There’s an Easier Way to Find the Perfect Diamond Engagement Ring

Finding the right engagement ring is a lot harder than one might imagine. This piece of jewelry is not only meant to symbolize the love a partner has for the other, but the jewelry piece is going to be worn most of the time.

There is an overwhelming amount of options out there, making it harder to make a decision. The struggle is real, and it is something that plagued Adam Stein, who is a member of the Los Angeles Jewish Community. His religious background highlighted the importance of this day and what this ring symbolizes.

Stein wanted to find a way to make things easier for the groom-to-be because love should not be bogged down by stress. It took him a while, but he finally found a revolutionizing solution that is worthy of admiration.

Why is it so Hard to Find the Right Engagement Ring?


There are a number of reasons why finding the right engagement ring is hard. Some people blame film and other forms of media since many of these entertainment mediums have created unrealistic expectations.

Yes, the person proposing has to make sure that the ring wows the bride-to-be as much as the women in film have been wowed. It is an impossible task to live up to and is probably one reason expectations are so high.

As disheartening as this might sound, more married individuals are dissatisfied with their engagement ring than those who are content.

A woman in Australia complained that her groom-to-be proposed with a $1,640 ring. The woman said that the ring was a little small, and she pointed out that her partner makes a six-figure income. She did not mention anything about being dissatisfied with the ring’s style but rather how small and inexpensive it was.

Her story shows just how high expectations can be and how easily the wrong ring can thwart an otherwise beautiful declaration of love.

Stein’s Solution to the Engagement Ring Issue


Adam Stein saw the problem and wanted to offer a practical solution that would solve it. He grew up in a Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community where the sanctity of marriage is highly praised. Stein understood that marriage should be a celebration of love that should not be spoiled with a ring problem.

Stein understood that what made buying the perfect diamond engagement ring hard was that it was confusing. Some try to rely on jewelry experts to find the right ring, but experts usually inject personal preference, which can further confuse the husband-to-be.

This is part of what drove Stein to create ROSI a diamond algorithm used to power RockHer‘s diamond search, a website for grooms-to-be who want to feel confident about the diamond in the engagement ring they purchase.

It should be noted that purchasing the right diamond engagement ring also signifies a good investment. Money doesn’t grow on trees, so Stein’s solution to narrow down choices reduces the risk of making a bad investment.

Stein’s solution is called ROSI, which is an Intelligent Diamond Buying Algorithm. The algorithm simplifies the diamond buying process using information provided by the client. It uses big data to find diamonds that best suit the bride and grooms budget, yet keeping the wow factor in play. Keep in mind that this is an algorithm, so the choices are going to be affected by the technology’s personal preferences.

It might be hard to believe that Stein, who holds a Masters in Molecular and Cell Biology from Georgetown University in addition to a Neuroscience undergraduate degree from New York University, would discover this solution, but he’s a romantic.

The ROSI diamond buying algorithm makes RockHer revolutionary and delivers results in mere seconds, bringing simplicity back to the engagement ring buying experience.

How to make a money tree for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduation gift

The gift of cash is always welcome, especially for occasions that mark the beginning of a new journey, like bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations and weddings. But instead of just writing a check or sticking some dollar bills in an envelope, consider giving a money tree.

On a money tree, dollar bills are folded origami style into flowers and tied to branches. And because it takes three individual dollar bills to make each flower, giving an amount in $18 increments is easy (6 flowers = $18, 12 flowers = $36, etc.). Folding the money isn’t hard, and next time you have to give a present, you can skip the gift card.

This stylish way to give cash proves once and for all that, yes, money does grow on trees.

What you’ll need:

  •    Dollar bills
  •    Wire
  •    Branch
  •    Vase or planter


Step 1

With the currency facing up, fold in the left and right edges about 1 inch, so you can still see the president’s face.

Step 2

Take each of those folds you just made and fold again at the corners, inward toward the center line. Each side will now look like the point of a paper airplane.

Step 3

Fold the whole bill lengthwise at the center line to create a trapezoid shape, like a triangle with its top cut off. Repeat with two more dollar bills so you have three folded bills, and stack them on top of each other. Tie the folded bills together at their centers with a piece of wire.

Step 4

With the three bills wired together, there will be six “spokes” coming out of the center. Open the folds of the bills to create the petals of the flower. Don’t be afraid to force the petals open; the wire around the bills will keep them from coming apart. (Notice that the six-point flower almost looks like a Star of David.) When the flower is finished, tie it to a tree branch using the rest of the wire. Repeat with the remaining flowers, then place your branch in a vase or planter. If you don’t have a branch, you can just make the wires longer so they act like stems, and place the stems in a vase.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at Follow him @jfongstyle.

Bibi’s gift to Pope Francis: A book on when the church persecuted the Jews

Sounds like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a lovely meeting with Pope Francis.

They talked for about a half-hour, focused on peace talks and touched on Iran. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, encouraged Francis to visit Israel. And Netanyahu gave the pope a book with the inscription, “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage.”

The one slightly uncomfortable part may have been that the book was about one of the worst things the Catholic Church has ever done to the Jews.


The book was “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” the scholarly magnum opus written by the prime minister’s late father, Benzion. The in-depth tome on the Spanish Inquisition describes how the church persecuted, and often executed, masses of Jewish converts to Catholicism who were accused of secretly practicing Judaism.

Maybe the gift was yet another reminder from Netanyahu about the dangers of ignoring an existential threat to the Jewish people (read: Iran). Maybe the pope is an avid student of history.

Or maybe, in an age where a Jewish prime minister can meet cordially with the pope, it’s a sign of just how far we’ve come.

For Murray Koppelman, a distasteful Tehran scene inspires a gift to New Israel Fund

Murray Koppelman saw women pushed onto the back of a bus in Tehran and had a nightmare about Israel’s future.

Koppelman, a well-known philanthropist in New York, is behind a New Israel Fund pledge drive to combat discrimination against women in Israel. He will match every new dollar donated to the New Israel Fund up to $500,000.

A full-page ad in The New York Times including a dramatic photo of a defaced poster featuring a woman’s portrait—one of many that have been vandalized in Jerusalem—announced the drive on April 18. The ad urges Americans to “Help keep Israel strong, free, and democratic.”

Koppelman, 80, said in an interview that the idea for the campaign came to him when he was touring Iran last autumn.

He had traveled much of the world and wanted to see Iran “while I still could make the trip,” he told JTA. His decision caused much family consternation, but he persisted.

Koppelman waited six months for a visa. He hired a guide when he arrived in Iran.

“It was a very arduous trip—I am over 80—I needed to sit down. I found a bench, I sat down,” he recalled.

It was a bus stop. “There were 20 to 30 women with chadors on, and when the bus came, they were pushed to the back,” Koppelman said.

The scene brought to mind an NIF-organized lecture he had attended just before leaving for his trip. Alice Shalvi, a veteran Israeli feminist, described encroachments on Israeli women’s rights, including buses where women were expected to sit in the back.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pushed back against such measures, pledging to “preserve public space as open and safe.”

Seeing Iranian women shoved to the back of the bus unsettled Koppelman, who asked his guide whether such measures were introduced all at once after the 1979 revolution that brought Islamists to power.

No, the guide said, each change came incrementally.

“I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to Israel?’ ” Koppelman said.

He didn’t leave it at just thinking about it.

“I’m a person who likes to speak out,” said Koppelman, who then recited an Op-Ed he had submitted to The New York Times in 1995 weeks after an extremist Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“Like so many members of the American Jewish community, I have kept my opinions to myself for too long,” Koppelman read from the Op-Ed in stentorian, Brooklyn-inflected tones. “Hesitant to contribute to an image of the Jews as a divided people, I have refrained from taking a public stand on the issue of Israel exchanging occupied territory for peace. In unity, so I thought, there is strength. But it was words—words of venomous hatred—that led directly to the unthinkable outrage of the assassination of a prime minister of Israel by a Jew.”

In the Op-Ed, Koppelman describes the time he spent as a young man on a kibbutz in Israel.

“I spent years working in the fields by day and standing guard duty against terrorists at night,” he wrote. “It is a time in my life that I look back on with tremendous pride, a time when my personal ties to Israel were forged strongly and immutably in the exhilaration and promise of a Jewish homeland reborn.”

Koppelman is fiercely loyal to the institutions that shaped him as a youth. He is a major benefactor to Brooklyn College, and his resume lists the years there he spent earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, 1954-1957.

“I was on welfare during the entire Depression,” he said. “That’s why I rewarded Brooklyn College—because of them I got my degree and became a CPA. Now I’m in the securities business.”

“In the securities business” is his understated way of a professional biography that includes founding Eastlake Securities, which was eventually folded into J.P. Morgan, where he is now a vice president.

Following his trip to Iran, Koppelman reviewed the Jewish organizations that have benefited from his largesse—among them ORT, the Anti-Defamation League and the UJA-Federation of New York. He settled on NIF, which focuses on funding programs that promote civil rights and democracy in Israel.

“I decided that was the most obvious,” said Koppelman, adding that his prior donations to the group had “not been consequential.”

New Israel Fund was happy to oblige. And not just for the cash: A past president of American ORT, Koppelman lends credibility to the organization, which has come under assault from right-wingers in recent years as not sufficiently pro-Israel.

“He’s a pillar of the American Jewish community,” said Daniel Sokatch, NIF’s CEO.

The defaced poster in the Times ad features Roni Hazon Weiss, an Orthodox woman who posed for the poster for an NIF-backed group called Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites). The group placed the billboards around the city in defiance of some in the Jerusalem haredi Orthodox community who have systematically defaced images of women.

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, says Koppelman is “a caring, loving, decent Zionist.”

And also a fundraiser’s dream: “He puts his money where his mouth is, without a lot of demands,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader bemoaned the ad as divisive, although he lauded its mission.

“The NIF is to help Israel maintain its democratic values,” he said. “This only gives another excuse to people we don’t like.”

Foxman especially was upset by the story behind the ad. Comparisons with Iran, he said, are “odious.”

Still, he could not fault what motivated Koppelman.

“I know where his heart is,” Foxman said. “I know how deeply he loves Israel.”

$20 million gift to L.A. Federation is its largest ever

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has received its largest gift ever — a $20 million bequest from Geri Brawerman to create a scholarship and fellowship program for needy Jewish college students from Los Angeles. Brawerman is a Westwood resident who, along with her late husband, Richard, has long been a major force in funding educational initiatives.

The Geri and Richard Brawerman Leadership Institute each year will fund 10 undergraduates who show both financial need and leadership potential. The students will receive $10,000 a year toward tuition and expenses at a four-year university. Fellows will participate in summer and midyear retreats focused on community service and Jewish values, and will be paired with mentors throughout the school year.

“The idea of this program is to help deserving young people get a quality education, and to do it with a sense of Jewish values and purpose, with the goal of engaging them in the Jewish community when they graduate,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Federation.

Federation is currently accepting applicants from students entering college in 2012.  Four students will be accepted for the first year as Federation gradually rolls out the program, eventually hoping to handle 40 students at a time.

This is the largest gift ever promised to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and one of only a few donations of this size to federations across the country. It is among Brawerman’s largest legacy gifts, according to her business manager.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has long been an important part of the giving portfolio of Geri and Richard Brawerman. Richard Brawerman, who died in May 2009, was an attorney and a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II.  He has two children from a previous marriage, and he and Geri, a hands-on philanthropist who was raised in Chicago, were married for 24 years.

“If Richard were here, he would be thrilled to know that his legacy now includes a program that builds leadership and ensures the Jewish future by both supporting the educational goals of Jewish high school students and giving them the experiences and skills they’ll draw upon as future stewards of Jewish Los Angeles. It is my dream that the students we empower today will lead the community tomorrow,” Brawerman said.

The bulk of the funds are an endowment bequest, payable when Brawerman, who would not disclose her age, dies. But she has put seed money into the Leadership Institute to kick off the program while she can still be involved.

The Brawermans had previously funded a nursing institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and are the named founders at the elementary school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s west campus, as well as at the elementary school that opened this fall at the temple’s historic Wilshire Boulevard building. They created an ambulatory care center at City of Hope and have been significant supporters of the Walt Disney Concert Hall at the Los Angeles Music Center, Jewish Free Loan Association and the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

Federation leaders worked with Brawerman for a year to find the intersection of her passions and Federation’s needs, Sanderson said.

“We look to collaborate with our donors and with our agencies,” Sanderson said. “Would we have gone in this direction now, without Geri’s gift? Probably not. Do we want to be going in this direction? Absolutely. This was a collaborative idea based on Federation’s priorities and our donor’s desire.”

Andrew Cushnir, chief program officer at The Federation, notes that the program fits into Federation’s priority areas — caring for Jews in need and ensuring the Jewish future. Federation has already hired a part-time administrator for the program.

A curriculum has not yet been set for the summer and winter seminars, but it will focus on Jewish values. Students are expected to participate in Birthright Israel trips and will also engage in service-learning opportunities in the United States during winter break. The program will also include a summer institute in Israel.

During the school year, students will be paired with local mentors who can teach them effective leadership and guide them through their Jewish journey. Federation plans to nurture a strong alumni network for the Brawerman Leadership Institute.

The scholarships will be need based, and the not-yet-formed selection committee will determine need on a case-by-case basis.

Cushnir said the scholarship is intended for those truly in need, and he hopes the $10,000 will open up opportunities that otherwise would have been out of reach.

Among students who qualify in terms of need, the Brawerman Leadership Institute will be looking for students who are Jewishly involved and demonstrate potential for leadership.

Applications are due May 11. For more information, visit

Heschel Day School receives $1.1 million in gifts

Two alumni families of Heschel Day School in Northridge gave major gifts to establish endowments at the school in honor of its 40th anniversary, one for $1 million, the other $100,000. Both families wish to remain anonymous.

Heschel’s anniversary celebration has created momentum for charitable giving among the school’s alumni, according to Betty Winn, head of school. “As we move into the next generation of Heschel Day School, they want to ensure that an endowment is in place to continue so that the school will be around for many more years to come,” Winn said.  “We just want to impart our appreciation of these families who stepped up to support” Heschel.

Heschel Day School has an enrollment of 405 students, from kindergarten to eighth grade.

The endowment funds will be invested in Jewish foundations to provide a “stable source of income,” said Miriam Prum Hess, director of the Center for Excellence in Day School Education at BJE. Use of the income from the $1 million gift is unrestricted, so the school’s board of directors will decide how it can be used. Income from the $100,000 gift has a specific purpose: to fund professional development for Heschel faculty.

In addition, the Generations L.A. Legacy and Endowment Program will match 25 cents on each dollar of the $1.1 million Heschel raised, giving the school an additional $52,000 over three years to be allocated for students’ financial aid.

The Generations match was developed through a collaboration between the BJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the AVI CHAI Foundation. The matching program will support seven day schools, including Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom, Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, Sinai Akiba, Cheder Menachem and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.

Of note: One of the founders of Heschel, Mark Lainer, also helped provide a lead grant for the Generations matching program through the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund, named for his deceased parents.

Robin Wallach, Heschel’s director of advancement, welcomed the establishment of the endowments. “To be able to know that you have sustainability over the future is a very important thing,” Wallach said, “especially in touch economic times.”

Marseille befriending Jerusalem with gift of fountain

The city of Marseille, France, has given a bronze fountain to the city of Jerusalem as a show of friendship.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Tuesday thanked Marseille Mayor Jean Claude Gaudin for his gift of the “Fontaine Longchamp,” which stands more than 11 feet high. The fountain, which is on its way to Israel, is an exact replica of the famous fountain on Marseille’s Boulevard Longchamp.

Barkat met with Gaudin in the Jerusalem City Council chamber. A delegation of businessmen and community leaders from Marseille accompanied Gaudin on his visit to Israel.

“Our gift, which represents comradeship, peace and coexistence, is a symbol of our close ties with the city of Jerusalem, which we are interested in deepening even further,” Gaudin said in the chamber.

Shop local!

Communities across the country are waving the Buy Local flag in support of their homegrown entrepreneurs. Patronizing independent businesses in your neighborhood has a host of benefits: It creates jobs and keeps money circulating in your city, it reduces the environmental impact, and it promotes stronger community ties. So join the movement and check out these one-of-a-kind local treasures you won’t find at the big-box stores. 

Local massage therapists turned candle connoisseurs Erin Lichtman and Sara Schultz, founders of Agni Candle Company, create distinctive hand-poured candle creations like the Vintage Moroccan Tea Sippers ($50). These reusable green glass and silver designed sippers are filled with natural soy wax scented with peppermint, rosemary, lemon and lime essential oils.

Regina Allen creates the perfect combination of retro and contemporary styling with the Star of David Necklace ($130) and Hamsa Earrings ($49), handmade of sterling silver and new Miyuki and vintage glass beads available on her Etsy site, or contact her directly for personalized orders. For more information about the artist, visit ” title=”” target=”_blank”> and

Jerusalem Stone Blessing for a New Business (OR Home) ($360) is the perfect gift for a budding entrepreneur. Made of stone quarried from the Holy City, this 14-inch square stone blessing can be hung or placed on an easel. Personalization available (costs may vary).

19740 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 704-7100.

The Impressionist Hamsa ($20-$300), a digital mixed media print by Calabasas-based Jewish artist Jon Dabach, is part of a series interpreting the ancient Jewish symbol for protection in a variety of ways. Choose one to adorn your living room wall. Available in sizes ranging from 5 inches by 7 inches to 30 inches by 40 inches.

Los Angeles-based Me! Bath, founded by husband-and-wife team Lisa and Benjamin Nissanoff, has created the perfect treat: ice cream-scented bath bombs containing a blend of oils, purifying minerals and Epsom salt. Enjoy a Triple Scoop Gift Bag ($27) with an array of scrumptious choices, including Café con Leche, Choco-holic, Birthday Cake, Mint Mojito, Pumpkin Pie and Land of Milk and Honey. Ice cream that’s good for your body. Hooray!

More Jewish teens attacked in Paris, Adelson gives $30 million to Birthright

Jewish Teens Beaten in Paris Attack

Three Jewish teenagers were attacked in the same Paris district where another Jewish teen was beaten severely in June.

The victims, who were wearing kippot, were temporarily hospitalized for minor injuries on Saturday in what some officials are describing as another anti-Semitic attack in the 19th District.

Badly bruised and with some fractures, the three were shocked and worried about their safety, said Raphael Haddad, president of the French Jewish Student Union, who spoke to the victims on Sunday.

“Their attackers were also from the neighborhood,” said Haddad in a telephone interview, “so they are worried about what will happen if they see them again.”

The three reported the incident to Paris police on Saturday after going to the hospital. The attack took place at about 6:30 p.m. in the low-income, heavily Jewish and Muslim northeastern Paris neighborhood, where 17-year-old Rudy Haddad was beaten on June 21 by a group of young people.

Two of Haddad’s assailants were charged with “attempted murder and group violence aggravated by their anti-Semitic character.”

Richard Prasquier, president of the Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, told Jewish Radio RCJ on Sunday that he was “certain” the three were targeted because they were identified as Jews.

“There isn’t a shadow of a doubt” concerning the “anti-Semitic character” of the crime, said Prasquier. “Let it be made clear — the boys who were walking by had a kippah.”

A Paris police spokeswoman said an investigation was launched to determine whether the incident was anti-Semitic, adding that the attackers reportedly did not speak to their victims.

The victims’ names were not made public by the French press, but the Jerusalem Post identified them as Bnei Akiva youth group counselors Kevin Bitan and David Buaziz, both 18, and Dan Nebet, 17.

Foundation to Give Birthright $30 Million

The Adelson Family Foundation has pledged another $30 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who is chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, have now contributed nearly $100 million in gifts over the past two years to the foundation that supplies private funds to Birthright.

The latest pledge consists of a $20 million contribution for 2009 and $10 million for 2010, said Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Foundation, in a news release Tuesday announcing the gift.

Adelson said in the release that Birthright Israel “has proven to be the best vehicle we have to strengthen the Jewish community and our people’s connection with the State of Israel. We are honored to have helped Birthright Israel establish a track record of effectiveness on an unprecedented scale, and we look forward to its continued success.”

He called the gift a challenge to other philanthropists to step up during difficult financial times.

Adelson in September 2007 was ranked third on the Forbes magazine list of wealthiest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $28 billion.

Bronfman Prize Seeks Nominations

The Charles Bronfman Prize is seeking nominees for 2009. The prize, which includes a $100,000 award, celebrates the accomplishments of individuals, 50 years old or younger, whose Jewish values have infused their efforts to better the world.

The prize, named for the Birthright Israel co-founder, was launched in 2002 by his children, Stephen Bronfman and Ellen Bronfman Hauptman. Past Bronfman Prize winners include Jay Feinberg, founder of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, and Israeli environmentalist Dr. Alon Tal.

Deadline for nominations is Nov. 30.

For nomination forms or more information, visit

— Staff Report

Entire Quebec Town Invited to Wedding

Jewish couple Hana Sellem and Moshe Barouk, invited hundreds of residents of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts to their wedding Tuesday as a gesture of good will after a series of anti-Semitic attacks in the town this summer.

Sellem, 26, an immigrant from France who follows Lubavitch-Chabad teachings, is vice principal of a Jewish teacher’s college in the town.

The couple printed wedding guides in French and English explaining the ceremony. About 300 residents attended.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Man, oh man! What a difference 10 years make

A woman walks into a medical office and asks the doctor, “Can you make me a man?” The doctor replies, “Well, there’s two ways we can go about doing this: the cheap way or the expensive way.”

“What’s the cheap way?” the woman asks.

“Surgery,” the doctor responds.

“Then what’s the expensive way?” she asks.

The doctor says, “a bar mitzvah.”

I wish I had added that joke to my bar mitzvah speech, but I didn’t think of it until 10 years later. Also, I don’t think it would’ve been well-received by my religious relatives.

Although its been almost a full 10 years, I still remember my bar mitzvah quite well: June 7, 1997, Parshat Bamidbar.

I remember the guests that gave up a precious Saturday morning, the flowers my mother demanded be placed on the bimah to effeminately illustrate my masculine blossoming and the Kiddush luncheon that rewarded the congregation for staying for the entirety of the service. But most of all, as I stood on the bimah while the crowd chanted “Mazel tov” and rocketed candy mercilessly toward my face, I remember thinking: “Am I really a man now? Just like that?”

I know now the bar mitzvah ceremony didn’t instantly make me a man, but if I am one today, after 10 years, its because of the lessons I learned throughout the entire experience.

Gift of Patience

After 10 years, I can only hope that I’m as mature as the $1,800 worth of savings bonds I received as gifts. At the time, I hated those guests who decided I wasn’t ready for their cash. But now, as a recent college graduate just starting out in the real world, I can’t think of any better bar mitzvah gift than that. Thankfully those bonds have taught me the importance of patience and smart spending.

But if I had had my way, I would have spent that money on comic books and baseball cards 10 years ago. However, because I waited, I learned the valuable lesson of accepting the wisdom and advice of others, thus providing me with sufficient funds so I can now go out and buy $1,800 worth of comic books and baseball cards.

Watch It

One of the greatest aspects of becoming a man is being able to understand the theoretical and practical properties of time. I must not have been ready to grasp such an abstract concept prior to reading the Torah, because each of my five uncles presented me with a beautiful wristwatch as my manhood approached.

As a man, I was ready to keep track of my own time. As ridiculous as it may sound, the idea of being responsible for my own time serves some value in accepting the responsibility of manhood. A man is expected to be at certain places at certain times, while always having a greater understanding of what’s around him. My five watches provide me with this, while at the same time providing me with five fewer excuses for being late anywhere.

Don’t Point Fingers

One of the most difficult notions of becoming a man is understanding the consequences of our actions and knowing our own power. Several days before my bar mitzvah, I was going through my usual “annoy my sisters routine” when one of them rightfully stuck out her middle finger at me.

In disgust, I grabbed it as evidence to show my father that his daughter wasn’t as angelic as she appeared. Three hours and one emergency room visit later, doctors laughed as my sister had become the only girl to be injured in such a manner. Throughout the ceremony and the youth-group induction, she wore a splint on her middle finger, not only as a health precaution but also as a reminder to me that for every path we choose there are consequences and repercussions.

I learned this the easy way. My sister, unfortunately, learned it the hard way.

Thanks for Nothing

While there were many challenges I faced throughout the bar mitzvah process, the hardest by far in my recollection was writing the hundreds of thank you notes by myself. “Men don’t say thank you” was one of my best arguments for trying to get out of the arduous task, but it was hopeless.

My mother owned me. The cards had to be taken care of, and there was only one man for the job. This perhaps was one of the greatest lessons I learned that I still rely on today. Even after the party’s over, there’s work to be done, and in order to achieve success, every task must have appropriate follow through — in addition to monogrammed stationery.

Question Revisited

I had studied for nine months, sacrificed an hour each week and then thanked a bunch a people I didn’t know. And then in a single day I was “a man.” But after 10 years of ignoring this question, I ask myself again: “Am I really a man now?”

I’m certainly a different person, with a lot more hair (in fact, the only thing I shaved for my bar mitzvah was seconds off my adrenaline-rushed speech). But aside from the physical difference, the mental transformation wasn’t as easy as I had originally thought.

I realize now that the bar mitzvah really meant I was finally ready to become a man.

At my bar mitzvah, I became a man to prove it to my parents. At my college graduation, I became a man to prove it to my peers. And after 10 years, I struggle to become a better man to prove it to myself.

I’ll let you know how I turn out in another 10 years.

Jay Firestone will read from the Torah on May 19, 9 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Kiddush luncheon to follow.

Getting Out Before Katrina Still Painful

It’s hard for Gideon Daneshrad to imagine himself on the receiving end of tzedakah (charitable giving). In the 30 years since he arrived from Iran to study computer science at North Louisiana University in Monroe, Daneshrad, 56, has built himself a full life — with four children, a lakefront home and New Orleans’ only kosher restaurant.

“Just close your eyes and imagine that you wake up in the morning and you are stripped of your identity,” Daneshrad says. “You are nobody. You are nothing. You have no money coming in. You don’t have clothes. You don’t have food. And all the people you knew are scattered around the world.”

Daneshrad and his family have been in Los Angeles for more than a week, and he still finds himself imagining this is all a nightmare.

“Every night I go to bed and think I’ll wake up and everything will be fine,” he says. “It just hurts so much.”

The Daneshrads left New Orleans early Sunday morning on Aug. 28, just before Hurricane Katrina came whipping through. They threw a few things in an overnight bag, expecting to be home in a day or two. Daneshrad didn’t take more cash than he happened to have on hand, put his three cockatoos up on a table to keep them dry, filled up his tank and loaded his family in the car.

Their lakefront house — recently remodeled with mahogany floors throughout and six blocks from the Lake Pontchartrain levee break — disappeared under 18 feet of water. Their restaurant, Creole Kosher Kitchen — the only kosher establishment in the French Quarter — is most likely a murky mess of rotting meat and shorted appliances.

The shul where Gideon was gabbai, Beth Israel, is under water, along with eight Torah scrolls. Their small, close-knit Orthodox community is dispersed.

It may be months before the family will be allowed to go back to survey the damage and collect anything salvageable — jewelry, photos that may have survived on the second floor, maybe the teddy bear their daughter keeps asking for.

“I am the dad,” Daneshrad says. “All of a sudden, the person who makes everything OK is powerless. I can’t do anything.”

He sleeps on the floor of his sister’s three-bedroom home in Reseda, when he can sleep at all. His wife, Rut, doesn’t talk much about what happened during an interview; she just sits quietly wiping away tears.

Their girls, ages 5 and 8, wake up with nightmares. They want to go home, and they don’t understand why their mother didn’t pack their stuff.

The Daneshrads opened the Creole Kosher Kitchen on Chartres Street near the convention center in November 2000. This year was the first the restaurant, which Zagat rated as “excellent,” turned a profit.

The restaurant was “a place for Jews who are suffering in New Orleans with all the nonkosher pork and shrimp and crawfish and lobster and crab — so they could get a little Creole taste,” Daneshrad says.

Daneshrad was obviously not among the thousand of subsistence poor in New Orleans; he had operated successful gift shops in the French Quarter before starting his restaurant. He knew he had money in the bank when he left town. But he also had business loans with the same bank — for a restaurant that no longer exists. And he had no flood insurance.

What he has left financially, if anything, will be worked out over the next months. And he hasn’t a clue what happened to the cockatoos.

When the family arrived in Los Angeles, Daneshrad’s youngest sister, who has three children and runs a day care out of her home, took in Daneshrad, his wife and his two daughters. The Daneshrads’ oldest son is at Brooklyn College, and their 15-year-old boy had already been attending the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Dallas.

The girls go to classes at Emek Hebrew Academy/Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks. Aside from covering tuition, the parent body, lay leadership and administration of the school has provided uniforms and shoes for the girls, cash and transportation, while coordinating with Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Center for help with long-term needs, such as jobs and a place to live.

“We may have lost all our belongings, but we didn’t lose what belongs to us, which is Judaism,” says a grateful Daneshrad.

His watch is still set on New Orleans time, but it would be hard to go back. He thinks that maybe the time is right to bring hand-rolled Andouille sausage, jambalaya and gumbo to Southern California, if he can find investors willing to stand behind a Creole Kosher Kitchen in Los Angeles.

His optimism is somehow still intact: “What keeps us going here, right now, is that God has given human beings the best gift of all — the ability to forget pain and sorrow.”


Happy Birthday, Me!

In a few weeks I’ll turn 33 and, sadly, I realize I’m long past being anything “for my age.” I’m no longer cute for my age, talented for my age, a good reader for my age. All qualifications and special considerations have long passed. There’s nothing I can get away with now because, “After all, your honor, he’s only 33.”

I should know better by now. I’m mature, experienced, a grown-up.

You’d think that being so mature and grown up, I’d have a healthy attitude toward my birthday and the presents I may receive. You obviously don’t know me well.

So let’s talk about presents.

Turning 33 reminds me that I’m no closer to being married than I was when I was turning 32 (or 22 — or 12, for that matter). In lieu of working on myself and what I’m lacking personally, I’m focusing instead on what I’m lacking materially. It’s a great system.

My father asked me for a list of what I’d like from my family for my birthday this year. Though this isn’t as fun as letting them figure something out, I’ve learned my lesson from past birthdays: Gift-giving is not their forte.

One year, my father gave me a box of 500 very nice, custom-printed, raised-lettered business cards, printed on heavy ivory stock with my name, address and phone number. It would have been a lovely, lovely gift — had I not been 7 years old at the time. I don’t know what he thought I would do with them. (“Yes, please announce me to the queen. And fetch me a snifter of your finest chocolate milk.”) I did give some of them out to kids at school, which actually proved very helpful. Now the children knew where to come to beat me up before school started, in case they wanted to get an early jump on their day.

Most of the remaining cards went into plastic bins or fish bowls, trying to win a free lunch, dance lesson or Hawaiian vacation from a local merchant. None was ever randomly drawn. It wasn’t a total loss though; in fact the cards proved quite prophetic. I still have no job title or work address. Thanks, dad.

My sister wasn’t much better. One year, in a grab bag of other little gifts, she gave me a very nicely wrapped condom.

I’m going to give you, Dear Reader, a moment to let that sink in: Sister … condom. Greek tragedies have been written about less. If Freud were alive today, I believe he would say, “Eewwww!”

It’s customary, of course, to write a thank-you note when receiving such a personal gift, but telling my sister, “Thanks, I’ll think of you when I’m using it,” didn’t seem quite appropriate.

My therapy is ongoing and intensive, thanks for asking.

Of course, there’s a substantial likelihood that, as with most things, I’m overreacting.

I’m not a heartless idiot. I realize that nobody has to give me a gift. I get it: Material things don’t matter. I should be grateful that anybody thinks enough of me to buy me anything at all. It’s a blessing to have a family, to have such tiny problems, and besides, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have a condom or business cards.

Though misguided in their execution, I do try to remember that there had to be a loving intention behind these gifts. They weren’t thoughtless. Maybe my sister wanted me to be protected and safe and to know that she cares about my health and recognizes that I’m not a kid anymore. Maybe my father wanted to connect with me, see a glimpse of the junior businessman who might one day take over the company that he took over from his father. Those business cards, though impractical on one level, were the most practical on another: wallet-sized evidence that I am my father’s son, that I have an identity, his last name and a home.

And my grandmother, whom I love dearly, must have had good intentions when she gave me a Valentine’s gift one year. Blissfully unaware of what people who are not severely medicated actually wear in public, she gave me a T-shirt she had had custom-made at the mall. Decorated with red felt hearts ironed on all over, and in the middle, big felt block letters spelled, “I Love Keith!” Even if I had any self-love, I don’t think I’d announce it like this.

She tried to convince me that people would see it and think, “There’s a boy whose grandmother loves him.” I took a random survey of imaginary people and the overwhelming response actually was, “There’s a boy who lost a bet. Let’s go to the address on this business card and beat him up.”

J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

Gifts for Grads That Will Make the Grade

It’s hard to find that perfect gift for the high school or college graduate — something personal and thoughtful but also useful. It’s even harder for distant relatives and friends of the graduate.

Cash and gift certificates can be a tad too impersonal (albeit useful), but you don’t want to break the bank. Whether buying for a high school or college grad, here’s a list of unisex gifts under $50 sure to make the grads give caps off to you:

Quad Camera

Accoutrements’ Quad Camera takes four pictures per click, creating four segment images that capture motion. The prints from this camera are great for creating kitschy wall art for apartments or dorms. This plastic no-flash camera uses standard 35-mm film. You can find this cute little camera at ZGallerie stores. ” target=”_blank”> $14.95.

Traveler’s Journal

This brown traveler’s journal is the perfect size to tote on graduation trips and record adventures and memories along the way. It lies flat so it can be written in easily, and refill sheets can be purchased. ” target=”_blank”> $16.

Tassel Photo Frame

Let the grad keep a reminder of the special day with this photo frame with tassel keeper. The frame has a space for a 4 x 6 photo and a cardholder and enough white space around the photo for friends and relatives to sign. ” target=”_blank”> $19.95.

Crate and Barrel Beach Chair

Grads are ready for a little rest and relaxation after graduation. Heck, they’ve earned it. This Maui Beach Chair lets grads catch some rays and relax comfortably in this comfortable padded chair with foam headrest.

The steel-framed chair adjusts to three positions for comfortable reading and tanning. It comes with an easy-carry shoulder strap so it can be taken anywhere from the back yard to the beach. Available in sky blue, cherry red and citrine yellow. ” target=”_blank”> $29.99.

Touro Teardrop Mono

This minitravel backpack is the ideal backpack for the graduation “I’m off to find myself” trip. This one-strap adjustable pack is dual density, with padded foam to keep out moisture from summer showers. With a built-in pocket and U-shaped front, it comes seven of colors — from candy pink to sky blue. ” target=”_blank”> $49.95.



Inch by Inch, Row by Row!

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, means: “If a woman gives birth,” but it can also mean “plant.” And so, being the beginning of spring, that is exactly what it is time to do!

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah – One Mitzvah Creates Another

It’s time to plant your mitzvah garden. Create a patch in your garden at home or at school and designate it The Mitzvah Garden. Plant flower seeds or bulbs, and then water and care for them. In about eight weeks, when your flowers have bloomed, clip them and take them as gifts to a hospital or senior center. What a beautiful spring gift.

A Bit of Earth Day

Earth Day is April 22. For ideas of what you can do to celebrate this day, visit Here are just two of the events:

Earth Day on the Promenade, Third Street Promenade,

April 16, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

WorldFest, Woodley Park, Van Nuys, April 17, 10 a.m-6:30 p.m. $5 (adults), free (kids 12 and younger).

Solve this puzzle to see what you will find there:

1. The largest mammal: (__) __ __ __ __

2. Has two wheels: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

3. Forest fire bear: __ __ __ __ __ (__)

4. Sun energy: (__) __ __ __ __

5. Makes magic: __ __ __ __ (__) __ __ __

6. Move with music: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

7. They have eight legs: __ __ (__) __ __ __ __

Figure out what the word are. Then take the letters in the boxes and put them in order here:

__ A __ K __ __ __ I E __ T __ S T

Unscramble the words below for some of the cool things you can do

1. You can POTAD a TTIKEN

2. Help save an AGUTNORAN

3. Eat IOPETHINA food at the international food court.


Memo to Oscar: Just Say ‘No’ to Swag


The contrast was just too much. On one channel, I watched as tens of thousands of people struggled to survive the devastating impact of the tsunami that left more than 250,000 dead and countless others injured and homeless, and on another channel, presenters at last month’s Golden Globe Awards leaving the ceremonies with their “travel-themed” gift baskets worth $37,890 each.

The Golden Globes took place exactly three weeks after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, creating the largest natural disaster in our lifetime. The gifts, which were contained in a custom wicker ottoman, included:

• An Australian wine adventure package with first-class Qantas airfare and accommodations at Rosemount Estate, where guests will create their own wine (value $16,000).

• A sitting with portrait photographer Judy Host ($5,000).

• Ehrlooms diamond pendant ($2,700).

• Sports Club L.A. six-month bicoastal membership ($2,250)

• Brite Smile teeth whitening ($1,100).

• Missoni shawl ($900).

• Chopard watch ($865)

• Janet Lee luxury pet carrier ($400).

This tradition continued at this year’s Grammys, where each presenter and performer received a $35,000 basket.

Gift baskets have become a cottage industry. They are a part of every major Hollywood event. I have never understood this concept. These people are already blessed with so much. They are pampered and catered to at every turn. Why do they need these extravagant presents? Why do people who need it the least receive the most?

The companies that donate the goodies for the baskets do so because they see it as a great advertisement and endorsement for their products.

Where will it stop?

In 2002, the Academy Awards baskets were worth $20,000 — each. In 2004, they were estimated at $100,000 each and contained more than 50 items, including a seven-day cruise to the Mediterranean or Caribbean and a 43-inch, high-definition Samsung TV, coupled with one year of Voom HD satellite service. The baskets were given to approximately 100 presenters, performers and other select individuals.

The perks actually begin as soon as the Oscar nominations are announced. For example, Estee Lauder gave each of this year’s 20 nominees in the acting categories a Michael Kors leather bag filled with such goodies as: Manolo Blahnik sandals, a personalized Loro Piana cashmere blanket, Baccarat crystal and La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot champagne. They were also invited to a private spa in the penthouse of the Regent Beverly Wilshire (value $15,000).

Victoria’s Secret gifted the five best-actress nominees with a pair of black lace panties that have a little something extra — a removable 7.2-carat diamond and pink sapphire brooch. The lingerie comes in a pink leather clutch, with another sapphire-and-diamond piece, a detachable four-leaf clover ($15,000).

The full contents of this year’s Academy Awards basket is being kept under wraps until this Sunday’s show. However, a few gifts have been revealed: a red leather case filled with Shu Uemura cosmetics, including mink eyelashes; and Kay Unger cashmere pajamas. It’s amazing to realize that just one basket could probably pay for a child’s four-year college education.

I would love to see one of the award shows step forward and set a precedent by discontinuing the gift basket extravaganza and instead, have the various companies honor the presenters by making monetary donations to their favorite charitable causes.

Because of the magnitude of the tsunami disaster, it would have been most appropriate to not distribute any baskets at the Golden Globes, Grammys or Oscars this year. However, because these groups decided to proceed, it would have great meaning if each recipient would make a matching monetary donation equivalent to the value of their basket to tsunami relief or another charity of their choice.

Another option would be for them to sign the basket, and then put it up for online auction, with the proceeds going to tsunami relief or another favorite charity. It would be wonderful to see these ideas become an ongoing tradition at all award shows, whenever gift baskets are distributed. (Kudos to the presenters at the Critics’ Choice Awards for auctioning their baskets to aid tsunami charities.)

Celebrities have tremendous influence in our culture. Turning gift baskets into charitable contributions is an opportunity to be a role model and teach everyone, especially our children, about gratitude and the importance of helping others.

One organization is already a shining example of these lessons: Clothes Off Our Back. which was conceived by a group of actors, including “Malcolm in the Middle” star Jane Kaczmarek; her husband, Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing”; and his co-star, Janel Moloney. The project encourages celebrities to donate the gowns, tuxedos and accessories that they wear at award shows to an online auction ( They have given $350,000 to various children’s charities in the past three years.

They raised $130,000 following the Golden Globes in support of the UNICEF Tsunami Fund. The highest bid was $31,000 for “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher’s gown. Their Grammy auction, which is taking place online until March 1, includes dresses donated by such celebrities as Beyonce.

They will continue their fundraising efforts with the Oscars. Kaczmarek described the group’s purpose so eloquently: “The idea behind the auction is all about what you can do to give back.”

It is a sentiment all of us can take to heart, especially at this time. As Maurice Sendak once said, “There must be more to life than having everything.”

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.


Gifts Galore From Bubbe to Baby

When it’s time to celebrate Chanukah, nobody should be left out of the fun. We’ve scoured the holiday gift scene to find the perfect presents for Mom, Dad and the whole family. Count on any of these “candles” to light up the face of someone you love during this year’s Festival of Lights.

Candle No. 1.

Who says a baby is too young to light a menorah? As they say, practice makes perfect. So start with the huggable, colorful “My First Plush Menorah” ($13.95, The best part: It comes with a special pouch holding nine candles that fit right into the menorah’s holders.

Candle No. 2.

Any young child would want to cuddle with the bright blue Mazel teddy bear by Russ Berrie & Co. ($12.99, But if you’re having trouble peeling a kid away from the computer, slip in the CD-ROM, “Who Stole Hanukkah?” ($19.95, The interactive mystery game teaches the story of the Maccabees in five languages.

Candle No. 3.

When it comes to teenagers away at college, first thing’s first: send a menorah. A classic Chanukiah will do the job ($24.95, Then, it’s about what a teenage girl wants. A trendy T-shirt makes a statement. The “Famous Challah Bread” tee takes its cue from rap and hip-hop, sporting the words “Challah Bread” on the front and “Challah Back” on the back — as in, when someone gives a shout, you “challah” right back. The saucy “Kabballywood Tee” pokes fun at Hollywood stars like Madonna who can’t get enough of kabbalah. ($30-$40,

For an aspiring superhero teenage boy, pick up a copy of the “Jewish Super Hero Corps Comic Book” featuring Menorah Man and Dreidel Maidel ($3.95, Throw in some classic, kosher Hebrew Bazooka Gum, which has comics inside its wrappers ($10.95 for 100 pieces, Another Jewish superhero, “The Hebrew Hammer,” saves Chanukah, this year out on DVD. ($16.99,

Candle No. 4.

If Mom has all the menorahs she needs, give her an elegant dreidel she can display. Waterford makes a beautiful, crystal dreidel etched with Hebrew letters ($49, If you want to splurge, buy a handcrafted, porcelain, Lladró dreidel. The detail makes these pieces unique. ($105-$130,

Candle No. 5.

Nudge Dad into the miracle mood with music. The group, Safam, has a lively “Chanukah Collection” and “Passover Collection” two-CD set ($25, Original and upbeat tunes like “Eight Little Candles,” “Maoz Tsur” and “Judah Maccabee” will get Dad — and the whole family — hopping. You can listen to some songs on the Web site before you buy, but you won’t go wrong with this one.

Candle No. 6.

Grandparents will love a gift they can share with their grandchildren. Those who speak a bissel of Yiddish are sure to get nachas from reading their grandchildren Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” — in Yiddish ($15, But if the language of the Old World prompts an “oy vey,” go with a modern classic like “A Blue’s Clues Chanukah” by Jessica Lissy for preschoolers ($11.80, or “Festival of Lights: The Story of Hanukkah” by Maida Silverman, for children 4-8 years old ($5.99,

Candle No. 7.

There’s always the family friend or baby sitter who deserves some love. In this case, your best bet is an edible treat. For a cookie “monster,” get some chocolate-covered Oreo cookies topped with Chanukah decorations. Nine cookies come in a gold box, tied with a blue ribbon ($16.99, Make a chocolate lover’s day with See’s Candies’ Star-of-David box. It’s filled with kosher goodies like milk chocolate coins, blue-and-white sugar sticks and lollipops that will satisfy any sweet tooth ($8,

Candle No. 8.

Worried your pet will feel left out? Chanukah’s no time for ordinary ol’ bones. Throw a dog the blue and yellow “Squeaky Dreidel Dog Toy” ($8, and a give your cat some silver and blue “Chanukah Mice” ($7.99,

Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher

Since, as the Torah says, "Confession is good for the soul," let’s begin with a confession. I am a bar mitzvah teacher. My avocation — my hobby — is the navigation of Jewish girls and boys through the tangled web of the bar mitzvah ceremony.

It is a job that demands a great deal of patience with parents as well as kids. Everything depends on: a) the cranial size of the student, and b) the size of the bribes offered by the parents to the kid.

In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) that results in a separate phone line for Mark or Miriam; or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.

Parent 1: "OK, we’ve signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He’s in a great mood — we just gave him some money."

Parent 2: "Come over now. He’s had 50 milligrams of Ritalin. Let’s get started."

Well, Teach stumbles over. Sitting around the kitchen table, I explain to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the bar mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain’t easy and sooner or later you’re gonna hate me."

Yeah, yeah, they understand — "Let’s Go!" they shout.

Teaching 12-year-olds to chant haftarah is like teaching dolphins to sing "Ah! Che La Morte Ognora" from "Il Trovatore." Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.

Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him — far away"). Let’s call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben’s file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.

Me: "Well, it’s time for Ben to begin his bar mitzvah training." (To myself: From what I can tell of Ben’s mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was 6.)

Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I’m not sure Ben wants to be a bar mitzvah." (To herself: My son may not have time for this bar mitzvah stuff. He’s probably the Messiah himself and he’s gonna be busy fixing the world.)

Me: "Well, it’s kinda hard for an 11-year-old to make decisions like this. Why don’t you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes." (To myself: Lucky he couldn’t express himself at birth — he’d have nixed his own bris. So messy.)

Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy — determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe — that yes, she’d relieve him of this bar mitzvah decision.

A bar or bas mitzvah is a real challenge for a 13-year-old: the singing of the haftarah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then, finally, the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It’s not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop — the tune — is different from the haftarah.

The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn’t mastered the haftarah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or, the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated rabbinical commentary. A really scholarly bar mitzvah exegesis can equal a doctoral thesis.

But to deal with kids you need leverage. Something with which to reward, something to punish. But we teachers — unless backed up by parents — have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot — those glittering gifts; a Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what’s to bribe with?

Ah, the times they are a’changing. When I was a bar mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not someone with ADD, but a dummy! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon.

Today he’d be in court. The bar mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his tzitzit off.

The ideal bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah at all, but a bat mitzvah. Girls are easier. Give me a plain 12-year-old female with braces who has no talent for band, chess, basketball or chorus. Undistracted by an admiring world, she’ll shine on the bimah and you’ll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the Kiddush line while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a bar mitzvah teacher.

Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears in several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.

Psychic Channels Her Gift Into Novel

"Miriam the Medium" by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, $23).

I don’t know how many Jewish psychics there are in Great Neck, N.Y., but Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is easy to spot in the lunchtime crowd at Bruce’s, a restaurant and bakery in the heart of the Long Island town.

On a bright day last week, Shapiro, who has just written a first novel about a Jewish psychic in Great Neck, "Miriam the Medium," is carrying a colorful parasol. She’s dressed in a suit of flowing blue silk, with a pink top, and a tie-dyed scarf that pulls together the colors and adds purple; her jewelry is in the same color scheme. As much as her clothing, her very clear and pale aqua blue eyes stand out.

Shapiro has lived in Great Neck for the past 27 years, but it is only recently, with the publication of this novel, that her psychic powers are becoming widely known locally. A couple of articles have appeared in a Great Neck newspaper, and she penned a "My Turn" column in Newsweek about the psychic gift she inherited from her Russian-born grandmother, who called herself a healer. And, at her synagogue, the Reform congregation Temple Beth El, she recently "came out" to her fellow congregants and rabbi.

At the back of Bruce’s, where a significant scene in the novel takes place, a framed cover of the book jacket is hanging along with the page that mentions the popular eatery. We meet the eponymous Bruce.

A woman approaches the table and introduces herself and clearly wants to ask Shapiro’s opinion on something that doesn’t seem to have to do with the Danish she is eating, and Shapiro reminds the woman that she doesn’t do impromptu readings. This scene occurs again and again for Shapiro, as she explains, whether she’s at a party or at the supermarket and, even when she’s speaking casually, people can attach purpose to her words.

Shapiro is a phone psychic. She used to run ads for her services, but now her business is word of mouth or she’s recommended by therapists. In fact, she has never met most of the people she works with, as she looks ahead — at their urging — at the intimate details of their lives.

She explains that when she would do readings in person, she was always having visions.

"I was breaking for accidents that would happen the next day," she said. "I was losing things."

In working over the phone, she finds that she can "channel" her gift.

"Otherwise my life was distressing with the gift," she said. "It wasn’t a gift to me when I didn’t know how to control it."

Her self-description mirrors her character, Miriam’s, lament. She writes,

"For most of my life, I’d walked around like a big antenna, picking up private hopes and future secrets from passersby, indiscriminately. I suffered from sensory overload."

Shapiro seems to have much in common with Miriam, but the author denies that the novel is autobiographical. She explains that although the setting might be real, the plot is entirely fictional.

"In order for my imagination to run, I need concrete and specific things I know," she said.

So not only is the main character a telephone psychic, but her husband is a handsome pharmacist, just like her own.

The fictional Miriam has always kept her career — helping others in their romantic, business and other pursuits — secretive in the Great Neck community. Her husband, who is having financial problems at his pharmacy, is not interested in her advice and their teenage daughter is embarrassed about her mother’s occupation, and unmindful of her mother’s intuitions about her new boyfriend. Miriam asks, "I could help strangers put their lives together, but how could I keep mine from falling apart?"

Her beloved dead grandmother — who taught her to use her gift for the general good, not for her own gain — rejoins her at moments, even in a bagel store, where Miriam is moved to add a braided challah roll to her order: "Even though she had come only for a moment, she was to my mood what yeast is to dough."

The novel is peppered with references to Great Neck, along with Yiddish and Yiddishkayt. Although she now speaks only a little Yiddish, she has a deep feeling for it, as it was her first language. Shapiro has written a first novel that’s humorous, and also takes on themes of forgiveness and self-understanding in a thoughtful way.

I wonder if Shapiro will know my questions before I ask them. She says that she doesn’t channel her writing.

"What I love best is storytelling," Shapiro commented, discussing the process of creating a novel.

Often, she would call a friend and spin an episode of her narrative, writing it down as she told it. "I don’t think in a linear way," she says, noting that she kept track of the unfolding story on a large roll of freezer paper.

The author, who grew up in Rockaway, N.Y., said she first showed signs of her psychic power when she was a young girl. At age 4, she told her father that one of the customers in his grocery store was going to die. Her father responded by saying impossible, that the man was healthy as two horses. Four days later, the man died of a heart attack.

When she was around 9, she began to be asked to leave friends’ homes when she would make comments about things like impending divorces.

"It wasn’t that I was trying," she said. "It was as if I had already been told, as though someone had a conversation with me."

Her grandmother was able to look into a woman’s eyes, and tell if she was pregnant. And she could look at the whorls on someone’s fingertips and tell if that person were prone to certain diseases.

Shapiro says that she feels an affinity with biblical figures who had visionary powers, like Joseph, in his interpretation of dreams.

"What people like about me is that I’m the thinking person’s psychic. I’m educated," she said. "I won’t be telling them hokey stuff and curses."

As she begins her work, Shapiro prays.

"I ask to be a channel for miracles for other people," she said, "to please serve them," so that through her, whatever it is that they need to hear to heal their hearts and bodies, they do hear — "something to help them live better."

"Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in front of a mirror, I’ll see someone standing next to me," she said. "It can be someone who belongs to one of my clients."

Before beginning to write the novel, which took seven years, Shapiro, the mother of two, studied poetry writing in a Great Neck adult education program. She found that her poems kept getting longer and longer, and that she "has a need to write more."

About 30 years ago, a famous clairvoyant told her that she would publish a story with Simon & Schuster. When she heard that the publisher was looking at the novel, she says that she knew that they would buy it.

"I think it’s so great to be putting out a novel at age 57. It’s such a hopeful thing, that life can always hold out the most wonderful surprises."

Now Shapiro divides her time between writing and working with her telephone clients, and has almost completed a sequel. She said, "I have a lot more Miriam in me."

Do Party Invites Right

Invitations? Eliminate the possible problems way ahead of time. Have you asked your parents and your in-laws to give you a list? When you do, give them a number. When you ask for a list of 30 from each side, it is so much better than receiving 50 from one set of parents and 100 from the other. Add to that total another 30 of your friends and maybe 30 from your child. So 30 from each side turns out to be 120 — or more depending on who’s doing the counting.

What other problems, you ask? Remember when someone mistakenly forgot to include Aunt Saydie? Remember how one side of the family did not speak to the other side for a long time? While that may sound like a good thing, it really isn’t.

After you make the master list of 30 from each side plus your 30, it is a very good idea to give each set of grandparents a master list to proofread for errors. The errors being, of course, that you are inviting or not inviting someone that may cause a big problem. Let’s have no surprises here. It is amazing how someone may remember, "Look, we forgot so-and-so."

While so-and-so might not have minded, there could also have been another world war in your family if you don’t invite him/her. Purposefully, we do not include the child’s list to the grandparent proofing. We do not need a grandma saying "I never liked that boy!" There is no discussion involving the child’s friends.

Although you will not mail invitations for six to eight weeks, it’s good to begin looking long before that time. At least six month in advance is good to begin your search. With all the choices available, it’s not easy to pick invitations. It’s good to have a notebook, journal or an index card box with everyone’s name and address on a separate card. When the invitations go out, each name is checked. When the response arrives, it is so noted. Also note when a gift arrives and when the thank-you note is sent.

The index-card box is one of the most important items in your home and is referred to each time an affair is coming up — as well as when you need a gift for that person’s party.

Must you have a very formal invite? Will it need the extra color in the envelope? Many forget the reason for your affair. First of all, it’s not your affair. What will be suitable for your almost 13-year-old? Will he or she have a say in this selection? And will it be his or her favorite color?

It was one thing when you chose that adorable little "It’s a Girl" announcement in azalea pink, and it’s quite another for your little girl — almost grown up — to choose her invitation in that hot orange/spring green combination. While the tablecloths and place cards will probably be white, the napkins and accessories will follow through in the orange and green.

You will need a flower arrangement for the table that houses the place cards and another [smaller] arrangement for the ladies room to place next to the basket containing tissues, some pretty guest soaps, perfume and hand lotion.

Imagine the trim on the cake icing matching those two beautiful colors. Imagine her joy at being able to make the decision. The good news is that you will not have to wear a matching dress in those colors. They are just her colors.

Remember you do not have to like it. It is just amazing that, together, you two found something she loves. And your daughter will remember this affair — forever. We can only hope and pray the orange-and-green flowers in the lady’s room do not clash with the chartreuse wall tile!

Eight Crazy Lights

A kosher menorah can be fashioned out of any material, so why
not get creative? During the Festival of Lights we light the Chanukah menorah —
a modern-day symbol of the candelabra used in the Temple, also known as a chanukiah
— to commemorate the miracle of the oil and to celebrate the victory of the Macabbees.
In the tradition of Pirsum Ha’ness, broadcasting the miracle of Chanukah, why
not place a menorah that speaks a little bit about you on your windowsill?

With these creative pieces you won’t sacrifice Jewish
ritual. The eight candleholders are equidistant and aligned, making them kosher
for lighting. So buy yourself some dripless candles, and instead of lighting
the traditional eight-branch, kindle one of these proudly from left to right
each and every Chanukah night!

1. A menorah made for the solider wanna-be. Show your
solidarity with the Israeli army and light this Israel Defense Forces menorah,
complete with tanks, helicopters and jets.

$50. “> .

3. Now if you find yourself away for Chanukah, you don’t
have to take one of those disposable menorahs that might get dented in your
suitcase. Resembling a treasure chest, this solid pewter miniature menorah
travels like a miracle.

$60. “> .

5. Even the babes can light the menorah (under adult
supervision, of course). The diorama-like menorah sets a scene of a Chanukah
party with Disney characters Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Donald and Pluto striking
up the band.

$84.95. “> .

7. The da Vinci among you will appreciate this painter’s
palette-shaped menorah. Crafted in ceramic and hand-painted, this beautiful
piece boasts a dreidel as a shamash.

$35.95. “> .

A Journey to Home

I was born to Protestant parents. By age 7, I was constantly questioning: Why are we here? Who is God? What happens to us after we die?

I think I was 10 years old when I realized that Christianity wasn’t for me.

When I was 15, I fell in lust with the rock band Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer, Adam Duritz, and subsequently fell in love with Judaism.

Christmas ’95 I received the most ironic of gifts — Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer’s "What Is a Jew?" The book was given to me by a friend, who originally bought it as a gag gift for her boyfriend. He had Jews in his family somewhere but apparently wasn’t too proud of his Hebrew roots. He rejected the book and it became mine.

"What Is a Jew?" spoke to me. This characteristically Jewish way of questioning stood out in weekly Sunday school at church, where a large leap of faith was required. I don’t remember exactly what my Sunday school teachers said to me, but phrases like "Don’t question," "That’s the way it is" and "Jesus died for our sins" were the answers I remember receiving to my most deepest questions on faith.

At 17, I discovered "The Jews of America," an oversized, hardback book with more than 200 pages of pictures of Jews — from Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to director Steven Spielberg and his mother, Leah Adler. I’d find great joy and comfort thumbing through the pages of that book, most of the time not even really knowing why.

In my junior year of college, I declared a Jewish minor. With that, I took an introduction to Judaism class and two Jewish history courses. I also learned about the Holocaust and was profoundly touched by Elie Wiesel’s "Night." In these secular classes, I came to understand why Israel is so important to the Jews and why the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was/is the messiah.

After graduating from college and landing my first real job, I started seriously considering conversion. I enrolled in a Reform conversion class but dropped out after several weeks, feeling that it wasn’t the movement for me. I stumbled upon Chabad, and a few months later began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and holding to other mitzvot. I wasn’t sure that I was going to commit myself to Orthodox Judaism; I was merely trying it on for size. However, a few days into my observance and I knew that I found what I had been searching for my whole life.

I always knew that I would someday live in Israel, but there was a part of me that doubted that it was possible. I felt like I had a better chance of winning the lottery or becoming a rock star than "coming home."

I spent my first two months in Israel on a "holy high." Nothing is ever average: you’re either experiencing the most incredible high praying at the Western Wall, feeling the Divine Presence right there with you; or you’re mourning the death of a young Israeli soldier who gave up his life for something bigger than he could ever put his finger on, and you cry like it was your own brother.

I woke up every morning in the breathtaking hills of biblical Judea and studied Torah until at least 1 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Shabbat was never ordinary, filled with extravagant meals, joyous singing and dancing and moments of real rest. The celebrations came one after another — Rosh Chodesh (the new month), weddings, engagements, brit milot, bat mitzvot, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and they were never small nor quiet affairs.

After being in Israel, I didn’t think that I could ever return to the States, even for a short period of time. But I missed my friends and I missed my family, so I booked a ticket home for a three-and-a-half week visit. I was in the process of switching schools and had a period of about a month before the new school’s semester began. I was also running low on money and figured I’d work some while I was here and apply for a small but significant loan to cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

But the substantial tuition discount that I had hoped for didn’t come through; my parents, who were happy to see me back, weren’t so eager to loan me money to return to the Middle East. I became more and more worried about taking out large loans when I knew I could get the same education for much less after I made aliyah.

While I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, it made more sense to stick around until I was able to save money, finish my conversion at my own pace — working one on one with a rabbi versus in a classroom setting — and have the time to learn Hebrew.

But still, it’s tough living in Orange County. There are no kosher restaurants and many of the apartments near Orthodox synagogues are pricey (a conversion candidate, as well as an observant Jews, must live near an Orthodox synagogue, so they can walk there on Shabbat). But I am doing the best I can.

God willing, I will soon return to where I feel I belong, Our Holy Land, Israel.

Before heading off to Israel, Heather Fuller worked as a news assistant in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Orange County Register. She has also worked for BMG, VH1 and OC Weekly.

Tzedakah for Chanukah

The Chanukah wish lists of six needy local Jewish families
will be filled by generous families from Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha
Jewish Day School.

“These families have been financially disadvantaged for a
long time,” said Charlene Edwards, social services director for Jewish Family
Service of Orange County. “They asked for things our children take for

On Dec. 4, in time for Chanukah, Edwards was scheduled to
collect gift baskets filled with wrapped toys and clothing, along with gift
certificates for groceries, movie tickets and haircuts. The cumulative
contributions from students, parents and faculty likely tallies $1,500, said
Robin S. Hoffman, the school’s Jewish studies coordinator. “We’ve been
inundated in the last week.”

The Chanukah effort is one of the first outcomes of
Morasha’s involvement with a three-year national research project of Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Its Rhea Hirsch
School of Education selected eight schools to participate in Jewish Day Schools
for the 21st Century, a project to demonstrate how schools can serve as a
Jewish learning catalyst for an entire community, said Eve Fein, Morasha’s

As part of the project, a 25-parent panel, which has met
regularly over the last year, settled on enhancing certain Jewish values.
Morasha’s parents chose tzedakah (charity).

“So often, kids never see the end result,” said Kathleen A.
Canter, of Aliso Viejo, a panel participant who has two children in the school.
“We wanted the whole school community involved. It’s powerful when it’s visible
to all.”

Once Upon a ‘Nail’

The joyous holiday of Chanukah is replete with miracles and storytelling. Judy Aronson, Jewish educator in New England, loves telling stories at Chanukah. "The best are handed down from generation to generation. And they change in each retelling," she said. "I first heard the ‘Miracle of the Iron Nail’ in a youth group in Hartford, Conn., when I was 8 years old. Every time I tell it, I add a little something, take a little something out. It’s the same way I cook," she said, mischievously.

This is the story — I couldn’t help but add a little, take a little out:

A long time ago, young Jewish boys were stolen from their families to serve in the Czar’s army. Stalwart soldiers would sneak into their villages at dusk, and march from house to house, wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of brokenhearted parents.

The boys were taken far away, and ordered to forget about their families — especially what it was like to be Jewish. They grew up as soldiers and followed in the footsteps of their captors.

One night, a terrible blizzard blew through the camp, uprooting tents and hurling boys from their beds. Yehuda, Moshe and Reuven found themselves in the pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere. They wandered for days.

Finally, they came to a small Jewish village, looking ragged and pathetic. Instead of taking pity, the villagers ran for their lives, warning each other. "Hide everything in sight, especially your children!" But one housewife wasn’t fast enough, and as the soldiers passed her house they peered into the window and spotted a chanukiah.

Reuven suddenly remembered the holiday he hadn’t celebrated for so many years, and said to Yehuda and Moshe, "Dear friends, it’s Chanukah, remember the delicious latkes our mothers used to make? What I wouldn’t give for a latke." The memory brought tears to their eyes.

They trekked through the town, hoping somebody would give them a latke. They knocked at every door but the only response they got was, "We have no food! Go away!"

Moshe and Yehuda pleaded with Reuven. "Nobody wants us, we might as well go back to the army. At least they’ll feed us." But Reuven was adamant — they mustn’t lose faith.

He knocked at the next house. Miraculously, the door opened. When Reuven saw Nechama, a beautiful housewife, instead of asking for food he stood up straight and announced, "I come bearing food — some latkes for Chanukah."

"How can you possibly have any food?" she asked.

"Because I brought the magic iron nail. All I need is a pot," he replied.

Against her husband’s wishes, Nechama ran into the kitchen and fetched a pot. Reuven led her to the Town Square. He held up his hand and shouted, "Look everyone, I have a magic nail. I’m putting it in the pot. I’m going to make the finest latkes you’ve ever tasted."

The villagers scoffed. Someone picked up a stone and threw it. Undaunted, Reuven stirred the pot. "All I need is an onion." Nobody moved. Finally, Nechama’s neighbor dropped an onion into the pot, then quickly retreated.

Reuven was ecstatic. "We have a pot. We have an onion. Now all we need are a few potatoes." A little girl ran up, dragging a sack of potatoes, and dropped them into the pot.

The three soldiers began dancing. So did the villagers, who started peeling, chopping and grating. "Now all we need is some salt. And matzah meal," Yehuda appealed.

When someone fetched the foodstuffs, Moshe enthused, "We’re going to make it. All we need is some oil." And the oil flowed.

Boruch built a fire in the middle of the square. Rochel brought a fry pan and poured in the oil. Gila fashioned the mixture into latkes and dropped them into the pan, one by one.

The oil started to crackle. The latkes started to fry. Everyone was gleeful, full of the spirit of Chanukah.

The mayor addressed Reuven, Moshe and Yehuda. "We’ve learned there are good soldiers in the world, not just ones who will harm us," he complimented them. "You’ve brought us the most wonderful Chanukah gift we’ve ever had."

Reuven eloquently assured him, "Because you have been so kind, your people will live in peace forever more. No soldiers will harm them ever again."

"All Jewish stories have a deeper meaning," reflected Aronson, a graduate of Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School. "It’s the community that makes the latkes, the people that create the celebration. If nobody had contributed anything, all they’d have was an iron nail. Because everybody cooperated, they not only had a feast, they had peace of mind forever more."

Eight Crazy Delights

1. No Nostalgia for Waxing

This Chanukah, there is no more scraping, boiling water, melting with a hair dryer or freezing to remove wax drippings from your menorah because Wax-Off prevents wax from sticking to any candle-holder surface. Visit or call (800) 334-9964 for more information.

2. Fiddler-mania!

Question: What would your Chanukah be without your hand-painted “Fiddler on the Roof” Figurine Music Box ($45), “Fiddler” Chess Set ($300), “Fiddler” Chip n’ Dip Set ($50), “Fiddler” Teapot ($36) and set of “Fiddler” Shmear Spreaders ($45)? And the answer: Much less expensive. ( ).

3. A Big Blow to the Jewish People

Hebrew Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Box of 100 ($10.95). If you can’t read Hebrew, don’t sweat it — the comic strips are probably funnier when you don’t understand the gags (

4. Rabbi Said Knock You Out!

Boxing Rabbi Puppet ($9.50). Finally, a way to one-up your neighbor’s Fighting Nun Puppet ( ).

5. Ark for Ark’s Sake

The Ark of the Covenant ($11.95). Indiana Jones nearly lost his life searching for his. So why not pick one up for yourself and see what all the hubbub is about? ( ).

6. Giving You Plaque

Gefilte Fish Plaque ($5.95). A Jesus plate parody for your car. In all honesty, this plaque probably tastes better than the fish that inspired it. Unclear whether it comes packed in jelly. ( ).

7. When the Golem

Gets Tough…

Share with your children the legend of the Prague protector with a copy of “Golem,” an award-winning children’s book by David Wisniewski. (Clarion Books, $17) ( ).

9. Winnie the Jew

Winnie the Pooh in a yarmulke with dreidel in hand. Nobody saw this one coming, but then again, the lovable bear perhaps makes a more convincing Jew than a boy named Christopher Robin. ($8.50). (The Disney Store. For locations visit ).

Bonus Shamash Gift: The Jewish Version of The Spinners?

The Draydelettes, a chorus line of Chanukah tops created by designer Susan Fischer Weis, grace a light set ($19.95) and mug ($7.95) ( ).

It’s Just a Present … Really

Legend tells us that Judah and the strapping young Maccabees faced the mighty Syrian army and defeated it against all obstacles. But if you want to face some real odds, try finding a nice Jewish guy courageous enough to accept a girl’s Chanukah present.

I just started dating a guy. Now I know it’s early, but I love the idea of celebrating Chanukah together. My dilemma: how do I prevent him from contracting "commitmentitis" the moment I hand him a Chanukah gift?

The present I’ve conjured up for him is genius. On our first date, he mentioned how much he loved Michael Jordan. His eyes danced when we discussed M.J.’s recent comeback. But unlike Jordan, I was on top of my game.

First, I threw out all the "how to play it casual" advice I acquired from those "Venus and Mars" books. Then I spent hours on the phone hunting down a friend of a friend whose agent’s assistant snagged me tickets to the Wizards-Lakers game. OK, so they’re not Nicholson seats. Best-case scenario: He’ll freak when he opens this present; look at me like I’m the most amazing woman (which, by the way, I am). He’ll conclude that after months of bad blind dates and high-maintenance disasters, he’s finally found the right girl.

Actually, with my luck, he’ll have a conniption. He’ll unwrap the package with considerable hesitation. His mouth will squeak out an insincere "thanks" while his eyes scream, "Why did you buy me this?! What does it mean?! Do you expect a gift in return? First a gift, then a ring. You probably already picked out the chuppah. I can’t breathe. I need my space. We need to talk."

Girls can’t help it. Giving gifts is in our genes. We fantasize about coming up with the perfect Chanukah gift the way guys fantasize about this month’s Maxim cover.

It’s so hard to fight that gift-giving urge when the mall is blizzarding with holiday sales. But we’ve got to squelch that impulse. As far as I can tell, holiday gift giving follows the same absurd set of unspoken rules as every other aspect of singlehood. It seems that giving too nice a gift is a bigger turnoff than calling him first. In the same way that we unfold and refold that little scrap of paper with his number on it, resisting the urge to call, we must crush our present-buying cravings. A girl should play hard to get: an overly thoughtful gift makes her appear eager and less of a challenge.

So at what point do men stop interpreting our gifts as "I’ll get you, my little pretty, and your little black book too?" How far into a relationship do we have to be before it’s safe to exchange holiday presents?

The Better Dating Bureau states that when purchasing a gift for a significant other, spend $10 for every month you’ve been together. It’s the Pythagorean Theorem of dating. If you’ve been dating for one month spend $10, if you’ve been dating for two years spend $240. According to this formula, I should ditch the basketball tickets and just pick him up a pair of Marky Mark boxer briefs instead.

But I can justify the tickets, since technically I can give him eight Chanukah presents: 1.5 months x $10 per month x eight nights = $120.

Then I can designate that entire total for one night rather than distribute it over eight nights.

When did it all get so complicated?

Chanukah should come with speed bumps, warning us well-intended givers to slow down. But the reality is, giving gifts makes me happy. Especially when I sidestep the generic beer-of-the-month-club membership and Banana Republic sweater and find my guy something special. My gift doesn’t have to mean, "I can’t breathe without you" or "I’ll never wash this cheek again." It can simply mean, "You’re a great guy. I like hanging out with you. Happy Chanukah." We ladies don’t expect anything in return. Not much anyway — a kiss, a thank you, a reaction that does not include dizzy spells or hyperventilating.

It’s so difficult finding one such courageous mensch in this sprawling city.

Not helping matters is the Maccabee legend that circulates this time of year that speaks of that entire clan of brave young Jewish men — strong, athletic Jews — all living in one village. If only that were the case in Los Angeles. Now that would be the real miracle of Chanukah.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, has an extra ticket to the Lakers game.

Personal Shopper

I had to buy a present for my sister recently. Shopping for women, if you don’t happen to actually be a woman yourself, is a nightmare.

I’ve noticed that when men go shopping for clothes, there is a sense of purposefulness about it. We’re going to the store to buy something, some specific thing in response to a specific need. A shirt. I need a shirt. We march in, try something on. If it fits, we buy it and march back out. No squealing, no cooing, no fanfare. We take care of our needs. There is a sense of accomplishment. We live from shirt to shirt.

When women go shopping, it’s closer to a jazz dance than a march. They go into a shop with only the vaguest idea of what they want or — Dare I even bring this word into the discussion? — need. Let me tell you, these women are amazing. They are bred to shop from the time they are little girls. They need special dresses for special occasions. They think about what they’re wearing. They are actually trying to look good when they get dressed. Men are simply trying to not be naked when they go outside. We want to be protected from the elements. That’s good enough for us. "Shirt. Warm. Good."

Women don’t need most of the things they buy. How do you explain that you need a pair of black shoes when you already have 50 pairs of black shoes at home? I understand this now that 10 women explained it to me. None of those shoes will do. None of them are right. Those are bad, bad shoes. There is a pair of shoes out there that is absolutely perfect for this outfit, this evening, this destination, and she is going to find it. Somewhere, over the rainbow, perhaps, there is a Manolo Blahnik mule that is calling her name.

I love women’s shops. They’re so civilized; the salespeople so welcoming. It seems to the outsider that they’re inviting you in to relax, sit down, have something to drink. Women’s clothes don’t look like much of anything when they’re hanging on a rack. All the curves are missing; they need to have real live women inside them to make any sense to us. I wonder how women know what looks good on them? The answer: Intuition. The closest a man gets to intuition is bringing his wife, girlfriend or mother with him when he goes shopping.

Sometimes, women go shopping and don’t buy anything. Do you know what that’s about? They’re doing reconnaissance missions, preseason warm-ups. A woman window-shopping is like a batter in the on-deck circle taking practice swings.

How a woman ever chooses a purse is beyond me. I took my girlfriend Kathy to Gucci for her birthday. Some bags were too big, others too small to hold all her crap. She didn’t like the color of this one, the strap of another, the clasp of a third. When she asked my opinion and I told her that I liked the tan one, she looked at me as if I had just passed gas. In Gucci, no less! My utter lack of female intuition was glaringly obvious.

Forty minutes later, she finally chose something that looked roughly like a leopard print-covered human liver with a strap that fit her like a shoulder holster — all this for a scant $650. I was exhausted. Women may have 60 percent of the muscle mass of men, but they have twice the shopping stamina.

In the end, my sister told me that she wanted the faux-crocodile patterned purse in celadon, which is a color somewhere in the sage-mint-celery area, and goes with beige, white and black. "Tell me it doesn’t!" she challenged. I did not dare. Celadon is the new gray. Brown is the new black. Pink is the new red. No wonder I’m so confused.

Women are so free with compliments that buying a good purse can be a confirmation of one’s self-worth. If a woman tells another woman, "I love your bag, is it new?" It means: "You’re so smart, and I can tell by looking at you that you’re a good person. I want to be your best friend in the whole world. You’re going to heaven."

I’m convinced that men have more or less been running the world because we don’t have to choose between heels and sandals. If men had to accessorize, it would throw the order of the universe into chaos. A man thinks: "I’m wearing a belt. It’s either black or brown. It’s either thin or thick. It holds my pants up." Add one more variable to that stew, and anarchy would reign. If men had to buy pantyhose … I shudder to think.

Sooner or later we all have to cross that Rubicon and go shopping for the women in our lives. At the very least it says: I’m sorry about something and I’m trying to buy my way out of trouble. At best it says: I am so thoughtful, and you are one lucky girl to have me. My girlfriend Kathy broke up with me three weeks after our Rodeo Drive shopping spree. She left with the purse and no regrets, explaining that shopping is like sex, but it lasts longer. "Men come and go," she said wistfully, "but Gucci is forever."

A Gift That Keeps on Giving

Chatter Matters is the kind of present one person gets and the whole family benefits from. The board game is the brainchild of Kathryn Retsky, former director of the Stephen S. Wise Temple Parenting Center. Each player rolls the dice, moves along the board, and picks a card. The point is not winning or losing, but conversing. The cards pose questions such as, “A dream comes true. You are invisible for a day. What will you do?” The conversation that follows allows adults to hear their children’s responses and vice versa.

Participants — grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren — open up to each other. Dilemmas, concerns, wishes and dreams get put out, quite literally, on the table. More topical game cards ask questions such as, “If someone in your family was running for political office, what winning campaign slogan would you suggest?” These connect the outside world to the inner world of the participants.

The game is set up so that every answer is right and each player feels successful. Conversation is stimulated a new ideas are shared. Retsky, who is now authoring educational CD-ROMs that promote understanding of children’s health and development, hopes Chatter Matters will provide a thought-provoking vehicle to open up the hearts and minds of each player.

Her company, Parenting Solutions, has joined with Mattel to produce the game, which is available at Toys R Us and Target.

Finally, a gift that really does keep on giving.

Making Light

Looking to buy something kind of demented this Chanukah? Faithful Journal readers may recall Up Front’s dish on the Punching Rabbi Puppet earlier this year. Since then, Archie McPhee & Company has greatly expanded its line of Judaicus nonsensicus.

Featured alongside the davening, duking “Semite with might who fights” in this year’s Archie McPhee catalogue is a bag of 145 “Testamints” (in peppermint, spear-mint and wintergreen) with each candy individually enshrouded in Bible-verse wrapping. You can store these holy breath enhancers inside a tiny, gold-painted replica of the Ark of the Covenant. Oh yeah, and for people who couldn’t get enough of those rabbinical trading cards, Archie McPhee is back with Torah Cards II.

But before the thin-skinned among you take to pen and paper in protest, keep in mind that the twisted minds behind the Seattle-based novelty company are equal-opportunity offenders. In fact, the Cat Buddha statue, the Nunzilla, and the multi-armed Hindi Bendy might be the perfect gag gifts for your non-Jewish friends. — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

For more information on novelty Judaica, go to

Wrap Party in Redondo Beach

Debbie Simmons earns her living as a CPA in Brentwood. But evenings, weekends and every other spare minute during the holidays and many other free moments during the year find Simmons shopping for bargain toys and wrapping paper, scanning the shelves or standing in checkout lines at Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, the 99 Cents Only store and Party World. She’s buying Power Rangers and Barbie dolls a dozen at a time and picking up donated wrapping paper 50 rolls at a clip.

What’s the deal? A giant neighborhood holiday party? Chanukah gifts for a very extended family? Not exactly, says Simmons. A single native New Yorker, she, in fact, has 60 needy families in Torrance and the surrounding South Bay area for whom she provides gifts, but they’re not relatives; they’re strangers who have become friends through her acts of charity.

Simmons also has become a well-known presence among some local merchants. “At Toys ‘R’ Us I’m kind of a celebrity,” she admits. No wonder. It’s unlikely the store gets many customers who buy 600 gifts every year.

This Sunday, Simmons will expand her gift-giving idea to a new level when the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach opens the doors of its new center on Vail Avenue for a wrapping party from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. In addition to gifts that Simmons has purchased with donations from her clients, friends and associates, hundreds of other gifts are also expected to be on hand. Most will go to needy families selected by such organizations as the Torrance Children’s Center and Head Start in Carson.
The Redondo Beach Chabad’s rabbi, Yossi Mintz, says his organization plans to deliver other gifts to children at local hospitals during the holidays.

For Simmons, the rewards she gets from the project outweigh the year-round effort that goes into putting the project together. “I consider myself very fortunate,” she says. “I have an education; I’m independent. I have a house, a family, a good job. It brings me a great sense of fulfillment to know I’m helping someone else.”

Simmons has received hundreds of thank-you letters since she began the project in 1994 with her sister, Caryle Balaban, after reading a story in a local paper about an “adopt-a-child” holiday gift-giving program. Each sister decided to adopt a family to buy presents for, and the project grew from there.

Last year, Simmons, who is Jewish, approached Mintz and asked if he knew of Jewish families in need, and the rabbi obliged with some names. But Simmons says the program is basically nondenominational; the aim is simply to make needy children and their parents, who are often single moms, feel special.

More than half the Torrance Children’s Center’s 130 culturally diverse families fell into that “in need” category last year, according to center secretary Betty Bruey, who helps select families for “adoption.”

“A lot of our families live with relatives because they can’t afford to pay rent,” Bruey explained. Simmons “has been such a Santa Claus to these families,” she added. “I’ve had mothers coming here crying because they’re so grateful for the help.”

Each year, Bruey passes along the thank-you cards to Simmons. Some come with pictures of children she has helped but never met. They’re her gifts, Simmons says, and they keep giving all year long.

To send a tax-deductible donation to Simmons’ “adopt-a-family” gift-giving project, forward a check to Chabad Jewish Community Center, 1635 Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA 90278. And don’t forget to come to 2108 Vail Ave. to wrap presents on Sunday. For more information, call (310) 372-6879.

To find out how to adopt a family in the South Bay, e-mail Debbie Simmons at, or contact Torrance Children’s Center at (310) 787-3010 or the Volunteer Center in Torrance at (310) 212-5009; both can connect donors with needy families.

Baskets Full of Joy

When the Jews of ancient Persia celebrated their unlikely salvation from Haman with gifts of food to each other, they probably didn’t go for the tropical-themed basket with gummy fish, rock candy and dried papaya, wrapped in a sweep of turquoise cellophane.

Clearly, the holiday custom of exchanging gifts of food, called by the Hebrew term mishloach manot [MEESH-lo-ach MAN-oat] has changed with the times.

But even in L.A., where fulfilling the Purim mitzvah has been raised to new levels, the basic idea behind mishloach manot remains the same: to promote a joyous spirit of friendship and unity among a scattered nation.

Mishloach manot is one of four mitzvot of Purim, along with charity to the poor (matanot la’evyonim), holding a festive meal (seudah) and reading the Megillah. The fulfillment of mishloach manot requires sending to one person, on Purim day, a gift of two ready-to-eat foods with different brachot, blessings.

Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange and assistant principal at Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn-Toras Emes, says the unity and friendship that results when we exchange gifts is a theme central to the Purim story.

When getting approval for his evil plot from King Achashverosh, Haman refers to the Jewish people as a nations scattered and dispersed among the other nations.

“This was a spiritual indictment. You don’t have unity, and therefore we have the ability to conquer you,” Czapnik explains. Esther’s response, then, was to create a greater sense of Jewish unity by telling Mordechai to gather all the Jewish people to fast and pray for her.