him into the River Mur, where he somehow managed to swim ashore. They were going to throw him into the flames of the burning synagogue, but police stopped them. (Not out of kindness; the police were afraid the surrounding buildings would catch fire, so they cordoned the area off.) Herzog, a broken man, eventually managed to leave for England, and he died shortly after. His 93-year-old son lives in Chicago, but for health reasons could not make the long trip to Graz.

The following day was the official opening with the president of Austria, Dr. Thomas Klestil, and many dignitaries attending. When the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna and the president of the Jewish community in Graz came in, each carrying a Torah as they walked through the congregation, we were all in tears. The choir of the Big Synagogue in Jerusalem provided music. There were many speeches, and each one emphasized forgiveness and expressed hope and faith that this House of God would put an end to hatred and discrimination.

Graz is fortunate to have an outstanding mayor, Alfred Stingl, who was not only instrumental in arranging this whole huge project, but who extended his warmth, courtesy and charisma. When the large Israeli group arrived in Vienna, he met the airplane, arranged a reception at the airport, carried luggage and shook everyone’s hand.

He quickly returned to Graz to welcome the visitors at the hotel and was part of a large reception for them, though it was almost midnight. He thanked us over and over again, both as a group and individually, for coming and for forgiving.

I was interviewed by a reporter of a local newspaper, and I told her that although one can never forget or totally forgive, it was time to let go. I had built up such a hatred and dislike for everything Austrian, the particular dialect of Graz, even of the food, that it didn’t leave me any peace.

I feel this visit has somehow softened these feelings, and in the final analysis, you cannot really blame second and third generations for the "sins of the fathers." In grave doubt is whether the Austrians are truly repentant and whether Jews in Austria will ever be equal citizens. I will say, however, that Graz city officials tried their utmost, and I fervently hope they will continue to be successful.

As for me, even though I had a very meaningful and enjoyable time, my happiest moment was when I showed my U.S. passport at Schwechart Airport in Vienna and returned to my home for the past 53 years in Los Angeles.