Rabbis’ love for Israel: Is it a generational thing?


Do Conservative rabbis become more politically conservative on Israel as they grow older, or are older rabbis simply more right wing than younger rabbis when it comes to Israel?

A new study by the Conservative movement’s flagship institution presents some evidence of a generational gap among rabbis, finding that older ones tend to identify more closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, while younger ones also favorably view J Street, the more liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group.

The author of the Jewish Theological Seminary survey, demographer Steven M. Cohen, suggests that it’s a function not of the rabbis’ ages but the era in which they came of age.

“It is a major shift in a Zionist worldview—a movement towards a more progressive Zionist position,” said Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy research at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a senior adviser to the seminary’s chancellor.

In an interview with JTA, Cohen surmised that younger rabbis identify as more liberal because “they grew up at a time when Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors was more complicated than the binary relationship that the older generation grew up with.” He suggested that because the rabbis are closer and more exposed to “real life” in Israel because their rabbinical programs require that they spend a year there, they are “more willing to adopt views critical of the Israeli government.”

The online survey of 317 JTS-ordained rabbis and 51 JTS rabbinical students, titled “JTS Rabbis and Israel, Then and Now: The 2011 Survey of JTS Ordained Rabbis and Current Students,” found that 58 percent of students and 54 percent of rabbis ordained since 1994 view J Street favorably, while 42 percent of students and 64 percent of rabbis view AIPAC favorably.

In the older cohort—rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994—80 percent of the rabbis responding viewed AIPAC favorably, but only 32 percent had a favorable view of J Street. The survey also found that the students and younger rabbis were more concerned than their elders about social issues in Israel, such as the treatment of Arab citizens, women and Palestinians.

The survey was prompted by a controversial essay in the June issue of Commentary that argued that a growing proportion of non-Orthodox rabbis in training hold alarmingly hostile views toward Israel, and that rabbinical seminaries were refusing to address the issue. The author of the piece, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, vice president of the Shalem Center, a hawkish Israeli think tank, declined to comment for this story.

“We didn’t think it was true,” Cohen said of the Gordis essay, “but felt we needed to check it out.”

The new survey is the latest salvo in the intense debate over Israel among American Jews, and American Jewish groups concerned with Israel already are debating its findings. J Street officials told JTA that the study is indicative of a generational shift among American Jews toward more progressive Zionism.

“It’s very encouraging that rabbinical students are finding ways to bring their Jewish values with them when they talk about Israel,” said Rachel Lerner, vice president of the J Street Education Fund.

But a former AIPAC official dismissed the idea that the findings reflect a generational shift in the rabbinate.

“A lot of 22-year-olds say things they don’t believe when they’re 30,” said AIPAC’s former spokesman, Josh Block, who is now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Thirty-year-olds change by the time when they’re 40. By the time they’re at a place where they’re joining positions of leadership, they will have matured.”

Block also said the survey questions were unfair, characterizing AIPAC as “the Israel lobby” and J Street as “the ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ group.”

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

Cohen said the survey’s results suggest that JTS rabbis across the generations have similarly high levels of attachment to Israel but expressed the attachments differently.

Asked how concerned they are about security threats toward Israel, 83 percent of the rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994 said they were very concerned, compared to 80 percent of those ordained between 1995 and 2011, and 78 percent of current students.

Choosing among AIPAC, J Street, StandWithUs, Rabbis for Human Rights and the New Israel Fund, the rabbis said they viewed AIPAC most favorably, while the students were most favorable to the New Israel Fund.

Noah’s deadly lack of curiosity


It is a question that has dogged Noah for millennia. When the Torah characterizes him as a tzadik (righteous person) in his generation, is this an objective measure of his character?

Was Noah someone who would have been recognized as a tzadik in any generation? Or was Noah only a tzadik in a relative sense, only in comparison to those around him?

One midrashic teaching, taking the latter route, compares God’s selection of Noah to the story of a lone traveler finding another lone soul on the road, and engaging him in discussion simply because there was no on else to talk to. As Dr. Aviva Zornberg summarized this midrash: “God chooses Noah not because he has achieved significant wisdom or virtue, but because he seeks to convey to someone the knowledge of Himself.”

Walking all by himself on a path that everyone else in the world had abandoned, Noah became the object of God’s attention. The midrash isn’t, I don’t think, being harsh or unfair to Noah. It is just sharing, in candid terms, its read of a Biblical character who is an essentially decent person, but who also possesses some very deep personality flaws.

How might we describe Noah’s most basic personality flaw? Zornberg calls it the flaw of being incurious.

To understand what being “incurious” means, we need only recall that within his biblical story, we never find Noah — not even once — expressing curiosity about why his corrupt neighbors live the terrible way that they do. The Torah doesn’t record one interaction between him and any other human being prior to their all being wiped out in the flood. The rabbis of the midrash presume that some sort of conversation between Noah and his neighbors must invariably have ensued once the ark started going up in his front yard, but in projecting what those conversations may have sounded like, they suggest dialogues consistently characterized by Noah’s lack of curiosity about his fellows.

In one rabbinic passage (Tanchuma 5), the neighbors give Noah the perfect opening for a substantive discussion. “What are all these cedar trees for?” the neighbors ask. This was Noah’s moment to talk about his understanding of Divine expectations of human behavior, and to ask them why they were behaving in ways so displeasing to God. But instead, he simply responds, “God is bringing a flood to the world and told me to build an ark so that my family and I can escape.” Their question to him opens a door, but in his lack of curiosity about them, all Noah comes forward with is a superficial response that dead-ends the conversation.

In a similar text (Sanhedrin 108b), Noah is actually portrayed as rebuking his contemporaries, but his words are described as being “as tough as lightning bolts,” and they wind up eliciting only derision and scorn, and not any self-reflection. This was a generation that lacked any insight into itself, a generation that desperately needed someone to sketch out for them the contours of a moral framework within which to evaluate themselves. But Noah had no interest in really talking with them. He was not curious about what made them tick.

The Zohar provides the most dramatic criticism of all of Noah’s incuriosity: When Noah exited the ark and saw that the world had been destroyed, he began to cry before God and he said,” Master of the universe! You are called ‘the Compassionate One.’ You ought to have had compassion upon Your creations!”

God responded to him, “Stupid shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time [that I told you to build the ark]?… Now you open your mouth to speak before Me?!”

Had only Noah been curious about the people around him when they were yet alive, the sequence of events might have played out quite differently.

What’s most fascinating about this critique of Noah is that there is something rather counter-cultural about it. One of the values that our environment ingrains in us is that curiosity about others is bad. We are taught that we should rein in our curiosity about others, lest we become nosy and start asking people personal questions that are none of our business — questions that might even prove embarrassing to them. Just say hello to people, smile, and be sure to only ask “how are you?” when it’s clear that no substantial response is expected. Curiosity is just plain impolite.

And yet, curiosity is the fountainhead of human mutual assistance. If I suspend my curiosity, I will never ask what’s going on with you. And if I never ask, you will never tell me. And if you never tell me, I will never understand. And if I do not understand, I can never be of any help to you. There are also times when we must ask, when through our failure to ask we effectively consign people around us to a fate comparable to the fate of Noah’s generation. To be sure, we need to develop enough honesty with ourselves to be able to distinguish between being “desiring-to-be-helpful” curious and “just-plain-nosy” curious. That’s another piece of our internal work. But if we don’t do the work and hone our skills, people will get washed away right from under our noses.

Noah was righteous in his generation. But not sufficiently curious to actually save any of them.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai-David Judea (www.bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood

Younger Persians seeking greater role in community


Many of Los Angeles’ young Iranian Jews arrived in the United States as small children or were born here to immigrant parents.

Now young professionals in their 20s and 30s, they have fully embraced life in America and are championing greater political activity for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California.

“For 30 years, our community has benefited from the opportunities of America, and now it’s time to give back and embrace our responsibilities as Jews and as Americans,” said Sam Yebri, 27, president of 30 Years After, a new, politically active nonprofit group. The organization was formed earlier this year by a group who wanted to make a contribution to the community but believed their voices were often ignored by the older leadership of local Iranian Jews.

“Our young members are not welcomed onto boards or committees, which are often governed by the same individuals for decades and which covet financial contributions over the creative energy and ideas of young leaders,” Yebri said.

As a result, the group set out to create new opportunities for social action.

This summer, 30 Years After was awarded $200,000 by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. 30 Years After’s planned activities include a communitywide conference titled, “The Iranian Jewish Community at a Crossroads,” which will take place on Sept. 14 at the Beverly Hills Hilton.

The conference will feature speakers from within the community, including Jimmy Delshad. Other speakers will include Rabbi David Wolpe, whose Sinai Temple has a large Iranian membership; Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks); Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and talk show host Dennis Prager. Topics will include life today in Iran and issues facing the Iranian Jewish communities in the United States and Israel.

30 Years After also plans to organize voter registration drives for the November election, host quarterly civic events and expand a pilot mentoring program for younger Iranian Jews, a project created in collaboration with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and Nessah Israel Synagogue.

Yebri and other 30 Years After members said they are also seeking greater political participation by local Iranian Jews in hopes of influencing local, state and national elected officials to address issues important to the Iranian Jewish community.

Over the past decades, nearly two dozen local Iranian Jewish groups have been involved with political awareness efforts, but no group until now has seriously pursued or organized communitywide political and civic activism.

Daryoush Dayan, newly elected chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, acknowledged that the community’s leadership does not include the younger generation. He has pledged to resolve the issue.

“It is our hope that we will be able to preserve and combine the best aspects of our culture and moral values with those of the American Jewish community,” Dayan said. “However, this can only be realized to the extent we allow the younger generation to carry the leadership torch.”

Purim — from generation to generation


Books: Kristallnacht’s memory revealed and recovered


Nov. 9, 2006 marks the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogroms throughout Germany and Austria, then incorporated into Germany, that set fire to the synagogues in towns and villages, pillaged Jewish shops, and led to the arrest and incarceration into concentration camps of 30,000 Jewish men aged 16-60.

Kristallnacht marked the end of Jewish life in Germany; a pivotal turning point in what later became known as the Holocaust. From that night onward, the situation of German Jewry went from bad to worse.

The youngest of the survivors of Kristallnacht, those who can actually recall the events give it texture and context, are now in their mid-70s. Soon, all too soon, the generation that lived through these events will be no longer and living memory will be replaced by historical memory.

A generation is passing, but it is a generation that has left behind voluminous records, testimonies and memoirs, video recordings and diaries, letters, notes – the raw stuff from which not only the historical record can be reconstructed but the personal narrative, the very lives that were lived and lost, can be recaptured, at least in part, at least for some.

Four books have recently been published that grapple with the Holocaust and recover lives that would otherwise be lost. Two are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors for whom English is not their native tongue and writing their learned obligation rather than their vocation. The other two are the work of descendants, professional writers who learned of the Holocaust by listening to those who were there and set out on their own journey to encounter the past and it.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (Harper Collins: 2006) is a gripping story told so very beautifully. Mendelsohn’s grandparents left Europe and came to the United States in the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. His grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who migrated to Miami, and Mendelsohn was raised on Long Island in a home where Jewishness was venerated but the attachment to tradition and Jewish learning were attenuated. A classics scholar by training, he is more at home in Greek civilization than with ancient Hebrews or contemporary Jews, and yet it is the memory of his grandfather’s brother and his family lost in the Shoah, the unspoken loss within his own family, transmitted only in the most fragmentary of memories, that propels him forth to seek his past and to uncover the family secret. He is haunted by the presence of absence and the absence of presence, and thus sets out on a journey that takes him to Australia and Israel, to Sweden and to Ukraine to Poland and elsewhere, all in search of six people from the small village of Bolechow who were murdered in 1941, 42 or 44 — two of whom were saved for a time and later betrayed. His siblings join him for part of the journey; his friends join him for other parts; and his family, present and absent, looms large in the narrative.

As he confronts his personal past, his search deepens, and he reads and rereads his journey through the legacy of his people as captured in the opening sections of Bereshit (Genesis), and bringing his manifest literary skills to his new study of Torah. The result is satisfying because his talent for storytelling is so evident. And sometimes as the novice, especially one so well trained in reading ancient literature, he brings new insights and a freshness to this very familiar material. His search for just these six people encapsulates the history of the Holocaust, the journey of survivors after the war to the lands of their resettlement and rebirth, and the passage of one Jew forth unto the past and unto himself.

Lech Lecha is the commandment given to Abram, the first demand of a demanding God. Translated “Go forth”, the words literally mean “go unto yourself.” Every journey outward is also a journey inward, as Mendelsohn — and we — soon discover.

His quest takes place just in time. He meets people who will soon be gone, who do not live to read of his discoveries, and he weaves together the distant recollections of dispersed and aging people into a tapestry that is rich and deep and by the end almost complete. He brings the reader along on his quest, making us relive his experience and piece together the fragments of information that he receives as he receives them. We experience his hopes and his disappointments as he experiences them, and we become ever more invested in this journey that soon may also become ours as well. His discoveries are miraculous — seeming coincidences that soon feel like destiny.

Mendelsohn’s begins with dim recollections. He must go forth on his own. In “Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story” (Free Press, 2006), Ann Kirschner begins with so much more. She possesses very rare documents; a series of letters written to Sala during her incarceration in seven Nazi slave labor camps by her family and friends, which she scrupulously guarded and saved. Because she was in slave camps and not concentration camps, Sala was able to save the letters. Kirschner only has the letters written to Sala; her responses were not preserved, but Kirschner’s commentary skillfully brings Sala’s story to life.

Meticulously researched and respectfully presented, she seldom intrudes and always illumines so that we come to appreciate Sala’s struggle, her family’s anguish, when she is taken off to camp and they are left behind, and when she volunteers to go instead of her more reserved, less-worldly sister. We learn more of Sala’s friends and their impossible circumstances. For historians, one of Sala’s friends is of particular importance: Ala Gertner, who worked with Moshe Merin, the controversial leader of the Sosnowiec area, who was later one of the four women hung at Auschwitz for smuggling gun powder to the Sonderkommand to facilitate the October 1944 uprising that destroyed a gas chamber at Birkenau. We see a mother-daughter relationship play out in discovery and admiration. Originally conceived as an exhibition for New York’s famed 42nd Street Library that soon resulted in a very satisfying book, “Sala’s Gift” is a singular work that extends our understanding of Jewish women and the manner in which they struggled for survival.

Zenon Neumark’s “Hiding in the Open: A Young Fugitive in Nazi-Occupied Poland” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), joins the many stories that have been told in recent years by younger survivors who used their youth as a weapon of survival and escaped living in the “Aryan” world while all that they knew — their families, their villages, their towns and their loved ones — were destroyed. The reader should know that I wrote the foreword to this book and assisted him in finding a publisher, but I have no financial interest in its success.

Choice of a Jew generation


If you’re in a bookstore and see a book with two impish-looking guys trying to sneak a light for their cigarettes from a chanukiah, then you’ve happened upon “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” (Warner).

Yes, the saga of Los Angeles’ longest running original play continues. “Jewtopia,” the play, was first brought to us in 2003 by two unemployed writers/actors who maxed out their credit cards to mount the funny, if somewhat stereotypical, comedy about dating and Jews. It was originally supposed to run for six weeks but was so popular that it extended for another year, then left in 2004 for an off-Broadway run in New York, where it’s still playing to sold-out audiences.
Now Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, the creators and sometime actors in the play have expanded their “Jewtopia” vision into a book, and they are working on a movie deal as well. The 200-plus page color book, might be mistaken for a coffee table book — except that much of the material inside is not fit for the living room.

Consider, “The Jewish Kama Sutra: An Illustrated Guide to Lovemaking,” because “Jews are certainly not known for their prowess and skills in the bedroom.” Positions include “The Challah,” “The Heimlich,” “The Reader” “The Minyan” and “Bubbe’s Visit” (She cleans while he…oh, don’t ask.)

“It’s to be read in the bathroom only,” jokes Wolfson, who plays Adam Lipschitz, a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure to marry a Jewish woman.

“I think it should be read at the family seder — it’s a good substitute for the Haggadah,” replies Fogel, who in the show plays Chris O’Connell, a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman who strikes up a bargain with Adam to help him pass as a Jew if Chris can find Adam a date.

To be sure, there’s more than just sex jokes in “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” There’s a chapter on Jewish History, the Holidays (“Celebrate the Bad Times”), Food (“Anyone Have Some Zantac?”) Travel (“Planes, Trains and Diarrhea”) and Conspiracy Theories (“Do Jews Control the World?”) with real, live facts mixed in with, well, bubbemeises, like Moses’ lost diary or the game “Match the Nose to the Jew.”

In a world where it’s hip to be sardonic about Jewish identity (Heeb, Jewcy, Rabbis Daughter) “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book…” is a more idealistic, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jewish Stereotypes” kind of take on our people-sophomoric and sometimes scatological humor by two guys who are clearly having fun.

“We kind of consider ourselves the Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the Jewish world,” Wolfson says, referring to the creators of “South Park.” “Not so much enforcing stereotypes but having fun with them.

So they’re not self-hating Jews?

“We hate ourselves for so many other reasons,” Wolfson says. “There are so many good reasons to hate ourselves aside from being Jewish.”

Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson will be reading from “Jewtopia: The Chosen Book for the Chosen People” on Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino.— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Why the iPod Generation Cares About Darfur


The car horns sounded like a shofar practice session, a cacophony of long blasts and short toots with no particular meaning or purpose. And, thankfully, there was no traffic accident to be found.

The blaring noise was instead a response to scores of protesters at the Federal Building in Westwood, who were staging a rally to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

The power of the rally was not necessarily its numbers, but its message: The “apathetic youth of America” are, well, not so apathetic. The event was coordinated by Teens Against Genocide (TAG), a group of greater Los Angeles high school students dedicated to raising awareness about the situation in western Sudan. These teenagers joined the group, and the cause, because they feel so strongly about the issue.

Perhaps the most intriguing question regarding activism for Darfur is: Why teens? Why have teenagers taken a leading role in this pressing issue? Aren’t we so busy with Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, and socializing?

“Teens are starting to see beyond their immediate surroundings,” said Shira Shane, a senior at New Community Jewish High School who founded and leads TAG. “Teens haven’t been weathered by the negative world. They believe in the possibility rather than the impossibility.”

But don’t adults have more money, more influence and more political clout?

Perhaps, but one thing that students have in abundance is the urge, especially after sitting in classes all day, to be active: to get out there and run a mile, or run for office — or both.

More likely, however, teenagers contribute to such humanitarian causes as a test of the power of the will, flirting with the idea that they actually can make a difference with a little initiative. To some students this initiative is wearing a T-shirt or a green wristband to school, sparking conversation with others about the issue. To others it means writing letters to newspaper editors and political officials, letting them know that people care about the issue. Still others channel their energy toward planning events, much like the TAG rally on April 23 at the Federal Building or the rally in Washington, D.C., on April 30.

It has always been the nature of teenage life to be active, to experiment with the power of persuasion, and to test limits. What make this generation of adolescents unique is its access to, and familiarity with, technology. Now, perhaps the connection between those white iPod cords and the mass killings in Darfur isn’t so obvious. But consider that this generation of youth has been brought up with immediate and uninhibited means of communication that allows them not only to keep up with current events, but to use this technology in pursuit of a more just and peaceful world.

It could be argued that technologically advanced American teenagers have everything at their disposal to make a dent in the political surface — everything, that is, except for a direct connection to events outside their immediate circle. And, obviously, this isn’t about high-speed Internet. It involves a moral consciousness and a dedication to basic human rights. Many teenagers, especially Jewish ones, construct this link through the Holocaust and other genocides of recent history. Many more have found the connection internally. And despite over-scheduled lives, they have chosen to make it their cause.

Those involved in TAG, and many other supportive youths, understand that being busy is no factor in saving lives.

In fact, TAG and other like-minded organizations fit well with the teenage focus on school and socializing. Activism gives students the chance to apply to the real world the knowledge they are acquiring: from history and political science courses at school, from an inspirational teacher or from religious values. And, when students take their knowledge to the streets (both literally and figuratively), they are able to build a network of friendships that transcends the boundaries of a clique or a school.

Joining TAG isn’t about building a good transcript, either. For high school seniors, college applications had been submitted months before TAG materialized. And, for underclassmen, taking action is far more important than having that extra club or those extra hours of community service. The efforts to save lives, and to educate others about this genocide, simply cannot be logged in such form.

“Whatever the issue is, teens will try to pursue it,” Shane said. “Teens will push.”

Then, maybe, even more people will push on their horns when passing a rally for Darfur, leaving in the air an echo that will last as long as people are listening.

TAG member Jeff Goodman, is a senior at University High School, where he writes for the school paper.

 

A Cellular Moment


The following conversation took place between a cellular telephone subscriber and her daughter:

“Hello?”

“Mom?”

“Hi dear, what do you need?’

“What has more calories, Italian or Ranch?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the salad bar. I can’t decide which dressing.”

“Honey, I told you last week when you called about Charmin versus Angel Soft, you’re in college now. You need to make your own decisions.”

“What about blue cheese?”

“You have to do this on your own. Bye-bye.”

“Mom? Mommy?”

My friend Monica dropped her head onto the table with a thump.

“Can you believe that?” she cried. “I thought it was a wise decision for her to have a cell phone, in case her car broke down or if she got lost or if she was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Then I’d want her to call. Not to ask me what to dip sushi in because she forgot to buy soy sauce.”

I agreed supportively. Up until a few weeks prior, my husband and I had resisted our son Mickey’s cajoling, whining and begging for a cell phone. According to him, he was the only ninth-grader in existence without one.

“No you’re not,” I said. “I just talked to Cheryl, and Adam doesn’t have one either.”

“Then Adam and I are the only two left.”

I shrugged.

But reluctantly, I considered his request. To be honest part of me wanted him to have one. Short of implanting a microchip in his thigh, a cell phone might be the best way to keep track of him. Jewish mothers are happier when they know where their babies are. Would his having a cell phone grant me some virtual control over his whereabouts? Would it be a positive step in his quest for independence? Would he use it wisely and make outgoing calls only after 7 p.m. when the “all calls are free after 7” program kicks in?

Of even greater concern, would I, in some subversive, unintentional attempt to control my universe, use the cell phone to manage or even manipulate my child?

After all, I was completely conflicted about my boy neededing to begin the breaking-away process, because we all know that decision-making capability bears no correlation to shoe size. But as we also learned from the interchange between Monica and her daughter, the ability of children to reach us anytime, anywhere can actually backfire and inhibit their progress toward adulthood. Quite possibly, today’s teens are becoming a generation unable to make simple choices or solve problems. They develop no tolerance for delayed gratification and no patience for waiting.

Could it be that the cell phones are not good for our kids?

We ended up with an extra cell phone due to a major shuffling; my husband “just had to have” the kind with e-mail, and my cell phone flip fell off; and an old aunt gave up trying to figure hers out, so she gave it to us. We put it on our family plan, and, as you may have predicted, it not so gradually went from being the extra, for-emergencies-only phone to belonging completely to Mickey.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained, clutching the phone to my chest. “As far as I am concerned, you may have this in your possession as long as you understand that the primary purpose of this cellular phone is for me to reach you. If at anytime I determine that the cell phone has not made my life easier, I reserve the right to remove it from your custody.”

Of course he agreed. He would have agreed to anything just to have the chance to say to some girl: “Sure, you can call me on my cell.”

The following conversation then took place between a cellular telephone subscriber and her son:

“Hello?”

“Mom?”

“Yes, Mickey.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on my way to pick you up.”

“When will you be here?”

“In about 30 seconds. Where are you?”

“I’m walking to the corner.”

“You’re not even there yet?”

“I’m almost there.”

“Why did you call?”

“Just to make sure I wouldn’t have to wait.”

(You see? No ability to deal with uncertainty and no patience for waiting. The cell phone thing was not working. But we’ll give it another try.)

“Hello?”

“Mom?”

“Yes Mickey.”

“Um, which do you like better, tangerine or grapefruit?”

“To eat?”

“No, to, uh, I don’t know, to wear or to smell.”

“What are you doing?”

“The movie got out early, so I decided to go shopping for your birthday present. The lady suggested this scrubby stuff that you use in the bath and some lotion for, let me read it, for like your, well, wherever you have dry, uh, hands or something. Yeah, dry skin or whatever. So, now you have to pretend you’re surprised, OK?”

“Oh, OK! That’s so sweet. Um, grapefruit I guess. Yes, grapefruit’s good. I’m sure I’ll like it.” I paused, then added, “And thanks for calling!”

I definitely meant it.

Â

It’s Not Your Zayde’s Klezmer Anymore


Musician Eric Stein felt disillusioned with rock ‘n’ roll. He spent years slogging away in a band without “making it,” so he started looking for something else.

He considered being a history professor, but then, a new instrument and an old style of music changed his mind.

The instrument was a mandolin and the music klezmer.

“There was level of musical sophistication that goes with the kind of music you can play on the mandolin, and my intention was to start a new acoustic-fusion thing, with an emphasis on string and wind instruments,” said Stein, who went on to form Beyond the Pale, a klezmer-fusion band.

“I had been brought up as a secular Jew, and I didn’t know much about Jewish music except that it was dorky,” said Stein on the phone from Toronto, where his band is based. “But when klezmer got hot a few years ago, I found that the music really spoke to me on a cultural level. All the time, I was trying to play other people’s music, but this is the music of my family and my history.”

Stein’s approach to klezmer — seeing it as part of his heritage, but wanting to put an innovative, modern stamp on it, is typical of today’s klezmer revival. More and more musicians are attracted to the music, but want to move it beyond its European folk roots.

Hence, bands like Beyond the Pale fuse klezmer with reggae, jazz, ska and bluegrass music. As a result, klezmer keeps one foot in its shtetl past and another in the post-modern present.

“That’s why we called the band Beyond the Pale, because the expression means something that is unexpected and beyond the bounds,” Stein said. “[The name] refers to the Jewish roots of the band, but it also refers to the idea that we want to get outside of the rules — to pay homage to the traditions, but at the same time express ourselves.”

“Consensus” is the name of Beyond the Pale’s new CD, but while the title implies harmonic accord, even compromise, the tunes on the CD do not. Although not disharmonious, the tunes startle the listener with their complex boldness.

In “Whassat,” for instance, the 10th song on the CD, a clarinet melody starts off plaintive and wailing, only to be overlaid by a thumping base beat that builds into a rhythmic crescendo that is less “Tevye” and more jazz club.

In “Skalavaye,” Beyond the Pale gives a modern, ska-tinged rendition of a 1940s Yiddish classic, with contemporary nods to Yiddish humor. “Halevai (I only wish that) I was a keg of beer,” warbles vocalist Josh Dolgin. “So you could quench your thirst with me, my dear'”

For Stein, the CD, a live recording of a Toronto concert, epitomizes the new direction of klezmer.

“Historically, klezmer music was just about extinct by the mid-60s, for all sorts of different reasons, such as demographics and the Holocaust,” Stein said. “So for the first 15 to 20 years of the klezmer revival, [which started in the 1970s], the overriding influence was about ‘Let’s rescue what was forgotten and bring it back.’ But in the 1990s, we have the second generation of the klezmer revival, and that is when things really started to evolve. [The musicians] were marrying klezmer to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, funk and reggae.”

Klezmer was not only becoming musically assimilated, but moving beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Stein is the only member of his five-piece band who is Jewish, and the band’s audiences have also changed.

No longer do klezmer bands attract only the bubbes and zaydes who remember the music from the old days. Now, in many venues, klezmer audiences can be primarily non-Jewish.

“People from within the Jewish community are embracing it, and using it as a way to express their own cultural heritage, but it is also having a life outside of the Jewish community altogether,” said Martin Van de Ven, Beyond the Pale’s clarinetist. “It has become [a style of music] with its own direction and way of doing things. More and more musicians are getting involved with it….”

“It is really evolving beyond just a Jewish form of music,” he said.

Beyond the Pale will perform June 1 at 9:30 p.m. at Tangier Restaurant, 2138 Hillcrest Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 666-8666. For more information on the band, visit

Failed Joshua Venture’s Serious Failings


 

Now that it has been “formally put to death and buried,” as one of its grantees told me, I feel free to speak out about the Joshua Venture, a supposed breakthrough organization, subsidizing the ideas of nonprofit professionals who will be leading the next generation of Jewish life.

I don’t know the intricacies of what happened that brought it to its final demise. I don’t even know all the details of how it worked when it was alive. I do know that when I dealt with its 14 20-30-something-aged grantees last year, it was the worst professional experience I have had since my company, Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes, began servicing the Jewish and nonprofit world.

The purpose of the Joshua Venture is something like this:

It was founded by several foundations in Jewish life to enable young social entrepreneurs (that means nonprofit start-ups) to receive funding and two-years of support, seminars, tools (that means training), mentoring and advice.

What I found out it basically meant is that they chose a group of creative and brilliant young Jews, many whom were committed to building edgy nonprofits in the Jewish world, who were coddled, handed monetary support on a silver platter, catered to, spoiled and allowed to believe that they were privileged and beyond socially acceptable behavioral norms.

I learned these realities the hard way. Initially, I was impressed and excited to be working with the grantees of the Joshua Venture. I already knew some of them. Several were great young people doing extraordinary new work in Jewish life.

There was the founder of J-Dub Records, bringing a new, hip style of Jewish music touching the lives of thousands of young, uninvolved Jews, opening a door for them into a Judaism from which they felt distant and alienated.

There was the founder of the Ayecha Resource Organization, an organization promoting the diversity of Jewish life, founded by a firebrand young Jewish woman who was a proud African American.

There was Sharsheret, supporting the needs of young, Jewish women dealing with breast cancer, founded by a young cancer survivor.

There were performance artists, filmmakers, political activists, intellectuals and others, forming an eclectic mix of dynamic personalities, committed to building their generation’s idea of a new Jewish world.

Joshua Ventures had contacted me about being one of their mentors. They asked if I could plan a full-day seminar for their grantees, teaching them the principles of marketing their causes for funding, advocacy and participation.

I was so excited to work with these people and help them further their ideas that I required my entire staff of 14 people to attend the seminar, positioning them to work as one-on-one mentors with each of the grantees. We prepared for weeks, working way beyond the hours for which Joshua Ventures was paying. I was happy to give the cause our time and a full day of 14 extraordinary professionals.

We arrived that morning to the seminar pumped up and ready to dive in with the grantees. I was prepared to work with them until midnight, if need be.

After an introduction from their professional, I stood up to convey our excitement at being with them and laid out the day’s schedule. Next, the head of our account service team, took the floor to begin the first part of the morning’s program.

He was just a few minutes into his presentation, when I noticed there was a buzz among the grantees. One young woman stands and says to me, “We believe your company is gender challenged. So far, we have heard from you and then another man. Why aren’t the women presenting?”

Not yet clued in, I nicely explained that there would be many women presenting, but that the way it worked out, the first two presentations were from men.

We continued, and then there was another buzz and interruption.

“We don’t like your methodology of presenting, as if you and your company are the center of knowledge. Your presentation model is outdated. You should be asking us what we know and then basing your presentation around our knowledge.”

I stopped and looked at their professional and their lay leader. Neither said a word. I waited to see if any of the other grantees would open their mouths to balance the critics. None did.

At the break, their professional informed me that the grantees tended to “eat up each professional that presented to them.” She further explained that this was par for the course.

(Today, as I recall this story, it reminds me of the report by Michael Jackson’s housekeeper telling the press how the kids at Neverland were allowed to run amok, without any supervision.)

The criticisms continued to fly. Finally, having reached my limit, I told them how excited we were to work with them, but as I listened to them, I was concerned about the values and behavior of the community they wanted to build. I then said that I believed through the grants they received that they had been empowered by the program and that they misconstrued this empowerment to feel entitled.

“You are taking away our safe space,” I was told by one of the grantees. “We’re supposed to be given safe space.”

As professionals, we stupidly continued to work with them through the entire day. We should have left. I should have publicly ripped up their check as a closing ceremony.

About two months later, I received a phone call from the professional, offering me a too-late and very weak apology. None of the funders, who had all heard about this fiasco, all of with whom I have worked very well over the years, ever called to ask about the experience.

The Joshua Venture raises many questions. There are numerous other programs in Jewish life, which are also handing the world on a silver platter to a new generation of Jews. The funders and their advisers have determined that free trips, free conferences, free hotel rooms, in addition to scholarships, fellowships, meetings with the rich and famous, study sessions with the brilliant, along with the awarding of cash, prizes and other untold privileges, not to mention the very deliberate creation of a new, selected elite class, are the methodology to perpetuate a vibrant and meaningful Jewish world.

And they may very well be right. But, several years into this new culture of privileged perpetuation, the late Joshua Venture is showing us that the methodology is also creating a sense of entitlement that is growing out of control.

I don’t believe that the programs should stop. But I do believe they must include some courses or sessions on values and humility, while demanding that the participants carry certain levels of responsibility. They must also include codes of conduct and expectations of gratitude, as well as an understanding that their participation does not place them above the community — or above amcha — the people.

The foundations of the Jewish world that fund these programs have stepped up to the plate to infuse Jewish life with a vibrancy and relevancy in a way the Jewish world has never worked before. They are to be thanked and praised.

But as they pursue the evaluations of their funding — as they all do, they must also question whether or not there is a critical issue of respect missing from the programs they are creating.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

Young, Hip, Heeb


It could have been a scene from New York’s beatnik past: A group of young hipsters gathered at a Greenwich Village apartment for an artistic venture they hoped would change history — or at least rock the establishment. But these beats call themselves Heebs, and their universe is the alternative Jewish world.

"Heeb is a special subset of the genus Jew," explained Joshua Neuman, 31, the new editor-in-chief and only paid staffer of Heeb magazine, a hipper-than-thou take on modern Jewish identity. With its gritty irony, the nearly 2-year-old magazine taps into a young Jewish generation that thirsts for Judaism but rejects its standard trappings.

Other cultural phenomena of the same trend is the blaxploitation spoof "The Hebrew Hammer," starring Adam Goldberg; and Jewish apparel like Rabbi’s Daughter’s tank tops such with words like "Shiksa" and "Meshuggah," and Jewcy, a clothing line that also sponsors entertainment events and gives the proceeds to Jewish non-profit organizations.

But not everyone is sold on Heeb’s message. The magazine’s debut prompted concern at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the groups says it’s still concerned.

Adopting a "title for a publication that is offensive to many Jews is unnecessary and in my view counterproductive," said Ken Jacobson, ADL’s associate national director.

Others say the magazine fills a critical niche.

Rejecting Heeb is like saying "the Beatles were bad for today’s youth when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show," said Roger Bennett, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, whose network of young philanthropists, Natan, gave Heeb a $20,000 grant last month.

Heeb, which publishes twice a year, has maintained a circulation of roughly 20,000, but Neuman estimated that its readership has reached 90,000. A quarter of the magazine’s subscribers are in New York, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle.

Though the magazine is crammed with kitsch, it also tackles issues of substance. In the current issue, for example, editorial director Mike Edison goes undercover in Jews for Jesus as a would-be convert. Describing with humor the tactics of the Christian missionaries, Edison adds a jolt of Jewish pride.

"I’m a New York Jew. I can kvetch and haggle with the best of them," he writes. "Salvation, however, is the one thing I will not buy wholesale."

The Circuit


A Hungry Mob

It was a moment that the members of Women’s Department of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Business and Professional Division will never forget: a kitchen full of young women learning about and noshing on the Sicilian culinary stylings of chef Henry Hill.

Yes, that Henry Hill — the former Mafioso who entered the FBI’s witness protection program and helped the Feds root out organized crime.

By night’s end, there was red liquid splattered all over the kitchen. Thankfully, it was just leftover marinara sauce on empty plates from quickly devoured homemade Italian delicacies: chicken marsala with mushrooms, grilled eggplant rollatine, piping hot penne pasta — all kosher.

It was slightly surreal to find a former “wiseguy” giving cooking tips to 50 upstanding young Jewish women, mostly in their 30s. But there’s more to the story. Hill — best known for his Howard Stern appearances and being portrayed by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” — has been struggling to put his underworld past behind him. For 2 1/2 years, Hill, 58, has been a Beit T’Shuvah rehab resident, trying to kick his alcoholism. Hill told the room that he was proudly sober, despite a setback 10 months ago in the progress of his recovery.

The evening’s hostess, Janis Black Goldman, generously opened up her Beverly Hills home for this unique experience.

“You can be here for a good cause and meet old and new friends in a comfortable environment,” said Goldman, the daughter of philanthropists Stanley and Joyce Black. Goldman had suggested Hill to the Women’s Department after she had met the ex-mobster at a Beit T’Shuvah Shabbat event, where she enjoyed a firsthand encounter with his formidable cooking prowess.

“He’s someone in recovery that made a success in his life,” said Goldman’s sister, Jill Zalben. “People today want to see that. He’s teaching us that we can have a life and you can move on.”

Hill told The Circuit of cooking’s therapeutic nature. “It relaxes me where a psychiatrist doesn’t excite me.” His cookbook will be released by Penguin Books in October.

Hill and The Circuit notwithstanding, there was only one other XY-chromosomed guest present — Black family friend Jono Kohan.

Kohan himself comes from a Jewishly active family. His mother, the lively Rhea Kohan, emcees Jewish galas with her dazzling wit. His brother, David Kohan, co-created NBC’s hit sitcom, “Will & Grace.”

“There’s a lot of female energy in the room tonight. I find it very positive to be around,” said Kohan, obviously enjoying this most fortuitous male-to-female ratio.

Also contributing to that female energy: Michele Sackheim, division chair; Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah director; Laurie Konhiem, The Federation’s Women’s Campaign chair; Sharon Janks, vice chair liaison; outreach committee members Cynthia Baseman, Andrea Corsun, Sara Essner, Marilyn Sonners, Galia Nitzan and Barbara Zolla; Bobbi Asimow, Women’s Campaign director, and Jody Moss, Women’s Campaign professional staff.

“I couldn’t have done this event without Henry,” said Greer Sanders, division outreach chair. “He planned the whole thing from soup to nuts.”From salad to spumoni is more like it. But you get the picture.

For information on Women’s Business and Professional Division, which will hold its annual banquet at the Four Seasons on May 8, call (323) 761-8275.

Helping Hands

More than 500 people honored Abraham Spiegel and Fred Kort at the American Society for Yad Vashem’s first West Coast Tribute Dinner at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. For more than 30 years, Spiegel has been instrumental in helping expand Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the world’s leading Holocaust artifact repository and research center. Holocaust survivor Kort has also contributed greatly to Yad Vashem’s cause. The evening, where “The Young and the Restless” star Eric Braeden was master of ceremonies, featured a message from Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Omert and raised nearly $500,000 for Yad Vashem.

A Dozen Good Eggs

Twelve University of Judaism second-year students took part of the Sid B. Levine Service Learning Program over winter break, working with the elderly, the homeless, the disabled and adults with autism.

A Taste of the Best

Journal food writers Judy Zeidler and Judy Bart Kancigor signed their cookbooks at the delectable Food Fare, sponsored by Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. Fifty of Los Angeles’ best chefs, restaurants, caterers and wineries gave out tasty samplings of their work, while everything from cookbooks, personal trainers and symphony tickets were bid on during a silent auction. Organizers said that the annual fundraiser, which took place in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, raised more than the $400,000 the event brought in last year.

Generation to Generation

Second-generation Holocaust survivor Ricci Zuckerman visited the students of Hebrew Academy High School in Huntington Beach. The Second Generation group founder responded to an invitation by the school’s Jewish history teacher Helen Kern.

Connecting Generations


When Florence Hoffman, 76, says, “my children are very well-behaved and very intelligent,” she sounds like any other Jewish grandmother, brimming with pride. But the children who call her Grandma are not related. They’re fifth-graders from Wilshire Crest Elementary School, just a mile away from Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center, a Jewish Family Services senior center that Hoffman visits weekly.

For the past few weeks, these students have joined Hoffman and 10 other seniors at the Fairfax-area center to truly get to know one another. The meetings are part of a pilot program funded by the Skylark Foundation and run by youTHink, a program of the Zimmer Children’s Museum. In addition to its intergenerational aspect, the program stresses intercultural connections — this time bringing together young students of color and white Jewish seniors.
The gatherings have helped the group identify and appreciate how much they have in common. For example, many participants — old and young — speak more than one language, were born outside the U.S. and have experienced prejudice.

The time together has also changed minds. Ten-year-old Desde Jones thought seniors were “mean, grumpy and old,” but meeting Diana Chuchian, 62, toppled her beliefs. “She’s nice and funny, and she understands what we’re dealing with.”
Similarly, Sylvia Bronstein, 85, said that reading about what goes on in schools sometimes gave her a negative impression of young people. But these fifth-graders modified her view. “They looked so neat and clean. They were considerate and really sweet.”

Designed to benefit both groups through conversation and connection, the program matched each senior with the same three to four students, and their bonds tightened with each session. Participants introduced themselves by sharing a funny personal story. Later, they viewed thought-provoking art to stimulate discussion about the social issues that concerned them: homelessness, poverty, gun control, animal rights, drugs and gangs. In a third session, they created their own art to express opinions about contemporary issues.

“I’m so pleased that they’re enjoying my company. That makes me feel really good,” said Chuchian. “It’s like we don’t think that kids will have the time or patience for you when you get older.”

Cindy Berger, 40, the fifth-graders’ teacher, agrees. “The best part is that all prejudging ideas were dispelled and it was just, ‘Let me get to know you,'” she said. “There is nothing like hands-on. You can read and you can watch a video, but when you get the chance to come in and meet someone from a time period you don’t know anyone from, it’s really educational.”

The program delivered some unexpected connections, too. On their own initiative, students drew pictures and wrote letters to bring their seniors. The adults also had a few surprises: poems, small gifts, cookies and other sweets. Feeling regret when the program ended in December, the group held its first reunion two weeks ago when the seniors attended a school assembly starring the fifth-grade class honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day. The young people were especially excited since few parents could leave work to attend. With shouts of praise and applause, the seniors did not let them down.

“The children think they derived something from being with us, but I think we derived a lot from being with this generation,” said Hoffman, who was “adopted” as grandmother when she told her group of students she didn’t have grandchildren of her own.

For students with grandparents often as young as 50, these seniors were some of the oldest people they’d ever met. One student asked a senior if she was 47 yet. The reply? “Honey, I’m 92!”

But as 10-year-old Javier Angulo said, “You don’t have to have friends your own age.”

For more information, contact youTHink at (323) 761-8988 or www.youthinkusa.org.

Excerpts of student letters:

“Dear Lillian, You are a nice lady and you talk nicely. You are a good friend. I really like you. I wish I could stay there. That place is really nice. When I grow up I am going to work there. Sincerely, Muhammad.”

“Dear Florence… I enjoyed talking to you and you made me feel very welcome. I would like to know if you have grandchildren? You treated me just like my own grandmother would. … Well keep smiling. Your friend, Tracy.”

“To Diana… When I come back I hope you won’t mind if I ask you a few questions, like what are your favorite desserts and more about your life? I can’t wait, your friend Kaylica.”

Rose’s Quest


The hiding places in the title of Daniel Asa Rose’s new memoir refer to the haylofts and cellars where his relatives hid from the Nazis during the war years, and also to the suburban tool sheds and coat closets where the author crawled into during his childhood in a mostly gentile Connecticut town. The title also alludes to the author’s efforts to avoid his Judaism. Traveling to Europe to find his family’s hiding places in Belgium and France with his two young sons, Rose comes to see that hiding places are “not merely dark holes of concealment” but also “places of revelation.” The trip leads him to understand the links between present and past, his own connections to his family’s past and to the Jewish future.

“Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust” (Simon & Schuster) is the account of a trip more than 12 years ago when he was recently divorced and his now-grown up sons were 12 and 7. The story of their adventures – from scant clues they manage to track down many of the places they seek – is interwoven, in alternate chapters, with his reminiscences of growing up. Rose says it took him 10 years to write the book because it was such a “massive undertaking, dealing with my forebears, my children, my religion.” It took him considerable time to find the right voice, one that captured the irreverence of his children – one son exclaims, when he sees the number tattooed onto a relative’s arm in Brussels, “Boy, you really don’t want to lose your phone number!” – and was still respectful toward the Holocaust.

“I had to lighten it for a new generation, while at the same time pay homage,” the author, a novelist, essayist and travel writer who has won several awards for his fiction, says. Friends and relatives were surprised by his decision to take the trip with his young sons. It was an effort to reconstitute their family after the divorce, to reclaim their roots, to show the boys their history up close where it would make a difference to them. While traveling, he realizes that his sons are the ages of young relatives who were killed in efforts to escape.

Rose grew up in Rowayton, adjacent to Darien, “the proverbial anti-Semitic hamlet of “Gentleman’s Agreement.” His mother had escaped from Bel-gium in 1939 and frequently told him fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm along with the all-too-true stories of her relatives’ experiences hiding from the “Not-sees,” who “didn’t see things normal people saw.” As a kid, he was embarrassed about being Jewish, being different. On the rare occasions when the family attended synagogue, he wore an unseen transistor radio, tuned to Cousin Brucie. His worldly diamond-dealer great uncles, survivors who were the family patriarchs, and other relatives made him aware of his heritage, but he was largely unin-terested. He explains that the trip was also a kind of atonement, for the years spent making fun and mimicking his stuttering relatives who survived Hitler’s Europe.

On their trip, the three meet up with relatives in Brussels who are kind but leery of their mission, but they introduce them to another relative, who changed his name from Jacov Pesach Morgenstern to J.P. Morgan – another kind of hiding – whose diaries become the basis for their quest. Through a series of seemingly serendipitous events, they manage to find many of the places they’re looking for and also find a little-known concen-tration camp in France, near the Pyrenees, abandoned but still in its original condition.

One son, mystified by the connections they make, suggests that “maybe we’re on like invisible railroad tracks that steer us into the things we want,” and the other says, “It’s like we’re inside a video game and God is playing us.”

Rose writes well, with wit and humor and attention to telling details. From the very beginning, in fact just after the table of con-tents, readers learn that “Hiding Places” is no ordinary memoir. In an author’s note, he explains that he has “taken pains to tidy and pace the narrative, to conflate some of the characters in order to lend focus to the structure, and occasionally to imagine details in an effort to convey the deepest sense of the sagas recounted herein.” Although he sticks strictly to the facts when it comes to details of the Holocaust, his other accounts are admittedly not literal. He sees the book as on the “cutting edge, expanding the notions of what nonfiction is, redefining what the memoir is.” His approach raises important questions about how events like the Holocaust are recorded and passed on, as the generation of survivors and witnesses is aging.

The trip was life changing for all of the Roses. The author, now remarried and the father of sons who are 2 and 5 (the older boys are 20 and 24), says that he’s on a path of increased Jewish iden-tification but still “in flux, still living among the Yankees” in a small Massachusetts town near Providence, Rhode Island. He’s working on a new book that’s a sequel, again weaving his own life stories with a larger story.

Epic Proportions


“Sunshine” is a massive, sprawling film that spans 120 years in the lives and loves of four generations of a Hungarian Jewish family.

It is part history course, part lust among the bourgeoisie, and an all- around object lesson on the ultimate futility by Central European Jewry to shed its roots and assimilate into the surrounding society. The film starts around 1840, when orphaned 12-year-old Emanuel Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) sets out for Budapest carrying as his only endowment the secret recipe for a herbal tonic bearing the family name.

Emanuel and his tonic lay the foundation for the family fortune. His son Ignatz, living during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, becomes a lawyer and powerful judge, changing the family name to Sors to advance his career.

In the next generation, Adam Sors becomes a champion fencer and converts to Catholicism in order to be admitted to the elite Hungarian military fencing club. He wins a gold medal for his country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and is hailed as a national hero.

A few years after his triumph, Adam is arrested by Hungarian fascists and killed in a particularly sadistic way in front of his son Ivan.

Ivan survives concentration camps, and as Hungary becomes a Soviet satellite, he wreaks revenge on real and fancied fascists by joining the Communist secret police. However, when he is ordered to root out a trumped-up “Zionist conspiracy” against the Communist regime, Ivan has second thoughts.

In 1956, he becomes a leader of the failed anti-Soviet uprising and is sentenced to five years in prison. Upon his release, he immediately goes to the city registry and asks that his name be changed back to Sonnenschein, signifying his return to his Jewish roots. The Sonnenschein men are matched by even stronger women, and there are a great number of intrafamily sexual liaisons and betrayals.

“Sunshine” was created and written (with playwright Israel Horovitz) by Hungarian Jewish director István Szabó well-known for melding historical and personal themes (“Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl”), who drew in part on his family history in making the film.

The length of the film (three hours) and size of the cast are of near epic proportions, but the focus is relentlessly on Ralph Fiennes, who, in a three-generational role, portrays Ignatz, the judge; Adam, the fencer; and Ivan, the Communist interrogator.

Fiennes, who first came to international attention as the sadistic SS commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List,” here pictures three assimilated Jews convincingly. Nevertheless, having the same visage, with only minor alterations in facial hair styles, appear in three roles confuses rather than unifies an already densely plotted and populated film. Among the cast members are William Hurt, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, Molly Parker, John Neville and David de Keyser. Outstanding is Rosemary Harris as the matriarch who survives all vicissitudes and binds together the three generations. “Sunshine” opens June 9 at the Cecchi Gori Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica, and Landmark Rialto in South Pasadena.

The ‘Sunshine’ of Szabós Life

PHOTO
István Szabó, right, directs Jennifer Ehle on the set of “Sunshine,” his epic film about 120 years in the life of a Hungarian Jewish family. Photo courtesy Paramount Classics

Like the characters in his three-generational saga “Sunshine,” director István Szabó is descended from a highly assimilated Hungarian Jewish family.

“For five generations, my ancestors have been doctors and lawyers in Budapest,” says Szabo, speaking by phone from the Hungarian capital.

Yet, despite the surface parallels between the Sonnenschein (German for “Sunshine”) and the Szabó families, the three-hour movie is not autobiographical, the director and screenwriter insists. Each character in the film represents a composite of five or six people whose lives or stories Szabó has encountered during his 62 years.

It might have been fascinating to delve deeper into the life of Szabó, recipient of 60 international awards and an Oscar for such penetrating movies as “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen.” But Szabó would have none of it. After reluctantly acknowledging that he was hidden by nuns during the Holocaust, he declares firmly, “I am not happy talking about myself.”

Discussing the film, though, is another matter. Although Ralph Fiennes, in the triple role of grandfather, father and grandson is the obvious star of the film, the key character, according to Szabó, is the family matriarch, Valerie.

Played by Jennifer Ehle as a young woman and by Rosemary Harris as an older one, Valerie survives the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation, and Communist rule, all the while remaining true to herself. “She is the most courageous person of all, the only one who remains faithful and never denies her origins,” Szabó notes. “It is her example that allows her grandson to find himself and return to his roots.”

To understand the attitudes and changing fortunes of the Sonnenschein family, it is important to know about the role of Jews in Hungarian history. “In 1848-49, when Hungarians revolted against the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy, 20,000 young Jews joined the revolution, and many of them were imprisoned after the Hapsburg victory,” says Szabó. “So the Hungarian Jews were very nationalistic and felt that the ‘invisible wall’ that, for instance, separated German Jews from their gentile neighbors did not exist in Hungary.”

To illustrate the point, Szabó points to the town of Kecskemet, about 45 miles from Budapest. “There the main square is surrounded by seven different houses of worship, which were all built toward the end of the 19th century,” Szabó recounts. “There is a baroque Catholic church, a Christian Orthodox church, a Protestant church, an Evangelic middle school, a synagogue and another Catholic church. And in the middle of the square is a coffee shop for everybody.”

Szabó says that he always envisioned that the Sonnenschein men, over three generations, would be played by the same actor, and he rejects the suggestion that this triple-casting might confuse viewers. “By using the same face for grandfather, son and grandson, I wanted to show that the challenges of history, the Jewish struggle to be accepted by society, repeated itself in every generation,” Szabó notes. “However, I needed an actor who could create different characters, and I think that Fiennes has succeeded admirably.”

Torah Portion


READ A PREVIOUS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

 

Parashat Chuka (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

 

Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)

 

Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

 

Parashat Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

 

Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

 

Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

 

Parashat Behar-Behukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

 

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

 

Acahre-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

 

Parashat Tazria-Mezorah (Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59)

 

 

The Right Leader for the Right Time

By Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin

People often complain that if we only had leaders like those in past generations, we would not have the problems we face today. It seems to be a chronic malady that we never are satisfied with the leaders of our own time. Yet, an old Jewish adage states, “each generation receives the leader it deserves.” In truth, nowhere is this fact so apparent as in this week’s Torah reading.

Few biblical stories are as sad as the account in this week’s parasha, which describes how Moses could not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (27:12). Yet, in the midst of this traumatic moment, Moses showed the measure of his greatness. The parasha relates how, instead of bemoaning his own fate, Moses concentrates on appointing a successor (27:15-23). Our own Sages in the Midrash suggest that this is the highest form of altruism, stating: “This tells us the praise of the righteous. When they are ready to part from this world, they put aside their own needs and concern themselves with the needs of the community.”

Although our Sages praise Moses, his successor, Joshua, does not seem to fare as well. The Talmud, in Baba Batra 75A, remarks, “The Elders of that generation said: The countenance of Moses was like that of the sun; the countenance of Joshua like that of the moon. Alas, for such shame!”

Rashi, the classical commentator, in interpreting this Talmudic passage, explains that the Elders were depressed and frustrated because they realized that Moses could never be replaced. No matter how great Joshua was, he simply was not another Moses, and, thus, the level of Jewish leadership must decline like the moon in comparison to the sun.

The 19th century of Musar (Jewish ethics) offers an even more critical interpretation, suggesting that Joshua could have truly replaced Moses, but he never rose to the challenge, remaining like the moon, never as brilliant as the sun.

Not all commentaries, however, agree with this critique. Instead, some of the greatest commentators suggest that the Talmudic passage should be read not as a negative assessment of Joshua but as an indictment of the Elders. The “shame” and “reproach” refers to the fact that the Elders did not give Joshua an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities. As is often the case, the Elders of a generation find it too difficult to encourage a younger leader, feeling that the new leader is not worthy of their support. True, the Elders missed Moses, but Joshua deserved their help, and this they tragically were unable to offer.

Moreover, the Elders did not assess the situation properly. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, they needed a commander equipped with the ability to communicate with the masses. Under these circumstances, Joshua, not Moses, was the better leader.

The 19th-century biblical commentator, the Malbim, remarks that Joshua’s charisma, his warm, congenial and dynamic personality, provided leadership that everyone could identify with, whereas Moses possessed an aloof personality that only the intellectual elite could approach.

The Hatam Sofer, another 19th-century commentator, reinforces this idea when he interprets the expression in the Talmudic passage, “the Elders of that generation,” as referring to a few special leaders who learnt directly from Moses and had a personal relationship with him. The masses, however, were awed by Moses and turned instead to his pupil, Joshua, for advice and guidance.

All too often, we are critical of leaders, comparing them to a glorious past, and we see only deficiencies. Yet we must remember that each generation receives the leadership it needs. Joshua was not a failure at all, but the Elders of his generation judged him harshly and incorrectly because they wanted another Moses. Israel, however, did not need another Moses. Rather, it needed Joshua. And in God’s infinite wisdom, Israel received exactly what Israel desperately required.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Accepting Judaism as a Privilege


One Sunday morning, many years ago, as parentscame to pick up their kids from the Hebrew school where I taught, Ioverheard a conversation. “How was class?” A father asked his son.The child began to whine. “I hate Hebrew school,” he said. “It’sboring and stupid, the teachers are mean, and the kids aren’t nice. Idon’t want to go any more.” The father stopped, turned to the kid,and said: “Listen, when I was your age, I went to Hebrew school and Ihated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’tnice, but they made me go, and, now, you’re going to go too!”

What a tragedy. What a catastrophe. To have raiseda generation of children who associate Judaism with coercion, boredomand emptiness.

When my grandparents described the painfulcondition of the Jewish people, they would shake their heads andsigh, “Shver tsu zein a Yid” — “It’s hard to be a Jew.” To them,being a Jew was a privilege, but the world made it so difficult, sopainful. Somehow, we’ve turned this around. No longer description, ithas become prescription: Shver tsu zein a Yid. For anything to beauthentically Jewish, so many seem to feel, it must be hard, painful,difficult: “No chrain, no gain.”

A friend of mine, a Jew by choice, was invited toaddress a community commission that was researching outreach toconverts. After her statement, a prominent community leaderquestioned her: “You say that you keep a kosher home. Don’t you findthat very difficult these days?”

“No,” she replied. “With new labeling of packages,it’s actually getting easier.”

“Well, certainly, you find it veryexpensive.”

“No, not really. You just shop wisely.”

“Well, doesn’t it severely restrict what you caneat?”

Catching his direction, she explained pointedly,”Kashrut brings to my kitchen and to my home a level of sanctity andgodliness that is precious to me and to my family.”

“Well, obviously,” the chairman concluded, “youdon’t keep strictly kosher!”

Shver tsu zein a Yid. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s notreally Jewish. I once gave a sermon in a synagogue on a Shabbatmorning. A woman came over afterward and said, “Rabbi, I enjoyed yourtalk so much, I had such a good time, I forgot I was in shul!”Oy.

Mordechai Kaplan’s classic text, “Judaism as aCivilization,” opens with a sad observation: Once, Jews acceptedJudaism as a privilege; now, they regard it as a burden.

This is a twisted, tortured, contorted form ofJudaism. In the face of such an attitude, it is no wonder that whenasked in a national study of the Jewish population, “What is yourreligion?” 1.8 million Jews answered, “None.” After all, if Judaismis only a painful burden, who needs it?

It is time we recover Jewish joy. And this holidayof Sukkot, called by the tradition, z’mansimchateynu — our season of joy — is agood place to begin. It is a mitzvah, a divine imperative, toknow Jewish joy. It is a sin to have twisted Judaism into a dry,joyless, morbid burden. Jews must learn to say to their children andgrandchildren, in the most unequivocal of terms: “I do Judaismbecause it brings my life purpose, beauty and depth. I do Judaismbecause it makes me happy.”

As we will read this week: “You shall rejoice inyour festival with your son and your daughter…and have nothing butjoy” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

My greatest triumph as a rabbi came one Sukkot,when a little kid came and whispered in my ear:

“Rabbi, I feel sorry for my neighbors.”

“You feel sorry for your neighbors? Why?” I askedhim.

“Look what we get to do today, Rabbi,” he said.”We get to eat in the sukkah, sing the prayers and march with thelulav and etrog. We’re together as a family and with all our friends.Rabbi, for us, today is Yontif, but for them, it’s justThursday!”

May all Jewish children feel the same. HagSameach.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.