Shabbat Shalom from Oz


I am writing today from Melbourne, Australia, where I have come on a little holiday. By little of course mean I am here for 48 hours. I left Los Angeles on Wednesday night and arrived Friday morning. It is now Saturday morning in Oz, and I leave tomorrow at 9:00 am. It is a bit insane to travel for two days to spend only two days, but I am so happy I did it. I love it here and love the people I am with.

I’m staying with my friend Gamble in a glorious part of the country. Yesterday we ran errands and got caught up. Had lunch with her family and sat by the ocean as I tried my first oyster while having the best Cosmo I’ve had in a long time. It was a perfect day. This group is like family and I feel blessed to spend time here, even if just for a couple of days. I love Australia and have a real connection to this place.

When I was recovering from cancer, Gamble swept in like an angel and saved me from myself. I was either going to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself, or was going to get up and live my life. Not just live it, but be brave. Her kindness and nudging forced me to not waste my time thinking about what had happened, but rather what was still possible. Gamble made me brave and gave me Australia.

She attached herself to my heart and I am thankful. I get a lot of perspective on my life through knowing Gamble. I am able to see myself differently through her eyes, and able to see George differently through mine. I am in a very happy and settled place in my life, and Gamble has helped with that. Not only Gamble, but also her sister Tempest, who I love very much. These two remarkable ladies  are family.

I am in Melbourne for two days and it is perfection. The weather is divine, there are a million birds singing in the garden, and while I am sad to be leaving so quickly, am happy that I came and know I will be back soon, for a proper vacation and enough time to see everything this amazing country has to offer.  Tonight we will mark a milestone birthday, have too many cocktails, and celebrate friendship.

If you have an opportunity to visit Australia, you must. If you can spend more than two days, you REALLY must! I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Shabbat. I hope you all have friends like I do, women who inspire you to not only be better, but be happy with exactly who you are. Have a wonderful weekend and be safe out there. Remember that life is always better when you are keeping the faith.

 

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2016

Israel and Azerbaijan: Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship


 

On April 8, 2017, Azerbaijan and Israel will celebrate 25 years of friendship. As it says in the Talmud, friendship is a “critical element to our lives as Jews and for all mankind.”

On December 25, 1991 Israel became one of the first countries in the world to formally recognize the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and on April 8, 1992, the two nations established formal diplomatic ties, which have only grown closer over the 25 years since. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I have an intimate knowledge of how important and inspiring this friendship is. As a leader of my community, who has traveled across the world to many Jewish communities, I know this anniversary has profound meaning for us all.  

Israel and Azerbaijan are both exceptional countries that share much in common. They are both leaders in finding innovations in technology, energy, emergency management and international security. They are both home to diverse communities, where Christians, Muslims and Jews live as one. Israel stands alone as a progressive democracy in a region deeply embroiled in conflict and strife, and Azerbaijan stands alone in an equally unstable region; the world’s only nation to border both Iran and Russia and the only secular majority-Muslim democracy of its kind in quite a turbulent part of the world.

Israel and Azerbaijan have worked together closely over the years to establish deep and lasting trade, and today, approximately 50 percent of Israelis’ cars drive around each day with Azerbaijani oil in their gas tanks. Azerbaijan enjoys a close cooperation with Israel in the fields of technology and expertise, especially when it comes to defense, national security, medicine, IT and agriculture. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both visited Azerbaijan several times, and on his most recent visit in late 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu said of Azerbaijan that “Here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere.”

The relationship goes beyond trade and mutual goals of safety and fighting extremism.  There is a tremendous understanding of mutual respect between the two nations. To demonstrate how far this goes, I remember when one of Azerbaijan’s lead imams stated that “There is nothing in Islamic law to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount and the ones who claim otherwise are considered heretics in Islam.” I remember only 2 years ago, when the European World Games successfully took place in Baku, and the largest delegation of Israeli athletes in history had flown into Baku to participate in the games, and how the crowds cheered so beautifully as they graced the arena. And last year, Azerbaijan hosted the joint exhibit of Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO, titled “The People, the Book, the Land”, which tells the story of us, the Jewish people, as we trace 3,500 years back to the land of Israel. It is no small statement for a majority-Muslim nation to make. It was the undoubtable act of friendship and respect.

When i was growing up in the Soviet Union, I never imagined that I would one day celebrate the 25th anniversary of Azerbaijan and Israel as diplomatic partners and allies. Such a notion to a Jew of this region was practically unimaginable. But like so many things in this life that are wonderful and inspiring, this friendship was a dream that came true.

As we come next week to Passover, I believe it is important to celebrate this anniversary and recognize that we are partners in peace across every continent. May the friendship shared between the Jewish state and the majority-Muslim ally of the Caucasus stand as a heroic model for the friendship that is possible between nations of any and every faith. My prayers and heart are looking forward to another 25 years of growing and fortunate friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan.

 

My Favorite Englishman


I have been travelling to London for the better part of a year. The property consulting company I used to rent a house, is a couple of lovely gentleman who have taken very good care of me. If anyone is looking to buy or rent a home in London, let me know and I will make an introduction. They are wonderful and over the past few months, one of the men has become rather important to me. He is my favorite Englishman and there is nothing I don’t like about him.

From his three piece suits, to always blowing his nose into a handkerchief, he is very proper. He can drink like a sailor, and speak on any topic with authority. I am not sure if this is because he is well versed on a variety of subjects, or rather because he is such a snob his dismissal of things makes him sound like he is dismissing from a place of knowledge, not boredom of something he has no interest in. He is funny, charming, smart, handsome, and simply lovely.

On Saturday night he took me out for my birthday. We went to The Ivy Club, which was terrific. They made a particularly good Cosmo and the wait staff were perfect. On the way to dinner however, my friend said he brought me to this particular location because I am a snob. Well, um, no. We go to fancy places because my friend is quite fancy. It is both ridiculous and insanely funny for him to think it is me who insists on where we go. The truth is he is a bit of snob.

He has impeccable taste and has never taken me anywhere that wasn’t fabulous. When I am in London I tend to stay within a 3-mile radius of home because everything I need is here, but he has shown me London and I have fallen in love with the city because of him. I have fallen in love with him too. He has made coming here a pleasure and taken the sting out of being away from my son for such long stretches.

If my friend could see himself as I do, he would be in love with himself too. I don’t think he has any idea how wonderful he is, which I suppose is part of his charm. He is accomplished, successful, and painfully unaware of his appeal. I want him to not only be happy, but find his happily ever after. I am going to introduce him to the woman he is going to marry. I am sure of it and so the search has begun. I am going to find a girl who is worthy of something special and will appreciate how amazing he is.

My Englishman and me have absolutely nothing in common, and on paper we don’t really make sense, but we have settled into something important and fun and rather entertaining. I am certain he has never met anyone like me, and I have only read about men like him in classic literature. There is no deeply woven story here, I just really wanted to share this man with you. That said, should you be a single woman living in London, between the ages of 27 and 35, let me know.

Sometimes it takes someone to see you a certain way for you to see it in yourself, so to my lovely friend, I see you and you are smashing. You are going to trust me and go out on dates with who I set you up with because you love me too, so you will believe it can happen. I am heading back to LA tomorrow and will be back in London next week to begin my matchmaking services. I will not only be in search of the perfect Cosmo, but also the perfect girl.

It has been a long five weeks and I am ready to go home and see my son. I will be celebrating my birthday in Las Vegas with Celine Dion and I am so excited I might bust. To my lovely friend, thank you. Thank you for always taking care of me and making sure I have some fun while here. I look forward to dancing at your wedding one day. By dancing, of course I mean I will also be giving a speech. When it comes to your search for love, my advice is simple, keep the faith.

Camp: With social media, campers now stay connected through an endless summer


For 12-year-old Sophie Golden, camp is “kind of like a different world,” where electronics are a no-go and her bunkmates feel more like sisters than friends. When she misses that feeling during the year, there’s an easy way to get it back, even if just for a fleeting moment — by checking her phone.

That camp feeling “is coming back a little bit, but the second I stop texting, it goes away,” said Golden, who attends Beber Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Mukwonago, Wis. She said she never worries at the end of the summers about losing touch because she and most of her camp friends stay in constant contact in group chats and on Snapchat, the photo messaging application.

Though camp has traditionally been a summer-only experience, the increased use of social media and technology by kids is changing that — and camps are catching on.

“For our campers, that camp experience of being connected to your camp friends never ends, it doesn’t just last eight weeks of the summer anymore,” said Jamie Lake, who serves as marketing manager for the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago’s two overnight camps and nine day camps.

That’s a positive as Lake sees it.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “Anything that we can do to keep the positive feeling of Jewish overnight camp going longer than just the summer is a benefit, not only to our camp programs, but really to our campers and their families.”

And the JCC Chicago camps rely on social media, too, in keeping campers connected, such as using Facebook’s live streaming service in order to broadcast reunions to campers who cannot attend.

Social media also provide a way for campers to hang out — virtually, that is.

Camps Airy & Louise, Jewish brother-sister overnight camps in Thurmont and Cascade, Md., organize year-round events that campers can attend by logging onto Facebook and Instagram. During Chanukah, the camps ran a scavenger hunt in which campers were asked to photograph themselves wearing their camp shirts in various locations, and submit the pictures to the camps’ social media pages. Camps Airy & Louise also run online fantasy football leagues and NCAA men’s basketball March Madness brackets.

“If they’re going to be in a fantasy football league — some of them are probably already in three or four — why not be in a fantasy football league with camp?” said Jonathan Gerstl, the executive director at Camps Airy & Louise.

Golden’s Beber Camp organizes virtual events once a month during the year, such as “Where in the World is Beber?” when campers on winter break post photos of themselves around the world.

Brad Robinson, manager of customer experience and marketing at Beber Camp, said that anywhere from a few dozen to 200 kids — the latter representing nearly a third of all campers — participate in the events.

Although Golden communicates with her camp friends on her smartphone at least once every other day, she makes time for in-person meet-ups. Still, asked to imagine a world without cellphones, Golden said her relationships with camp friends would probably suffer.

“I think we wouldn’t be as close in the summer and have as much to connect to,” she said.

Robinson of Beber Camp echoed Golden’s experience.

“I think [social media] definitely allows for deeper relationship building, because they are just a few finger taps away from communicating with their friends,” he said. “It has allowed campers and staff to really further build those relationships, where in the past, it was only when they saw each other in person, or they were maybe writing some slower mail or emails back and forth.”

And parents are catching on too, using group chats to share letters they received from their children or to ask one another questions.

“Parents find out who’s in their child’s bunk and they exchange phone numbers and they start a group text to everybody,” Rabbi Joel Seltzer, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Conservative Jewish camp in Lakewood, Pa., said.

For other parents, social media provides not only a way to connect with their children’s camp experiences but also to the camps they attended in their youth.

This summer, Sophie Golden’s mother, Davina, will be attending a reunion for Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis. — her first reunion since she worked there as a counselor 25 years ago. Davina Golden said she probably would not be attending were it not for having connected with old camp friends on social media.

“I lost touch with a lot of my friends,” she said, “but then, since Facebook, we all got in touch with each other.”

See how teen pals found each other some 50 years later


As a librarian, Oren Kaplan researches obscure facts and utilizes databases to track down information.

So when the Haifa resident read a recent “Seeking Kin” column about someone in his city, Menahem Orenstein, who hoped to locate a long-lost childhood buddy, Kaplan decided to put his experience to work.

Within a week, Kaplan had located Orenstein’s old friend, David Bak, living in Stockton, California, about 70 miles east of Oakland. That’s Bak, not Beck (remember the names).

Orenstein and Bak, who worked together at a Haifa auto repair shop in the late 1960s while attending technical high schools, expressed delight at reconnecting and hope to meet within a year.

Much to the delight of Kaplan, a Maryland native who works at the central library at the Technion: Israel Institute of Technology. He described the gratification he feels: “a combination of solving a crossword puzzle, winning at Bingo, inventing the light bulb and watching someone taste ice cream for the first time.”

When Orenstein called, Bak admitted to being “shocked and surprised.”

“I said, ‘Is that you, Menahem?’” Bak recalled.

Orenstein would telephone Bak nearly every day for a week, and between conversations they corresponded and exchanged pictures through Facebook.

On a 2011 visit to Haifa, Bak said he searched for Orenstein, but couldn’t remember his surname – the consequence of more than 40 years’ passage.

Since his parents moved the family to the United States in 1968 – not 1969, as Orenstein had recalled – Bak has retained a passion for cars, and not just those he repaired for a living.

In the early 1970s, he bought a 1966 Chevrolet El Camino and over the years redid its chassis, souped up the engine and repainted it several times. Eventually Bak gave the car to his son, Daniel, who lives in Sacramento and drives it most Sundays. Still, at age 50, the El Camino has traveled only 66,000 miles.

Bak also repaired and enjoyed driving a 1932 Chevrolet Model A before selling it four years ago. And he’s bought, repaired and sold many other cars.

Most of Bak’s career, though, was spent working in warehouses and being a heavy-equipment operator. Now, at 64, he’s retired. In addition to his son, he has a daughter, Rachel, who lives in Los Angeles, and a granddaughter. Later this year he’ll visit the Philippines, the homeland of his second wife. The trip after he’ll go to Israel.

He recalled his family leaving Israel because his father, Benzion, was concerned by Bak’s approaching draft age. But in America, Bak learned he also could be drafted and possibly sent to Vietnam.

Bak thought then, “Forget this – I’d rather fight [for Israel].” He nearly returned, until his U.S. military draft lottery number wasn’t called.

His family settled in Oakland because Bak’s paternal uncle, Boris, had moved there several years earlier. Natives of Poland, Benzion and Boris made it to Israel after spending 10 years in a Russian prison, where the brothers were incarcerated for fighting for the partisans. Seven of their brothers and sisters were murdered in the Holocaust. Three other siblings survived, settling in Uruguay, Israel and America.

Bak’s mother, Susanna, a native of Germany who survived the Holocaust, is now 88 and lives with Bak’s sister, Sara Horn, near Los Angeles.

Now back to Bak and Beck.

In searching for Bak, the key stumbling block for Orenstein and “Seeking Kin” was misspelling his surname Beck.

But when Kaplan tried the unconventional spelling, the dominoes fell. He searched on the websites of various public-records database aggregators, such as Intelius.com and Radaris.com, where the information matched some of what had appeared in the “Seeking Kin” column, such as the names of Benzion, who died in 2005 and is buried near Oakland; and of Susanna. Kaplan even turned up a contemporary photograph of Bak that bears a striking resemblance to the one appearing in the “Seeking Kin” article.

That image, showing the teenage Bak sitting in a 1962 Bonneville, was snapped on Oakland’s Walker Avenue, in front of an apartment building where the family lived. Bak recalled with delight that he smuggled 12 high school friends who crammed into the Bonneville’s trunk into the since-razed Union City Drive-In to watch a movie.

For Orenstein, finding Bak is a climax equaling any film.

“It’s exciting – no doubt about it. It’s the closing of a loop after 45 years. It’s nostalgia,” he said. “The decades passed – the first, second, third and fourth – and the curiosity increased. We can’t return to the days of yore, but [now] we can visit each other and share our experiences.”

Orenstein said he’ll arrange a reunion of those who once worked at Garage Express, now called Hyundai Garage. The shop’s former owner, Zeev Solomon, has pledged to attend, as has the current owner, Danny Finkelstein — his late father, Baruch, owned the shop when Orenstein and Bak worked there as teens.

Coming back, too, are several long-ago mechanics with whom Orenstein has maintained contact: Uzi Balila, Yossi Itzkovitch, Yaakov Bichacho and David Kuba.

The one who’ll make the gathering complete, Orenstein said, is Bak.

Savoring life in Tel Aviv under the rockets


I walk six blocks each morning through the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv to the bus stop for the 51. At block number five, in the shade off to the right of the sidewalk, I spot the familiar sight of the old man sitting in a folding chair. We don’t know anything about each other, yet a friendship has somehow blossomed between us: a 20-year-old American girl and an elderly Israeli man. It started five weeks ago with simple pleasantries, me eager to use my rusty Hebrew and interact with real locals. Our daily “boker tov” pleasantries soon turned into a routine, the face of the aged gentleman breaking out into a smile as I walked by. He often asked with genuine concern why I wasn’t eating breakfast, as if eating a hearty Israeli style meal was exactly what I should be doing on my brisk walk to work.

One humid Tel Aviv morning as I walked by, the old man reached under his chair, offering me an unopened bottle of orange juice he had purchased. I fervently declined, but after he insisted in typical borderline-aggressive Israeli fashion, I relented, taking a sip but claiming “ani lo rotzah et ha kol”, giving him back the rest. A week later he asked me why I was always in a hurry, telling me to slow down, to enjoy. Since then, I have.

Somehow, throughout my time here, a war has emerged. Somehow, between the nights out in Tel Aviv with friends, World Cup viewings on the beach, sunset runs along the boardwalk, and afternoons spent in cafes on Rothschild, countless rockets have sailed through the air above my head, causing terror in their wake. Running into bomb shelters has become a reality I could have never foreseen.

I experienced first hand the horror of the kidnapping, the hope and the support of the community as we gathered in Rabin Square with the victim’s parents to pray for their sons’ return. The shock that reverberated throughout the country when less than 24 hours later the devastating news of their slaughter that had occurred almost a week before became known. The fear and utter disbelief when the first sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, the surreal act of running to bomb shelters to seek protection, and the resignation when the sirens and rockets did not stop for fifteen days straight. But the resilient nature of the country and its citizens immediately showed through, visible in the collective pride for the soldiers who fight so bravely, in the smiles of the faces of Israeli’s in #bombshelterselfies, and in Israeli innovation and technology, specifically the strength of the Iron Dome. The feeling of loss is still there, the overwhelming sadness inflicted by each death, each Israeli soldier killed and really the loss of lives on each side of the conflict. Blows to the soul that are felt personally, that sometimes cast a dark shadow over the day and cause a heavy heart that is inevitably experienced when living here, with only a few degrees of separation from soldiers killed on the battlefront.

But here, life goes on. Throughout it all, I have learned to appreciate. Just like the advice the old man extended to me as I powerwalked to my bus stop, I have slowed down, I have become aware of the beauty of life, of all there is to be thankful for and enjoy. Gorgeous sunsets still draw crowds, the cafes are still bustling, and the nightclubs are still packed with swaying, sweaty bodies. The Israeli mentality to live each moment to the fullest, to embrace one another and live with vibrancy is a lifestyle that I have begun to embody.

This morning I walked by the old man, sitting in the shade of the sidewalk, and extended my daily “boker tov” greeting with a warm smile. He motioned for me to wait, slowly rose from his chair, and handed me a Bueno chocolate bar. I’m not sure if I would have accepted a candy bar from essentially a stranger in the streets a month ago- I certainly would not have even glanced twice at this elderly man back home in America. But this act of generosity, the genuine kindness this man exudes, the care that he has expressed for me despite me just being a stranger who passes by for merely 5 seconds every day, caused me to accept this small gift, embracing our friendship.

It has been a true adventure to live here amidst the chaos, but the irrepresible nature of the Israeli people, the fierce unity that has emerged between friends and strangers alike, have allowed me to feel safer and more united with the country I love so much than ever before. I return back to America not just cherishing the time I spent here and the bonds I’ve made with friends and Israelis, only possible from sharing these extreme circumstances. I leave knowing in my heart that I have an insatiable need to return. And I know for a fact that I will. 

Five doubting dudes and the holy relics of Mount Mortality


“Protestant,” I lied, not for the first time, when the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims Bureau officer asked me my religion.

In January, when my friend Sandy, who was born Greek Orthodox, applied to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow five of us to set foot on the Mount Athos peninsula in June, I’d agreed that putting “Protestant” on the form was a safer answer than the truth – “It’s complicated” – and less likely to be a deal-breaker than “Jewish.”  Even so, my surname was enough to trigger a “Really?” from the ministry and gum up the paperwork.  And though our written reassurance that this Kaplan was indeed ΠΡΟΤΕΣΤΑΝΤΗΣ resulted in a message that permission would be granted, when the permit official was face-to-face with me at the Pilgrims Bureau in Ouranoupoli, something – maybe my nose – didn’t pass his smell test.  So I was asked the question again, and I nonchalantly replied “Protestant,” casually adding “Episcopal,” in the hope that such a detail would somehow make it more plausible, and silently wondering if my ethnic treachery would send me to hell – if I’d actually believed in hell – or whether it was really no more grave a transgression than adding a couple of inches of height to my JDate profile.

For more than a thousand years, Mount Athos, a forested peninsula jutting 40 miles into the northeast Aegean, has been the center of monastic life in the Greek Orthodox faith.  Twenty monasteries, and little else, are scattered along its wild coastline.  Some are as large as colleges; some rise from the rocks like the Potala Palace in Tibet.  Inside their walls there is an astonishing abundance of medieval icons, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, jeweled reliquaries, precious metalwork and ancient marble. The Byzantine frescoes in just one of Mount Athos’s chapels would be more than enough art to fill a major exhibition in any of the world’s museums.

Four days is the longest visit that pilgrims – not tourists – may make.  One hundred and twenty are granted permission to enter per day, and all but 10 of them must be Greek Orthodox.  There are no hotels, and a maximum of a single night’s stay per monastery – arranged through a separate application process – is permitted.  No women are allowed to set foot on Mount Athos, a prohibition that the bearded, black-robed monks, some 1,500 of them on the peninsula, say honors the Virgin Mary, who visited there when her ship was blown off course on her way from the Holy Land to Cyprus.  Shorts, bare toes and pierced ears are also forbidden.

The trip was Sandy’s idea.  His 95-year-old father is Greek, and though Sandy was baptized in the Orthodox faith, he would be the first to call himself an atheist.  Two of us – Tim, an Englishman, and Adam, half English and half Swedish – are Christian, but only nominally.  Geza, whose parents were Hungarian Catholics, is also an unbeliever, and vocally appalled by the historic carnage committed in God’s name. I’m Jewish.  Though Adam dubbed us five the Mount Atheists, I hesitate to call myself that because of my ineluctable awe at the ineffable, at what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the inconceivable surprise of living” – my amazement and gratitude that there is something rather than nothing, an improvised mysticism that nevertheless leaves me religiously way closer to my four secular bros than to someone whose Savior is Christ or whose God is the God of Scripture.

During our visit we were meticulously respectful of the monks’ practices, but we still stuck out among the other visitors.  I was the only American, and we were the only native English-speakers that we encountered, but I think it was the monks’ radar for apostasy, not for nationality, that marked us.  At each monastery where we stayed, a monk approached us, looking for spiritual embers to blow on.  Father Savvas urged us to reflect on the deeper reasons we had chosen to come to Mount Athos rather than hitting one of Greece’s beach-ringed pleasure islands.  Father George wrote out a list of books for us to read, memoirs of Protestants and Catholics and lapsed Orthodox who had found their way back to the one true religion.  Father Gregory told us of the doubter struck dead on the spot for disbelieving that an icon of the Virgin Mary in the monastery’s possession had spouted blood when struck by a knife. Father Vasilios told us of the miraculous power of one of his monastery’s holy relics, Saint Marina’s hand – still at body temperature after 1,700 years – to raise believers from the dead.  He also urged us to turn our backs on the rotten, homosexuality-accepting Sodom and Gomorrah we came from.

All this left us unmoved.  If anything, the relics and the miracles and the culture war talk made it more difficult for us to discover the highest common denominator between the faith of the monks and our own ad hoc spirituality.  So why, if not for worship and conversion, had we gone there?  There was aesthetic pleasure galore, of course, and spectacular natural beauty, and the coolness of parachuting across 10 centuries into “The Name of the Rose,” and the thrill of being among the few to get in.  But the real reason we went, I think, was to wrestle with our own mortality.    

The five of us have been friends since college.  Four of us were roommates.  Sandy’s brother George was also our roommate, but we lost him three years ago, after a bruising battle with leukemia.  In a way, this pilgrimage was a tribute to George, an effort to keep him alive by keeping the bonds among us alive, a sentimental but inevitably futile attempt to transcend his ending by denying our own.  The miracle we bore witness to turned out to be the earthly wonder of enduring friendship.  The relics we accepted turned out to be ourselves, a handful of 60-somethings, killer backpacking from one monastery to the next and sleeping five to a cell with a bathroom down the hall.  If this understanding of holiness was a humanistic heresy, we were glad to be guilty of it. 

Sailing to Byzantium – literally enacting the title of Yeats’s poem – had been our original plan; we were going to make our way to Mount Athos in the beautiful wooden caïque owned by George and Sandy’s family. But a storm registering eight on the Beaufort scale made us rethink our course.  Herodotus tells of 300 Persian ships destroyed by a northerly gale at Mount Athos, and we were in no rush to join them, so Plan B for getting to Byzantium was 24 hours by ferry and car.  Despite the change of route, Yeats’s words still apply. 

“That is no country for old men,” it begins.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing…

We traveled to Mount Athos to revel in one another’s company, to savor each moment left to us, to testify to the sanctity of being.  We went to Byzantium so our souls could clap hands and sing.  If that’s not where God is, I don’t know where else to look.


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

Beauty can arise from tragedy


In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Status symbol


Status used to be about social hierarchy — whether you made a good living or were born into the right family or had achieved prominence in your community. But these days, if you say the word “status” to Generation Single-and-Facebooking, you may be understood very differently.

For the novices, Facebook is a social media utility, commonly called “social networking.” This is basically an online community where the youngish and technology-loving assemble, sharing their friend lists, interests and activities with each other toward the creation of a greater social entity — a network. One of the most popular features of Facebook is a “status feed,” a running list of what your friends are up to, updated whenever anyone makes a change to his or her profile. “Tiffany Jewstein joined the ‘All Jews on Facebook’ group.” “Rachel Goldberg is engaged to Shmuley Greenberg.” “David Bernowitz is sooo glad finals are over.”

For Facebookers in their 20s and 30s, one of the trickiest status areas is the “relationships” line. In your profile, you choose how to identify yourself. Are you “single,” “married,” “engaged” or “in a relationship,” or would you say you’re “in an open marriage”? Or are you an “it’s complicated”? What are you looking for: “friendship,” “dating,” “networking,” “a relationship” or “whatever I can get”? You can choose multiple identifiers, since this is a generation of multiple identities, but this can refract the message. You might think “whatever I can get” is funny and shows how open and casual you are, but someone who’s looking for something special might see you as desperate or not serious.

Once you’ve started dating, other minefields await. Back in the day, if you met someone on JDate and you started dating each other exclusively, the big conversation was about taking down your online profile — this meant you were serious and weren’t going to be online during off hours, cruising for someone “better.” This was commitment.

But on Facebook, relationships are not about the vanishing of profiles, because the function of the community is not supposed to end when couplehood is achieved; relationships mean the public declaration of a change in status. And there are levels of such declaration. You can change your status from single to “in a relationship.” You can declare publicly the name of the person with whom you’re in the relationship or, if you’re afraid of tempting the evil eye, you can leave it anonymous for friends to guess or know.

A friend of mine who recently started dating someone changed his status from “single” to “in a relationship.” But his girlfriend hadn’t yet changed hers, so he wasn’t sure whether the relationship meant more to him than to her. And neither of them was sure that they were ready to declare to the world that they were in a relationship with each other — that’s a huge commitment, to go public, because if, God forbid, the relationship doesn’t work out, that failure and loss is also public.

Status is yours to claim, or in the case of one sister-single friend of mine, reclaim. When she first joined Facebook, her status was set to “single.” But this week I got a notification that she “is no longer listed as single.” I assumed this meant that she had met someone.

No, she told me, she was still single, but had decided to reclaim her status. She didn’t like the fact that everyone looking at her page saw her as single, because she was so much more than that. She wasn’t announcing a relationship; she was announcing her reclamation of how she presented herself to the online world.

If only we all gave as much time and consideration to how we present ourselves offline — not in terms of physical appearance, but in how we define ourselves in relation to others, in how we determine our goals professionally and personally and in how we relate to the community at large. Are we conveying that we’re open to new relationships? Are we being honest about our availability? Are we publicly declaring our intentions toward others?

While many of us live online, we shouldn’t forget that even if we spend days chained to our computers and the online representations of ourselves, life is about human — and humane — interaction. Whether online or off, we should learn to present ourselves clearly, identify ourselves truthfully and with an understanding that status is about half in its declaration, and half in how it is perceived by others.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is currently “in an open relationship” with her Facebook Status Feed. Don’t ask; “it’s complicated.” You can reach her at jdatersanonymous@gmail.com. This column originally appeared in The Jewish Week.


JJ LA asks you to be a

Experience at international camp broadens perspective


As I look at a picture from the summer of 2007, I wish with all of my heart that I could go back and relive it. This picture contains a group of campers, each with a big smile on his or her face, glowing with happiness to be surrounded by their new best friends.

From a distance, these children look so different, as if they were each cut out of a separate magazine to form one colorful collage. Each child comes from a different ethnic background and speaks a different language at home. But here at this camp with their new friends, they have created a temporary home, where it is not necessary to speak a common language.

As a counselor at Camp Kimama in Michmoret, Israel, I learned that the only connection these children from all over the world need is their passion and love for Israel. Camp Kimama is Israel’s first international camp, where Jewish children spend two weeks forming a multicultural group of friends and exploring the different worlds that these friends come from. I spent one month of my summer working at Kimama, every day discovering more about myself and my fellow Israelis, Jews and Zionists.

The first day of the first session of camp can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. I had never been more confused in my life. The camp was full of nervous campers, overprotective mothers and a feeling of pure chaos.

I quickly realized that in order to communicate with all of my new campers, I would have to repeat everything I said in Hebrew and in English and make sure that every camper who didn’t speak those languages would have someone to translate for them. Can you imagine having to teach camp cheers to 60 energetic 10-year-olds in more than three different languages?

By the end of the day, my legs felt like Jell-O, my voice was nonexistent and if I had not fallen asleep within seconds of getting into my bed, I would have questioned myself about why in the world I gave up part of the freedom of my summer vacation to work at this seemingly crazy job.

Throughout the next few days, I began to learn the ropes of working at Camp Kimama and soon grew to love the environment, the campers (who I already cared and worried about as if they were my own children) and my fellow staff members. Somehow as a camp we managed to form a beautiful family and create a home away from home for the campers as well as for the counselors.

I began to realize this during the first Shabbat evening of the first session. Shabbat at Camp Kimama was one of the most unique and relaxing Shabbats I had ever experienced. Throughout the week, the entire camp is bustling with excitement and energy, as each age group runs from one activity to the next. I remember being so busy that by the time each day ended, it felt as if the day had lasted an entire month.

Once Shabbat finally came, everybody cleaned up, put on their best clothes and gathered on the grass overlooking the beautiful beach at Michmoret to welcome the much-needed resting day of Shabbat. As I looked around, I took a few moments to myself to absorb the faces surrounding me, because I knew that seeing such a diverse group of people come together for a Jewish holiday was not something I would see many times in my life.

Working at this camp was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I am used to seeing Zionism from the perspective of either the Israeli community or of the Jewish American community, however, this time I saw it from a completely different standpoint.

In United Synagogue Youth (USY) we are sheltered by the limitations of a variety of people. Last summer, after I came back from my trip to Israel with USY, I was sure that having friends from New York, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey meant that I had expanded my horizons as much as I possibly could.

Never would I have thought that a group of Jewish friends — my campers — could consist of children from China, Thailand, California, France, Israel, Florida and the Philippines. I can truthfully say that working at Camp Kimama this summer has changed my outlook on life as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a teenager.

Sivan Ron is a senior at Beverly Hills High School. She plans to join the Israeli army next year.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Lessons of gratitude


In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

My friend, Norman Mailer


No writer on the American literary scene could get people steamed up the way that Norman Mailer could. Nearly every special interest group, none more than feminists, had a gripe against him. Literary aficionados treated him as a sort of writer’s Richard Burton, someone who squandered his talent in futile projects or never quite fulfilled the promise of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” written at the age of 24. Jews have never considered him one of their own, as they have Bellow, Malamud, the once-pariah Roth or even the skeptical Woody Allen. I think they are mistaken on all counts.

Mailer was a deeply religious writer. Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, he was concerned with God and the Devil, Good and Evil. While not particularly concerned with matters Jewish, he obsessed over the implications of the Holocaust. It plays a prominent role in “Advertisements for Myself,” written in the mid 1950s, and in his final novel, published earlier this year, “The Castle in the Forest,” which deals with the Devil’s machinations in the birth of Hitler. This novel probed the world almost the way a medieval mystic might. Not only that, writing it seemed to bring Mailer back to his Jewish roots. Mailer encapsulates his own attitude to Judaism very succinctly in an interview he gave earlier this year.

When asked, “What role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer?” Mailer replied emphatically, “an enormous role.”

He picked two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him — the sense of history that makes it “impossible to take anything for granted” and also the Jewish mind: “We’re here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will … certainly incisive thinking. If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did.” Not surprisingly, Mailer continues in the interview to bemoan the loss of this ability due to what he terms “cheap religious patriotism.” None of these ideas surprise me nor will they any reader of Mailer’s work, as they have always been part of the core of his philosophy.

Mailer’s ideology as an American writer and social commentator stems from the activist or prophetic side of Judaism. Despite the sometimes-outrageous subject matter and highly charged sexual content, Mailer’s novel and essays reflect a highly moral approach to life. His concerns for the individual override all else. Like a Jeremiah, he rails against the capitulation of modern man to the demands of the mediocre.

I first met Mailer in the spring of 1978. I began reading him in earnest while preparing for my doctorate at UC Santa Barbara. My field was American-Jewish literature, in which Mailer plays a very small part, but soon I was so enthralled that his work took over my thesis. Through a friend, I got Mailer’s home address and wrote a note to him about my ideas. He replied almost by return mail, and so began our correspondence. Mailer did not like writing letters, and although they were brief, they encouraged further contact. Eventually, we met in New York. Ironically, we looked a little like each other: stocky Jewish types, about the same height with curly hair — his a grizzly version of mine. He greeted me warmly, and I discovered that, contrary to newspaper reports, he had an ingratiating personality, was quick to laugh and did not hold himself with any airs. The rapport was instant. We spoke of many things, including his Jewish upbringing, his grandfather who was a rabbi and his distance from the faith — though he had never written anything negative about Judaism, as he had promised his mother he would not. He was at heart “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

When the time came to part, Mailer told me that he had gotten a good feeling from me from my letters and now our conversation and that “we would be friends for life.”

He was true to his word.

Our friendship lasted from that day till his death last week. Over the years, whenever I got to New York or he to Los Angeles, we met. There are wonderful memories: a seder I conducted in his then-home in Brooklyn Heights (his first since his childhood) where he still remembered enough Hebrew to read a few words. Seeing him with his children (eight from six different marriages) was to see a person so different from the public persona. He was truly a family man, and his marriage to his sixth wife (artist Norris Church) — they were married by a rabbi — which lasted 27 years, till his death, was an unending love affair. Nor was I the acolyte at the feet of the master; his friendship was a two-way street. He encouraged my literary pursuits, got me an agent, read my manuscripts and put me in touch with several of his literary and non-literary friends. Mailer told me that I was his unofficial rabbi. He even initiated a correspondence between myself and murderer Jack Abbott, who, for a time, considered converting to Judaism. (Mailer always regretted the debacle of the Abbott release.)

As happens over the years, when he moved to Provincetown and I got to the East Coast less frequently, our contact dissipated, though at my birthday I always received one of his hand-drawn self-portraits. Knowing that time was short, I went down to Los Angeles in March when he came to discuss “The Castle in the Forest.” Mailer by then was weak, he walked with two canes, was hard of hearing and could not see well — but his mind was as astute as ever. He spoke like he wrote — in ornate, somewhat opaque sentences, the ideas probing deep into the psyche of America. He kept us enthralled for over an hour. After he finished, I went up to greet him.

“Hello Norman,” I said.

Stop ostracizing the intermarried


This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week’s New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my fourth year as rabbi there in 1992. We quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject — Jewish or secular — upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week, and I made Noah a kind of secondary rabbi at our L’Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching.

Noah was one of the most accomplished young students I had ever met. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a kippah. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah’s incredible ability to read any section of the Torah at our student synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale, where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend in turn came to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.

My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours, who was a rabbi in Noah’s life, essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.

Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before his wedding I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we were friends and my affection for him would never change.

I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children, were Jewish, he would never change his own personal status as a Jew. I added that I knew he would do great things with his life as a scholar of world standing, and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.

We remain good friends today. I admire and respect Noah, and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the consultant to the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as one of the youngest academic superstars in the United States.

How tragic, therefore, that Noah’s article in The New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the Emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva for a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzot on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew married to a Jew will look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if he or she witnesses Orthodox Jews treating their husbands or wives as pariahs?

What makes a ‘real’ Jew?


After being alive for 16 years, I would think it would be easy to classify myself into a certain category, and that by now I would know what, who and why I am what I am. But as I grow older, it has become more complicated for me to label myself — secular, religious, Jewish American Mexican, Mexican American Jew.

This is probably a result of the fact that the older I get, the more in-depth I learn about my religion and the more I begin to formulate my own thoughts and opinions about it and about myself. While for a long time I have been able to articulate thoughts on certain religious matters, I have to admit that those opinions were, for the most part, strongly or loosely based on those of my parents and teachers. For example, I was a secular Jew because my mother told me that she was a secular Jew. I considered myself to be a Mexican American teenage girl, who happened to be Jewish, as well, because that was the way I was raised. We would celebrate Shabbat when it was convenient to, and would observe only the “famous” Jewish holidays — Chanukah, Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

I considered a Jew to be a person who knew about the Torah, kept kosher, celebrated Shabbat and who went to temple every Friday night — and anyone who did not, was, in my eyes, not a “real” Jew. This consequently meant that I was not a “real” Jew. The thought of this not only made me hate the religion’s standards — which I myself had set — but it caused me to feel very confused about myself. I wasn’t sure which temple I liked, how to celebrate each holiday, and even how to eat. Everyone I met seemed to have different views than I did, and no one was able to help me understand where I fit in best.

When I started Milken Community High School’s middle school after finishing the sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, I further realized how unacquainted I was with my own feelings toward my religion. Although we had Judaic studies every year, I felt unable to drift away from my parents’ beliefs and create my own.

Then, in 10th grade this past year, I was accepted into the Tiferet Israel Program, for which I left the comfort of my parents’ home and lived in Israel on my own for four months, along with 38 other Milken 10th- graders.

I was relieved to find that one of my friends, Tali, happened to be in Israel at the same time, on a separate school program. Tali, a girl I met at tennis camp, was one of the only people I knew who shared my beliefs — we both agreed that it was not necessary to follow all of the rituals of the Jewish religion. It was not until we reconnected in Israel that I found out her father is an Orthodox rabbi who works at Chabad. This immediately made me wonder how a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, a “real” Jew, could raise a “fake” one. I asked Tali what she considered herself to be, and whether or not she felt comfortable with her decision of moving away from her family’s opinions and creating her own. She answered that she respected her parents’ beliefs but did not completely agree with what they stood for. When I asked her if she felt as Jewish as her father, she responded without any hesitation, “I am just as Jewish as my father and mother and you are just as Jewish as them as well.” Hearing those words finally come out of someone’s mouth besides my own was like lifting the world off my shoulders. From that point on I no longer felt uncomfortable with my beliefs, and I no longer felt out of place.

Every day it became clearer to me that there was not one specific way to define a “real” Jew. By observing the amount of pride and devotion that all the Jewish Israelis felt toward their religion, I began to understand that simply believing in God and being proud of the fact that you are Jewish automatically makes you as Jewish as you can get. I was able to see on many different occasions the variety of Jews, and how I did not have to fit into any one of them in order to be Jewish. When our group went to the Kotel, for example, I was able to see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that don’t fit into any of the categories praying toward the Wall, and every one of them accepts the other as a member of the Jewish faith.

All of my experiences in Israel made me able to officially classify myself under a category that I fit into. I now consider myself to be a Jewish Mexican American teenage girl, and I am proud to have it be in that order. I no longer feel disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and for the first time in my life, I feel as Jewish as any rabbi who works at Chabad — or any Jew in the world.

Rebecca Suchov just completed the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.<BR>

I heart Hollywood endings


I met “Mr. Nice Guy” more than three years ago, and I cherish our special connection — he’s affectionate, understanding, a good listener, open-minded, practical …

I could go on and on. I felt fortunate that we found each other, and he indicated the same. We both want the best things life has to offer. At this time in my life he’s the kind of partner I’m looking for. With his work schedule and other commitments, I knew from the get-go I would have to be kind and very flexible. That’s not an issue for me.

“Mr. Nice Guy” said more than once, “I’ll always be your friend.” Now I’m puzzled and confused because I’ve received an e-mail from him saying, “I met someone.” What does that mean? Does it mean what I think it means? He seems to have an odd definition of friendship. I thought I misinterpreted the message, so I asked him to meet me for a face-to-face conversation. I received a reply that he had no problem with that idea and would e-mail me when he got back from his business trip. Well, I’m still waiting.

Our friendship has been somewhat nontraditional and had a life of its own. I’m guessing that this could be the end of “Mr. Nice Guy.” I cannot tell a lie; I’m very hurt — devastated. I feel as if I have been pushed off a cliff (while he was proclaiming friendship), landed on jagged rocks and broken glass and got bruised from head to toe. I lost 10 pounds (not from dieting). You may be asking what his issues are. I really don’t know. I feel I had a secret trial, was found guilty, convicted and sentenced.

In hindsight, I feel I was used and discarded like an old Costco catalogue. Apparently, I’m still naive and too trusting of people when they act sincere. I take people at their word. I don’t take friendship lightly; it’s serious to me. Friendship is a long-term commitment that has meaning; it’s being loyal and accepting the other person as is, the good parts along with the blemishes. Occasionally he mentioned our differences, but when I asked for specifics, I never got a direct response. I pointed out that differences add spice to a friendship.

The other side of it is, we both know we have many things in common. I suggested we focus on the things in common. Over the years, we have shared many things about ourselves and our families. We have traditional values, and family is important to both of us. However, I now have learned a lot about “Mr. Nice Guy’s” character. He’s good at hiding behind e-mail.

I believe our paths crossed for a reason — to bring both of us joy and happiness, not to bring me heartbreak and grief. Like everyone else, we both need to be needed and want to be wanted. Yet I think now it may be time for me to take the advice of a close friend: “Walk away. He’s not worth it.” However, my emotional side is a little slow at catching up with my intellectual side.

These days I’m getting my accolades from doing stand-up comedy. All my tears and pain provide lots of comic material. I’m definitely unique and have a niche. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be doing stand-up, writing my own material and enjoying it, I never would have believed it. I’m starting to pinch myself occasionally — just to be sure this is really happening. I’m enjoying my new-found skin; however, inside I’m still the same down-to-earth, sensitive, friendly and generous person I’ve always been. I’m playful, fun to be with and funny — that’s all part of my charm and likeability.

And I’m an equal-opportunity offender: people I meet never know when they might become a one-liner in my routine. My friends think this is great — spunky and gutsy of me. They admit they couldn’t do it, and they are supportive.

I love the attention that the laughs and the applause bring. All friends (new and old) are welcome to come along on my journey — it’s an E-ticket ride, an unpredictable adventure, and I know my sons, their families, and my other relatives are proud of me and my many accomplishments. But in private I’m still a romantic, a daydreamer — and I still believe in the old notion of boy chases girl, boy catches girl. I guess that, despite the fact that I’m making my way in the modern world, I still want the old-fashioned, happy Hollywood ending.

Esther W. Hersh can be reached at EWH1121@aol.com

Remembering Shiri


I never thought my life would change during my freshmen year. I was in study hall when this tiny, skinny girl came in, pushed in a wheelchair. She hopped out of the chair and sat at the desk right next to mine.

“Hi, my name is Fred; what’s your name?” I introduced myself with a smile. I always try to be friendly.

“My name is Shiri; nice to meet you Fred.” She had a kooky high voice, and pretty eyes with a mixture of green and gray. We started talking, and within minutes we had plans to see a movie.

Before the movie, Shiri told me everything about her life. She had osteosarcoma, which is bone cancer. She had been sick since she was 11. Not only that, her mother had died of a heart attack not long after her diagnosis. While she was talking, I was speechless. I told her I was really sorry, and if she ever needed anything, I would be there. She thanked me.

I started wheeling her between classes, and soon we became best friends. Many people told me I was doing a great thing in being friends with Shiri, and I always told them that it wasn’t community service, and even if it was, she should be getting the hours for tolerating my lame jokes.

Later that fall, when Shiri was hospitalized for chemotherapy, I visited her frequently. She spent most of December in the hospital. I spent every holiday with her, including Chanukah. Each holiday we would stay up, exchange presents, watch TV and take photos.

She soon came out of the hospital, but she wasn’t well. The tumor in her knee was shrunken, but the tumors in her lungs and pelvis were growing. Her family didn’t tell her about the growing tumors because they didn’t want her to worry.

The hospital also found out that there were 12 tumors in her lungs. It was harder to have hope, but I always thought that the new medicine might help.

Soon Shiri seemed to get worse. Sometimes she was really hazy from the medication, and didn’t know who everyone was. The most conversation she could manage was “Hi.” Heartbreaking isn’t even a word to describe how painful it was to see my best friend like this.

One day last August the doctor said that she only had 48 hours left. The next morning I was told that Shiri had died during the night. I didn’t believe it. I walked back home, and when I got home I couldn’t stop crying. The thing that was so devastating was that I never got to say goodbye to her.

Within a week, the funeral was held at Forest Lawn in Glendale. As I looked at the photos of Shiri set up near the podium and listened to the slow, peaceful sounds of the harp player nearby, it suddenly hit me that Shiri wasn’t here anymore. I felt really empty, like I was dead too.

After we all were seated, the rabbi went up to the podium and said, “Our first speaker will be Fred Scarf.”

When I approached the podium, I looked out at the sad people dressed in black.

Some were actually sobbing. It was hard to explain how I was feeling, but I knew I didn’t ever want to feel this way again. I knew I had to do something.

In honor of Shiri, I have started the Shiri Foundation, which is dedicated to raising money and awareness to support research for the cancer that killed her. Osteosarcoma is a rare disease, affecting fewer than 1,000 children per year.

Because it receives very little funding, it is known as an “orphan disease.”
I have never shied away from a challenge and never faced one more important. The Shiri Foundation is a nonprofit that demonstrates a drive and ambition to find a cure for osteosarcoma. Our goal is to raise $60,000 before Dec. 1, 2007.

We recently started selling shirts that say “I’m fighting bone cancer by wearing this shirt.” One hundred percent of the proceeds from donations and T-shirts goes directly to research to find a cure for osteosarcoma. We have sold and given away more than 1,000 T-shirts across the nation and high schools throughout Southern California have requested donation boxes for the Shiri Foundation. The foundation also has a MySpace account to educate youth and provide a forum for discussion.

The Foundation and its mission are my passion. Words could never describe the pain that Shiri and her loved ones suffered. My dream is to prevent others from suffering that kind of pain.


Frederick Scarf is a junior at Birmingham Senior High School in Lake Balboa. You can visit The Shiri Foundation at www.shiri.org; the myspace page can be found at julief@jewishjournal.com.

Book Review: Tools to fight terror: big dreams, good friends


“Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” by Jeff Goldberg (Knopf, $25).

The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet “Prisoners” is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like “The Night Porter” or screenplays like “The Servant.” Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a “stillness” and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.

Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word “lynching” by saying to his captors, “Well, that was Ramallah…. What do you expect?”

He then writes, “Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however.”

Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.

That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.

After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder, that the Sheik’s “preternaturally calm” statement that Israel “was created in defiance of God’s will” is “pathetic.” He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.

Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:

“The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they’re doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people.”

In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, “I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word.”

He says that, as a military policeman, “I should have done more to try to change things I didn’t like,” instead of being a “get-along, go-along kind of guy.”

Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.

Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League’s Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.

“I’ve always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool.”

He adds, “There’s an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.

Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do.”

Goldberg’s interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of “Jew Penny.” Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.

If he didn’t stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn’t in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.

In “Prisoners,” he characterizes his upbringing this way: “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.

“If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn’t exist,” he says, pointing out, “Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea.”

Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says “were not nice places, especially in the first uprising,” are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza “became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them.”

He states without hesitation that the “baroque cruelty” and “sexually charged sadism” of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.

While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends “Prisoners” with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, “This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us.”

Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.

Building Homes, Building Hope


The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.

 

A Circle of Friends


For several weeks, I had been visiting Nathan, a 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. We had been brought together through the Conejo Valley Friendship Circle, an organization that extends warmth to families in the community that have children with special needs.

Nathan was unable to verbally communicate any of his ideas, wishes or thoughts, despite numerous psychiatrists, speech therapists and trained counselors who tried to improve his speaking abilities.

At our weekly play dates, I began to mimic and articulate many words to Nathan, even though I felt that it would have a minimal impact on him. For instance, when he wished to continue jumping on the trampoline, I would repeat the words “more” and “again” to him. After several weeks, and to my great surprise and satisfaction, Nathan said his first word … “more.”

One could imagine what raced through my mind. Here, a naive and sometimes foolish 15-year-old boy was able to accomplish in a few short weeks what dozens of therapists and psychologists could not accomplish in six years.

But even more fun and gratifying was the friendship we began to develop. Never in my life had I witnessed anything as pure as watching Nathan ride a bike or the joy he would express while jumping on a trampoline. He became more than a friend … he became my companion. I felt that he was the only individual that didn’t judge me. All he asked was that I come to his house once a week and play with him.

The Friendship Circle has changed, and in a way, rewritten the way I view my life. Like many other teenagers, before I joined the Friendship Circle, I found my life to be ordinary, tedious and mundane. I found that my soul was constantly yearning for a more meaningful existence. In the beginning, I joined the organization in order to acquire community service hours and perhaps impress some college that I planned to apply to in the future. Unknown to me at the time, I would soon fall in love with the organization.

The Conejo Valley Friendship Circle began in 2003 to offer volunteers services, events and support to special-needs families: 125 families with special-needs kids throughout the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys participate, and 250 teenagers are volunteers. On March 26, 600 people gathered at Agoura High School for a walk-a-thon and family fun day to benefit the Friendship Circle. The special-needs kids and their families walked the first lap of the 5K walk, and then the rest of us joined. We raised $80,000 for Friendship Circle programs.

Every Friendship Circle event is special in its own way; whether it is the weekly Fitness Center program or the annual Purim Carnival, each event brings a distinctive dimension to the program. Children, parents and volunteers together unite and form a bond unlike any other friendship or companionship. Within our own communities, we form a small neighborhood of trustworthy friends that care not only for the benefit of themselves but also take the time to realize the good that they can bring to the world.

The core program, Friends at Home, is the one that brought us together. Every member within the organization is assigned to a particular family, whom he or she befriends and visits once a week. At the outset, I was impressed with the professionalism the organization allowed me to acquire. “Friends at Home” and meeting Nathan helped me understand how one person can have a deep and significant impact.

The Friendship Circle puts individuals in a situation where they can and will make a difference. Although every situation cannot be as intense and gratifying as my own, I am certain that each individual the organization touches is affected in a deep, momentous manner. Each volunteer becomes a part of their child’s life — an important part, a part that cannot be replaced by any trained guide or psychologist. Every kid needs a friend; the Friendship Circle strives to give each child that is in need a friend; and teenage volunteers have their soul touched in a sentimental, life-changing way.

As much as every child needs a friend, it is evident that teenagers need a friend, too. I’m not referring to the friend that you take to the mall or go to a party with, but everyone needs a real friend. A friend that will not judge will not hate and will not disappoint … a friend that will not ask anything of you but your friendship. Everyone needs a “Friendship Circle” friend.

For more information about the Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, call (818) 865-2233 or visit

Israeli Superstars Rock the Diaspora


Lo Ozev At Hair Avur Af Echad Anachnu Shnayim Tamid, Beneynu

(“I won’t leave the city/not for anyone/we are two, always/between us, one God.”)

— Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch, “Live at Caesaria”

Don’t believe everything you hear. Two of Israel’s greatest rockers — Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch — are leaving Israel, albeit briefly, pairing up for a joint three-concert tour to promote their new album, “Live at Caesaria,” in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, homes to Israel’s largest expat communities.

Although Israeli stars have toured America for years — consider Idan Reichl’s recent popularity at the Kodak Theatre — this tour will be the Israeli equivalent of say, Billy Joel and Elton John touring together. These two Israeli mega-singer/songwriters have produced hundreds of pop songs over more than four decades, and they continue to sell out concerts despite their advancing ages — both are nearing 60.

But unlike Joel and John, who are increasingly relegated to “soft rock” and appeal primarily to their original Gen-X and Baby Boomer fans, the Israeli rockers still enthrall their original fans from the 1960s and 1970s, even as they have captured the hearts of later generations. (This is particularly true of the blue-eyed, dimpled Artzi, who still draws a bevy of screaming, belly-shirted young things rushing the stage at his concerts.)

Part of the pair’s cross-generational appeal is, of course, due to the fact that Israel is a small country, without much room for niche markets: Rock is rock. (Not like America, with its hundreds of Grammy categories). But it’s also because the two men, in a way, are Israeli rock. No, they are Israel: Chanoch was born in 1946, and Artzi was born in 1948.

Chanoch jumped to fame when he teamed up with that other great Israeli star, Arik Einstein, in 1967. In the 1970s Chanoch became a star in his own right, but for the next years continued to write songs performed by other Israeli artists.

Artzi got his start in the army band and in 1975 was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision. He lost the competition, and soon after recorded “He Lost His Way,” which was meant as a last hurrah, but instead reignited his career.

Each of the artists’ songs have flooded the radio waves for nearly five decades, a soundtrack, of sorts, to Israel’s many wars, casualties, celebrations, assassinations, and shifting moods — from hopeful to cynical and hopeful again.

“There has not ever been another man/like that man,” Artzi sang on the tribute album made following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a song that became a mantra for the mourning peace camp.

In 1985 Chanoch came out with his humorous “Mashiach Lo Bah” — which became a pop sensation and later entered the lexicon, with its typically Israeli cynical chorus: “The Messiah isn’t coming — and he isn’t phoning, either.”

Neither artist’s lyrics seem particularly religious: (Consider Artzi’s song, “Here and There”: “Here and there the Messiah’s plane flits about/when will it land near us on the shore? She says: He who believes in lies will be disappointed.”) But their ironic faith reflects the tone of much Israeli culture. Many of their songs are about love, about friendship, about wars, and always with a little politics thrown in.

Last summer, Artzi and Chanoch performed together in the amphitheater in Caesaria, in Northern Israel. There, Chanoch played one of Artzi’s most popular songs. “Suddenly when you didn’t come/I felt like this.” Artzi later said it was best performance ever of the song. In turn, Artzi sang one of Chanoch’s songs, and a joint performance was born. After 42 performances in Israel, the duo comes to America (New York’s Beacon Theater on March 5; Miami on March 8; and Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre on March 11).

One problem with tribute albums, where artists sing another artist’s song, is that a fan has to be able to let go of the original version to appreciate strangers singing the familiar song. (Does one really want to hear Kate Bush singing “Rocket Man,” on the Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms”?)

It can be disconcerting to hear the two singing each other’s top hits on the album.

And yet, after five decades on the Israeli scene, their songs have become such a fabric of Israeli society, their fans overlapping, their voices sounding increasingly similar as age takes its toll (let’s not forget the smoking) that it seems somehow only fitting for Israel’s two great icons to merge their playlists.

And besides, in concert, they’re singing all the songs together.

Like this one, written by Chanoch, performed first by Einstein.

Kama Tov Shebata Habayta/Kama Tov Li’rot Otcha Shuv …

“How good it is that you’ve come home/How good it is to see you….”

The March 11 concert at the Kodak Theatre starts at 8:30 p.m. $47-$147. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.

 

Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’


Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”

 

A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews


It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac



HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

(February 19-March 20)
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Josh Groban

There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.

(March 21-April 20)
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Matthew Broderick

That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.

 

 

(April 21-May 20)
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Barbra Streisand

Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.

(May 21 – June 20)
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Barry Levinson

Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.

(June 21-July 20)
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Sydney Pollack

Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.

(July 21 – August 21)
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Monica Lewinsky

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.

(August 22-September 22)
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Adam Sandler

Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list. 

(September 23-October 22)
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Michael Douglas

Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.

(October 23-November 22)
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Jonas Salk

Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.

(November 23-December 20)
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Harpo Marx

Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.

(December 21-January 19)
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Dave Attell

Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Ted Koppell

Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.

Teens Find Peace On and Off Stage


“We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School.

Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Ben Yaakov says.

Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.

In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.

Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.

“I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for,” she says. “When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about.”

Chamberlin wrote Peace Child’s new anthem “The Time Has Come for Peace,” which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.

“We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace,” Chamberlin says.

The group’s original musical, “On the Other Side,” was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students’ personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s security fence from the teens’ point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.

“The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds,” Chamberlin explains. “Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their ‘own kind.’ When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour.”

“During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones,” Chamberlain says. “It surprised her when they didn’t. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us.”

Language was not a barrier. “Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate,” Chamberlin says. “On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found ‘The American Friends of Peace Child’. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it.”

The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.

“People were deeply touched by the show,” says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. “The tour opened many … opportunities for us and now the sky’s our limit.”

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Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

 

My Friend, Shelley Winters


The movie house was dark. A beautiful blonde actress smiled at me from the screen in the small Duluth, Minn., theater.

“She’s Jewish,” my grandma Goldie whispered as we watched “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

That was my introduction to Shelley Winters, a “Jewish movie star.” The very concept was inconceivable to my 7-year-old mind. Not only was she Jewish, but she kept it no secret. That was very rare in the anti-Semitic years following World War II.

Fast forward to 1975, when I found myself newly relocated to Los Angeles and working as a theatrical agent. I had made friends with an up-and-coming actress named Sally Kirkland, who brought me with her to the Strasberg Actors Studio and introduced me to Lee Strasberg, the famous proponent of the “method” school of acting. Lee’s wife, Anna, asked Sally if she would circulate a petition among her show biz friends, requesting support for Israel be to allowed to stay in the United Nations.

“Sorry Anna,” Sally said, “but I’m starring in a film and I don’t even have time to brush my teeth.”

“I’ll do it,” I volunteered.

Anna looked at me: “You’re new in town, you don’t know anybody.”

“Don’t worry,” I said.

That evening, a friend and I were having dinner at Dan Tana’s restaurant in West Hollywood.

“That’s Shelley Winters over there,” I said, nudging my friend excitedly as I made my way over to her booth.

“Excuse me,” I said, introducing myself and telling her about the petition. Her sharp blue eyes appraised me in a totally analytical manner. Then she smiled broadly: “Sit down, kid. Do you like chicken salad?”

“Yes,” I managed to say.

She was writing something on a napkin.

“This is my address on Oakhurst. Blanca, my housekeeper, is making chicken salad tomorrow, be there at 12:30 sharp!”

She reached over and took the petition: “I’ll get names on this for you by tomorrow.”

The next day I ate chicken salad and I got to know Shelley, who proceeded to call me “kid” for the next 31 years. When I returned the petition to a shocked Anna Strasberg, she looked at the 37 names.

“How did you do this?” she asked.

“It was easy,” I said with a laugh. “I met Shelley Winters.”

Shelley was born Shirley Schrift, in St. Louis, Mo. After relocating to New York with her family, as a young woman Shelley moved to Los Angeles, hoping to get into films. She studied with Charles Laughton and later with Strasberg. Her wit, perception and uniqueness resulted in her performing in 130 movies in a 50-year span, winning two Oscars and numerous other awards. Most people know about her public accomplishments, but I want to tell you about Shelley Winters, the person.

Over our 31 years of friendship, we gathered not just for chicken salad, but vacations, Oscar parties, birthdays, lunches (West Hollywood’s Silver Spoon was her favorite restaurant) and even a ladies night out to Chippendales in the 1980s.

Shelley was magnanimous when it came to dedicating her time and talent to worthwhile causes. My brother Louis was involved in putting the Chabad Telethon together and asked me if I could think of any big-name celebrities who would lend their support. My eye twinkled as I phoned her up: “Shelley … have you heard of Chabad?”

“Of course,” she said.

For the next two decades, Shelley became a regular participant in their program, the only two-time Oscar-winner to do so.

Shelley’s generosity was also revealed to the world when she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film “The Diary of Anne Frank.” While most actresses wait their whole life for such an honor and would never even think of parting with the ultimate validation of their life’s work, Shelley donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank museum in Holland. And it sits there to this day. She did win another Oscar for her work in “A Patch of Blue,” and that one she kept.

A lesser-known fact was that Shelley molded the careers of some now-famous actors, having taught at Strasberg’s Actors Studio for more than 33 years.

“Developing young talent excites me,” she confided. Her energy was boundless, as was her dedication to her students. She was responsible for starting numerous careers, including casting Robert De Niro alongside her in “Bloody Mama,” his first major film role.

This past Aug. 18, Shelley celebrated her 85th birthday by entertaining 300 people, including many past acting colleagues and friends like Martin Landau, Jane Russell, Red Buttons and Elliott Gould, among others. The crowning event of the evening was when Shelley took the stage with a band, threw on a pair of dark sunglasses and sang a few jazz numbers — Blues Brothers style!

Shelley and I attended many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services over the past 25 years at Jerry Cutler’s Creative Arts Temple. This past Yom Kippur, I called her at 10 a.m. to go to shul.

“I’m not feeling well, kid,” she said.

She had her first heart attack later that afternoon.

She died on Jan. 14; on Jan. 16, in a private ceremony conducted at Hillside Memorial Park, a small group of family and friends said goodbye to Shelley. The theatre is dark.

So you loved the world Shelley … and so loved by the world were you.

Sharon Kemp has run a successful talent agency in Beverly Hills for more than 30 years. Aaron Kemp is an attorney and business representative for the Screen Actors Guild. She can be reached at skla18@yahoo.com.

 

Youth Groups Are Worth the Fight


Here is a dreaded conversation familiar to most parents of Jewish teens:

Them: “Hi, this is your synagogue youth adviser calling to make sure you received the flyer about our upcoming youth group event. Will your child be joining us?”

You: “Thank you for your phone call. I talked with Jordan (or David or Rafi) about this, but the thing is, he is already over-booked. With soccer practice, homework, birthday parties and baseball games, he has too much on his plate and doesn’t want to go. I’m choosing my battles, and I don’t want to fight this one.”

Come to think of it, I’m not especially fond of that conversation either, because I’m the person on the other side, the one urging you parents to send your child to the Jewish youth group.

Everyone who has ever worked with Jewish kids will tell you that Jewish youth group, camping and informal education are influential and meaningful activities, more so than many competing ones. They create memories, friendships and a positive Jewish identity. It is during these informal experiences that learning is truly natural and exciting. Kids form friendships with Jewish peers that might not develop in the classroom. And hanging out with positive Jewish role models creates lasting bonds and deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for Jewish culture.

Most of us who are youth advisers have chosen this profession because of our experiences. Ask us — we’ll gladly tell you about that amazing sleep-away camp we attended or about the kids from youth group that we are still “best friends” with today or about the religious school weekend retreat we attended in the seventh grade that opened our eyes to Judaism.

Yes, your child has been playing on the same soccer team since the second grade. Yes, school, homework and grades are important. Yes, sports, drama and clubs look good on college applications.

So where does youth group or camp fit into this equation?

My response is this: Parents must choose to fight this fight. I say “must” because the teen years are the most critical socializing years in anyone’s life. Your child’s peer group during these years can determine what kind of Jewish life your child will lead in young adulthood and beyond.

Don’t you want to know that your children are in a safe, nurturing environment where positive Jewish role models, Judaism and acceptance are the norm? (By the way, these experiences, too, hold weight on a college application and provide great material for essays.)

It might be hard to get your child to attend those first few events, which don’t start at age 4, like soccer practice. But it’s worth the push, because if your child does not attend youth events, the chances of him or her continuing Jewish involvement past confirmation get much slimmer.

To this day — more than 10 years later — my closest friends are not the kids from my sports teams, my clubs, auxiliary or classes. My closest friends are still the people I knew from youth group and camp.

At a youth group event not long ago, a parent offered the sort of analysis I love to hear. “Why wouldn’t I want my daughter coming to this event?” the parent said. “There are other Jewish teens, and an adult adviser I trust looking out for her. She feels comfortable enough to come to you if she needs anything. Plus, you’re celebrating Shabbat. Of course I want her with you!”

Later on that night, as the teenage board members reminisced about the event and their youth-group lives, they began to talk about how youth group put them on a path they never knew existed.

“For some reason, I feel closer with you guys than my friends at school,”one said.

Another said: “This is the only place that I felt truly accepted.”

A third voice added: “I see us still being friends in 30 years.”

When asked if any felt that youth group was too much on top of sports, drama, school and other activities, one teen responded much as I would have hoped and predicted.

“God no!” she said. “At first, when I didn’t know anyone it was a bit intimidating, but then I realized that everyone was in the same boat.

“From then on, I always looked forward to coming to meetings and having events. Youth group has always been the calming part of my week. We have so much stress in our lives, coming to youth group is sometimes the only peaceful thing I have.”

Lisa Greengard is youth and camp director for Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles and a member of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Youth Professional Advisory Council.

 

Flee to Be Me


What is a friend? When I was a kid, the requirements were none too stringent. Is he in my class? Can I ride my bicycle to his house? Do his parents have any insane “not too much candy before dinner” rules?

As I got older, other factors became more important. Do we root for the same team? Are we willing to lie to our parents for each other? Does he have a bong?

Now that I’m one half of a couple (actually, 49 percent when it comes to decision making, 51 percent when it comes to heavy lifting) friendship is trickier. Are our children the same age? Do our families have comparable incomes? Do they have a bong?

I have come to realize that not everyone I hang around with is a friend. Some of them are acquaintances, sidekicks, chums and cronies. At this point in my life, there is only one criterion that determines if someone is a true friend: Would he hide me from Hitler?

I am, of course, referring to the metaphorical Hitler. The actual Hitler is dead. Or is he? (That was for the paranoid among you. You know who you are. And we know who you are. OK, I’ll stop now.)

It says a lot about Jewish history that I would even entertain this line of thought, but it’s hard to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth (unless you happen to belong to one of the many groups who are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth, in which case it’s easy to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth). And, with anti-Semitism at its highest level since … minutes ago (let’s face it, hating Jews is kind of like chronic pain — even on days when it doesn’t seem so bad you know it’s still there) it’s a necessary way to think. Non-Jews don’t have to think this way. There is no Scandinavian word for “pogrom.”

That’s why, to me, the ideal friend is a non-Jew (in the event of another Hitler, Jews are no good to me — even the blonde ones) who likes baseball, has an 11-year-old boy who plays computer games the way fish swim, has a wife who loves to talk on the phone — and has built a large, hidden shelter under the floorboards of his living room.

I come by this way of thinking honestly. My grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s. Before that, you can trace my family back to Spain, where we fled the Inquisition. And, although I have no proof, I’m pretty sure that we’ve also fled the Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites. My family has a long history of fleeing.

We’re also proof of Darwinism. At 5-foot-8-inches tall (if you can use the word “tall” following 5-foot-8), I would play center on the Nemetz Family basketball team, a relative giant among Nemetzes. We are an example of survival of the shortest. My family was bred for hiding — in a crawl space, behind a sofa, under an ottoman — we fit anywhere.

Unfortunately, it’s a skill that may come in handy sooner rather than later. When I see the passage of The Patriot Act, which broadens the scope of the government’s powers while limiting the rights of certain individuals; when I see people voting in record numbers, partly to implement a ban on gay marriage, it sets off alarm bells on my “flee-dar.” Because if history teaches us anything (and if you had some of my history teachers, it didn’t) it teaches us that whenever a group of people exhibits any kind of intolerance toward another group of people, the intolerant group will eventually turn on the Jews.

You may think this a touch paranoid. However, my family has outlasted both the Roman and Greek empires. You don’t run into a lot of Mesopotamians or Assyrians at the mall. But you may see some Nemetzes (most likely my wife, buying shoes). We’re still here because, when it comes to the “fight or flight” instinct, we’re not so good at fight but we’re Hall of Famers when it comes to flight.

So next Saturday while you’re in shul, I’ll be at The Home Depot. They’re giving a class on how to build a shelter, and I’m going to buddy up to the teacher.

Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.

We Have an Obligation to Speak Out


The major reason many American supporters of Israel line up behind the policies of the Israeli government is that they do not want to be in the position of second guessing the Israelis. The feeling is that they live there and have to bear the consequences of whatever policy Israel adopts, while Americans — living thousands of miles way — are not affected, at least directly.

That is why some in the pro-Israel community — people who do understand how destructive the status quo is for Israel — shrink from doing or saying anything that might be construed as critical of those Israeli policies that perpetuate the status quo.

There are, however, two things that are wrong with this logic.

The concept of "we are one" is a two-way street. Israelis have the right to call upon Diaspora Jews to lend a hand when their assistance is needed. And Jews outside of Israel have the obligation to speak up when they are worried that Israeli actions are, essentially, detrimental to Israel.

The second thing wrong with this logic is that the Israeli government — like our own government — is far from infallible. It makes mistakes, including mistakes that have jeopardized the state’s survival.

Helping Israel avert those mistakes or change direction after mistakes have been made is a critical responsibility we owe to Israel. Sitting idly by when disaster looms is no act of friendship, let alone kinship.

These thoughts come to mind following my reading of a new book about the Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich. ("The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.")

It’s not a new story. Anyone involved with Israel — and who was born before 1963 — is bound to vividly remember the worst moments in the Jewish state’s history. A combined surprise attack by Egypt and Syria succeeded in bringing Israel to the brink of annihilation.

Israel was utterly unprepared for the war. Along the Suez Canal (then Israel’s border with Egypt), 500 Israeli soldiers faced 80,000 Egyptians. On the Golan Heights, 180 Israeli tanks faced 1,400 Syrian tanks.

Not surprisingly, Israel’s first defenders were, for the most part, wiped out. It took well over a week for Israel to regain the initiative. In the meantime, Prime Minister Golda Meir contemplated suicide, while Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said that there was a strong chance that the state could be lost. By war’s end, 3,000 Israelis were dead.

And, according to Rabinovich, it all could have been avoided. According to the official Agranat Commission report on the investigation of the Yom Kippur failure, Israeli officials simply ignored almost unmistakable signs that the Egyptians were preparing for war.

Soldiers on the front reported massive increases in Egyptian activity. Spies told the Israelis that Egypt and Syria were about to strike. And King Hussein actually flew to Tel Aviv to tell the prime minister that war was about to break out.

All the evidence was ignored. Why? Because Israel’s political leaders adhered to a strategic view called the "concept." According to that view, Egypt would not attack until it joined in an alliance with Syria and until it had certain Soviet-built weapons in hand.

As far as Israel knew, neither of those conditions was met. Therefore, there would be no war and military calls to mobilize against the imminent threat were ignored. The concept mattered; reality didn’t.

The same concept prevented the Israeli government from accepting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1971 call on Israel to pull back from the Suez Canal. Sadat said that in exchange for a pullback of just a few miles — which would enable Egypt to re-open the canal and reap significant economic benefit — he would begin negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

The United States thought Israel should seriously consider the offer and dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco to Israel to convince Meir that Sadat was serious. But Meir rebuffed him. The status quo was just fine.

It was at that point that Sadat decided that his best option was to go to war; if Israel would not reopen the canal, he would. And that is what happened.

Sadat ordered his men to cross the canal, and, following five years of postwar negotiations, the canal — along with the entire Sinai was returned to Egypt. The concept had cost some 3,000 Israeli lives.

Today, Israel operates under a new "concept." It is that the Palestinians are weak and always will be weak. It is that negotiations are a concession to the Palestinians, a favor one pulls back whenever there is an act of terror. It is that the only effective response to terror is to keep hitting back, avoiding negotiations, despite the fact that for three years, counterterror has not succeeded in eliminating terror.

It is that negotiating prisoner releases with Hezbollah murderers is permissible, while Mahmoud Abbas’ request for the same releases is met with foot-dragging. It is, above all, the belief that Israel can secure its future not in collaboration with the Palestinians but in their face.

No one argues with Israel’s right to fight terrorists. Without the effective actions of Israel’s security forces, who knows how many might have died in the nine major terror attacks that have been blocked since February (including several megaterror attacks). Nor can one argue with Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority join Israel (as during Oslo) in effectively fighting the terrorists and rooting them out.

But refusing to negotiate is not part of any anti-terror policy, nor is weakening those Palestinian forces most anxious to negotiate a peace agreement. As for clinging to a status quo that is deadly, that is simply indefensible.

The good news is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza initiative has the potential to break the status quo, although only if Israel’s actions are coordinated with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians. In any case, it’s a good start and represents a far more imaginative approach than the Israeli government had in the 1970s under a Labor government.

The lesson of the Yom Kippur war is that foreign supporters of Israel who sit still in the face of policies they consider to be self-destructive are performing no act of friendship. Who were the real friends of Israel in 1971 — the ones who told Israel that President Richard Nixon and Assistant Secretary of State Sisco were right when they urged Israel to cut a deal with Sadat? Or were they the ones — mostly here in the United States — telling Israel not to yield to U.S. pressure.

The answer is obvious. Friends do not allow friends to behave self-destructively. Israel has the right as a sovereign state to make its own strategic decisions. But we have the right — no, the obligation — to speak up when we think that those decisions could lead to disaster for a nation we cherish.


M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a longtime Washington staffer and former editor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Near East Report.

Evangelicals Are Not Our ‘Natural Allies’


A few years ago, a few moderate American Jewish leaders tried to allay Jewish fears that the Christian right was a threat.

American Jews had it wrong, they said — former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, the Rev. Pat Robertson and their ilk really were quite nice, even open-minded fellows and strongly pro-Israel to boot. They were our friends.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) publicly praised Reed’s pro-Israel stance and invited Christian conservatives to ADL banquets. Christians, in turn, organized nationwide prayer vigils and lobbying campaigns to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vision of a greater Israel.

Basking in the glow of this newfound friendship, Reed proclaimed that the Jewish-Christian alliance for Israel was as important as the black-Jewish coalition for civil rights in the 1960s.

Then, a Hollywood film star produced, directed and bankrolled a cinematic portrayal of Jesus’ final hours that depicted Jews as Jesus’ killers, promoting an age-old anti-Semitic theme. Fearing that the film would stoke new anti-Semitism, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman pleaded that Gibson alter the film, the pope disavow it and the Christian evangelicals that had become Foxman’s allies sermonize against it — to no avail.

Foxman should have seen it coming.

For all their talk of loving Jews and Israel, conservative Christians’ No. 1 priority always has been to expand their influence and numbers at home and abroad.

Several years ago, I interviewed dozens of Christian activists for a book I was writing about a campaign against gay rights that bitterly divided many Oregon communities, where I was living at the time.

When I disclosed my Jewishness to the evangelicals I met in the course of my research, they responded with boundless curiosity and kindness. A few asked if they could accompany me to synagogue, professing their great affection for the Jewish people. Several spoke excitedly of their trips to Israel or their desire to visit there.

I found it all disarming and even a little flattering.

But then the invitations to attend their churches arrived, along with offers to pray for me. I declined them graciously and heard little else until my book, a critical but empathetic account of conservative Christian activists, was published.

The messages then began to get meaner and were often tinged with anti-Semitism.

“How could a Jew possibly write an unbiased account?” one asked.

Another told me to “go back to New York, where you belong.”

Today, some of those activists have gone on to mobilize support for Israel, working to insure that the Holy Land stays in Jewish hands so that “saved Christians” like themselves can enjoy their final rapture out of harm’s way.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, these Christians have felt further justified for their alliance with Israel by the conviction that Judeo-Christian culture must protect itself against the followers of Mohammed, in preparation for the coming “clash of civilizations.”

My travels in evangelical America tell me that despite the claims of Jewish conservatives, and even moderate leaders like Foxman, conservative Christians are not our “natural allies.” In fact, most American Jews find themselves deeply at odds with the Christian right over a host of issues.

Witness the overwhelming support that the American Jewish community has given to the issue of gay marriage. In Massachusetts, a near unanimity of Jewish communal leaders support gay marital rights, and opinion polls nationally show Jews to be the most solidly in favor of gay marriage of any religious group.

Christian conservatives, needless to say, are champing at the bit to make gay marriage the next major battle in the “culture war.”

Even when it comes to Israel, evangelicals are out of step with American Jews and Israelis — most of whom would agree to trade land for peace if a viable peace plan were proposed. Evangelicals, by contrast, support the maximalist ideology of the most fundamentalist Jewish settlers, who view territorial concessions as suicidal.

The Jewish-Christian alliance was based on the idea that Israel needs as many friends as it can get. But it needs good friends — friends who believe in the importance of a democratic Jewish homeland, not those whose support for Israel is based on inflexible theological explanations for Israel’s right to exist.

The rift over “The Passion” should be a wake-up call to American Jewish leaders: The Jewish-Christian evangelical honeymoon is over. It may even be time to file for divorce.

Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of “The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith, and
Civil Rights.”

100 Lessons


While studying for rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University in the late ’70s, I was at the main study hall dedication where the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik spoke, honoring the great philanthropist, Joseph Gruss, who underwrote the project.

On that occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik discussed the role of the baal ha-bayit, the Jewish layman, in Jewish history. Rabbi Soloveitchik stated his belief “that our miraculous survival throughout the millennia … is due not only to the rabbinic scholars, but also [to] the Jewish baal ha-bayit [who] enabled us to survive because of his discipline, intelligence and readiness to suffer.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested three characteristic traits that marked the baal ha-bayit: first, a commitment to the Jewish people in its totality; second, a pragmatic mind capable of making decisions and third, a sensitive heart.

As I sat listening to his marvelous description, I wondered if I would ever meet someone who possessed all of these qualities and was truly an amazing baal ha-bayit?

Well indeed I did. It all happened in Palm Springs 18 years ago. It was during Passover and I was invited to lecture at the Kosher Tours Passover program at the Desert Princess Hotel. I was to speak right after dinner on the topic, “Vegetarianism and Judaism.” When I agreed to accept this invitation, I had no idea that right before my lecture a big barbecue was going to be held, featuring steaks, ribs, hot dogs and every other culinary meat delight possible. When I witnessed this massive carnivorous feast that I am certain hadn’t been eaten in the desert since the Exodus from Egypt, I suggested to the program director that we cancel the lecture on vegetarianism. It was simply inappropriate and I was sure no one would attend.

The director insisted that I ignore the setting and that I lecture as planned.

“Don’t worry, people will come,” he told me.

I was right and he was wrong. The audience was sparse. Vegetables simply aren’t able to wage a successful war against good ribs.

Sitting in the front row, however, was a lovely elderly couple. At the time I had no idea who they were. As I spoke, both husband and wife absorbed every word and when it came time for questions, they asked excellent and insightful ones. The wife buttressed her comments with extensive quotes from the Bible and rabbinic literature, all from memory, while the husband added pragmatic contemporary comments. It was right then and there that my friendship with Simha Lainer and his wife, Sara, may she rest in peace, began.

Every time we would talk they insisted that we speak Hebrew. It dawned on me that it was their way of connecting our present discussion with Jewish history. We would discuss questions on the Bible and issues pertaining to Jewish law. But what always fascinated me was their total immersion in communal life. They knew every concern facing the Jewish community — both locally and internationally. Their scope was amazing and their command of the issues was always impressive.

Over the years I have carefully listened to Simha Lainer, for he has taught me the proverbial “100 lessons.” A successful businessman, Lainer loves telling me how blessed he is. His perception of his blessings, however, is what makes him the true baal ha-bayit.

He says, “God has blessed me with three gifts. He has given me good health, good wealth and the desire to share my wealth with others.”

Indeed, he shares his largesse generously. One of the leading philanthropists in our community, Lainer is among the foremost donors to Jewish education in Los Angeles, and he distributes his monies in a most unusual fashion. He doesn’t care if the educational institution is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or just plain Jewish. What counts is Jewish education and that is what he supports.

Jewish unity isn’t some slogan for Lainer. Rather, it is a description of the way he lives his life. Perhaps that is why rabbis of every denomination are represented on the banquet committee honoring Lainer’s 100th birthday.

As the community salutes Lainer on his special birthday, I recall Rabbi Soloveitchik’s salutation in honor of Gruss. He said, “Whenever I met him, I was reminded, spontaneously, of the outstanding baalei batim of Jewish history. The name of Moses Montefiore comes to my mind … and Amschel Mayer Rothschild.”

Indeed, we can say that Simha Lainer continues to excel in that tradition and is our outstanding baal ha-bayit.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.