Profile: Josh Neuman


It might raise an eyebrow or two that Josh Neuman, former editor and publisher of Heeb magazine — the irreverent, youth-oriented Jewish magazine that shut down its print operations in 2010 — is now in charge of editorial content at GOOD, a multiplatform media outlet dedicated to helping “people who give a damn” do well by doing good. 

GOOD, a lifestyle magazine for the well-intentioned (but not overly self-righteous), might seem a strange fit for a guy who brought the world a view of Sarah Silverman’s breasts — seen through a hole in a bed sheet — and who had Jonah Hill photographed holding a well-lubricated bagel. 

But Neuman has grown up some since those early days of deliberate Jewish-informed provocation. He moved to Los Angeles. He turned 40. He got married. He’s about to resume work on a long-simmering short-film project about his younger brother, a would-be punk rocker who died of leukemia right around the time Heeb was getting off the ground. 

And since July, Neuman has been working as head of programming and editorial director at GOOD, which last month officially launched its new online platform, good.is, while still putting out a quarterly magazine. Neuman said he’s hoping to bring to GOOD part of the playbook that worked for him at Heeb, which will mean treating readers not as an “audience” but as part of a “community.” It will also mean spending as much energy on planning the next party, conference or Web video series as on publishing words and pictures.

“Heeb wasn’t something that resided on the page,” Neuman said, sitting in GOOD’s Wilshire Boulevard office earlier this month. “It was something that happened in real time.” (Full disclosure: This reporter was at one time an unpaid occasional contributor to Heeb.)

In June, when Neuman’s predecessor, Ann Friedman, was fired from GOOD, along with six of her editorial colleagues, it seemed to many media watchers that GOOD was about to reside less on the page and more in real time — and on the Web — than ever before. 

The move made waves, in part because of how the news was delivered to the employees — at a meeting the day after a party celebrating the publication of the Summer 2012 issue — but also because magazine lovers saw it as the demise of yet another journalistic outlet. (“BAD! Major Editorial Layoffs Hit GOOD,” wailed one blog’s headline.) 

Neuman said he has been a fan of GOOD since its beginning — in 2007, co-founder Ben Goldhirsh was featured as one of the “Heeb 100” list — and Neuman says he is still committed to journalism, even if he’s not quite sanguine about the sustainability of the print model. 

“As much as print is dead, Adbusters launched Occupy, and Mother Jones got that ‘47 percent’ video,” Neuman said. 

But Neuman, who was teaching philosophy of religion as an adjunct professor at NYU when he joined the Heeb editorial team, said he intends to steer GOOD in a direction that won’t include the kind of long-form journalism of the magazine’s previous incarnation. 

“For the former editorial board, GOOD just meant journalism,” Neuman said. “For me, journalism is one of many ways to deploy interesting content.”

It’s worth noting that Friedman, who declined to comment for this article, doesn’t appear to have arrived at GOOD an overly sentimental editor attached to traditional journalism and deaf to the needs of the Web, either. 

“Here, we all understand that ‘magazine’ doesn’t refer to the paper-and-ink product sitting on your coffee table,” Friedman wrote in a post on good.is that appears to date back to when she started as executive editor, around March 2011. “It’s also a way of describing a community and daily reading experience.”

What shape GOOD will take in the coming years remains to be seen, but Neuman talked  less about the upcoming print issues of GOOD — the Winter 2012 issue is set to include the GOOD 100, a list not unlike the one Neuman was known for at Heeb — than about the work taking shape on GOOD’s new Internet platform. 

Posts are organized into two categories: Learns, which teach and inform, and Dos, which are aimed at spurring readers to some kind of action — anything from moving their cell phones and tablets out of their bedrooms to signing an anti-corruption pledge to get the money out of politics. 

“Anyone can submit Learns and Dos,” Neuman said. From there, a team of about eight full-time editorial staff based all around the country, called curators — “kind of the midpoint between an old-school editor and a community organizer,” Neuman said — take the content and present it on GOOD’s platform, alongside their own writings and any new content that the magazine commissions. 

One of the newest bits of original content — a Web video featuring actor Rainn Wilson of “The Office” — is part of a GOOD campaign urging voters to “Take Back Tuesday,” and “make voting less of a pain in the ass.” 

And on the other side of the technological spectrum, GOOD subscribers will soon receive a packet of postcards in their mailboxes, each one with a rumination on the history of good. 

Both comprise GOOD’s coupling of learning and doing. The video is part of a multipost series urging readers to turn Election Day into a national holiday. The postcards are designed to be sent by the recipient to another person — “Send this to a politician who puts people before politics,” reads the legend at the bottom of the postcard about direct democracy. 

And both fit neatly into the overall framework of GOOD’s goal of being a community dedicated to organizing active citizens by deploying various media, which is, Neuman pointed out, exactly what he did with Jews and Heeb — mobilize a community of people with a shared interest in Judaism, pushing them to have fun together on a weekday evening or a Christmas Eve. 

Among Neuman’s curators at GOOD are some journalists he worked with at Heeb. He said that everyone he’s hired is very much on board with the new model for what GOOD is becoming. 

“Maybe it’s just because it’s a job, so they’re excited about anything,” Neuman said, “but a lot of them say, ‘I think this may be the future of journalism.’ ”

Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Kashrut and Mindfulness: Savoring Fresh, Local Fare at La Seine


This is a story about a dream afternoon I spent at La Seine, where chef Alex Reznik is cooking seasonal, farm-to-table, California-Asian … kosher food. The restaurant’s owner, Laurent Masliah, named La Seine for the river at the heart of his hometown, but I can’t help but think it’s intentional that the name also sounds somewhat like La Cienega, the boulevard on which the restaurant is located. Its building is long and low, and its wide, clear-glass front looks out onto the busy street. Guests can sit at the sushi bar to the left, at the traditional bar, in the lounge or, on the other side of two exposed brick divider walls, in the more formal dining area. That room’s palette is earthy and clean, crisp white, elegant but not too formal. Masliah — who, with his eager, open face,  greets his guests dressed in khakis and a dark shirt, kippah in place — clearly wants everyone to be comfortable here.

Evenings, the dining room is full of people celebrating — multigenerational family groups, office mates, lovers enjoying tender hanger steaks, lamb and more lamb (bone chop, belly confit) or the day’s fish on black Forbidden Rice. The dining room’s acoustics are terrific; a couple at a table for two can converse even though the large family at the table along the wall all seems to be talking at once. For a person lunching alone, the small patio area out front, screened by a ficus hedge, is perfect on a fall day in Los Angeles. Taking time to eat and time to think about what we are eating is as much a luxury these days as the more discussed “luxury” of good, nutritional food. And the food Reznik is making at La Seine takes time and deserves time.

Lunch begins with a cocktail, suggested by Reznik himself.

“It’s afternoon,” he urges, his eyes bright.

He is out on the floor often, checking in with diners, looking a little like a clever scientist, with his shaved head and short-sleeved white coat. He is full of energy, and he needs to be, as his workdays begin at 11 a.m. and go on well past midnight. On Wednesdays, he and his crew venture out even earlier to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. La Seine is closed on Shabbat, of course, but Reznik seems to struggle a little with the idea of rest. He sleeps in, he takes walks, but he’s happy to be back in the kitchen when the sun goes down on Saturday night.

The cocktail is delicious, as promised — a mix of refreshing plum, quince, Campari, gin and Prosecco to sip as the world hurries by on La Cienega. Plates begin to arrive. The deep, sweet and earthy-tasting heirloom beets with arugula have tiny cumin-spiced French lentils at their center instead of the typical glob of goat cheese. There is no dairy at La Seine, and it isn’t missed. (La Seine’s mashgiach studied cooking in Israel and also acts as a sous-chef.) Reznik, who is a “Top Chef” alum, takes the restrictions as a challenge, along with the issue of cooking “seasonally” in Southern California, where it is hot well into October and the sweet corn, tomatoes and English peas still attract.

Chef Alex Reznik. Photo by Peden + Munk

My salad is followed by a crudo, paper-thin white slices of snapper in fine salsa, with sweet pink grapefruit, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and a beautiful half-dozen pieces of sushi, which Reznik calls a playful take on fish tacos. Tiny slivers of ripe avocado and cilantro are tucked in the rice, topped with a bite of tempura halibut and a dollop of spicy aioli. The crispness of the fish and the richness of the aioli are perfect together. Because I am alone, I can eat slowly, taking notes, taking breaths, tasting each flavor, finishing each dish.

Reznik prefers the idea of sushi as an appetizer, followed by a more substantial meal. (One night at the bar, I saw a man happily polish off a yellowtail, spicy big-eye tuna, avocado and tempura roll, braised short ribs, extra fries and a lamb dish. One can eat heartily at La Seine, and it also offers a full kosher wine list watched over by friendly sommelier Adnan Mourani.) When the chef comes out to check on me again, he suggests I try something more … manly … for my next course.

It turns out to be his excellent version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, bahn-mi, with heavenly thin, spicy potato chips. The bahn-mi roll is perfectly crusty on the outside, the beef short ribs that take the place of the traditional pork are rich and spicy, perfect with the lime, mint and spicy mayonnaise that softens the inside of the roll. The complexity of these tastes, adapted from the colonial French by Vietnamese cooks and brought to America and interpreted here by a Ukraine-born chef in a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, says just about everything I love about eating in Los Angeles. I finish my perfect, solitary meal with a lemon soufflé tart, the last refreshing sips of my cocktail and coffee.

The laws of kashrut can be understood as a kind of mindfulness practice: to take time to stop, notice the details — if you are lucky enough, as I was at the start of a new year, to be surrounded by such bounty — to pay attention to the gifts of the earth, the garden and the chef himself.

La Seine is now open for lunch as well as dinner, and, after Shabbat on Saturday nights, there is live entertainment in the lounge. 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 358-0922. laseinebg.com.

On-screen morality plays illuminate Holocaust choices


World War II and the Holocaust ended more than 60 years ago, but the subject’s fascination for filmmakers as the ultimate moral testing ground for participants on both sides only intensifies with the passage of time.

Two interesting but flawed films opening this month illustrate the point.

Amos Gitai, the famed and controversial Israeli filmmaker (“Kippur,” “Kadosh”), has assembled an exceptional French cast in his latest work, “One Day You’ll Understand.”

As in many of Gitai’s films, the pace is deliberate and the intricate plot frequently dense to the point of opaqueness, but the acting and dialogue, even in English subtitles, sparkle with touches of brilliance.

The chief protagonist is Victor (Hippolyte Girardot), descended from an old French family on his late father’s side, while his mother, Rivka (the legendary Jeanne Moreau), is part of the immigrant Russian Jewish Gornick family.

In the late 1980s, while the radio is broadcasting the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons,” Victor discovers some old papers and photos in the attic.


‘One Day’ trailer

One is a letter sent by his father to the local prefecture during the Nazi occupation of France, testifying to his own pure Aryan blood and Catholicism, while pointing out that his wife is Jewish.

Obsessed by the find, Victor questions his mother, but she refuses to uncover the past. He then takes his wife (the lovely Emmanuelle Devos) and their two children to the tiny village where his grandparents, Rivka’s parents, went into hiding during the war.

Victor is devastated when he learns of their fate, while his wife tries to console him in a tender scene, murmuring, “You mustn’t forget, but you cannot undo history.”

In the end, Rivka presents her own story, and the yellow star she wore, not to her son but to her grandchildren, who may be able to shape a better future.

In the second movie, “Good,” John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) is a likeable professor of literature at a German university, who, in normal times, would have led a respectable, useful life, written some scholarly papers and been fondly remembered by his students.

But the year is 1933, and times are not normal in Berlin. Halder has written an obscure novel, in which the protagonist makes a case for compassionate euthanasia. The book has come to the attention of the Fuhrer himself, who also has some thoughts about killings, though not necessarily compassionate.

Suddenly, the modest Halder finds himself feted by Nazi bigwigs, beautiful women find him attractive and a private car and splendid apartment are at his disposal.


‘Good’ trailer

As Halder rises, Maurice, his closest friend, World War I comrade and a psychiatrist, sinks deeper and deeper as the anti-Jewish vise tightens.

When Halder faces his moral test — to help Maurice at some risk to his new career — he sympathizes but hesitates, with fatal consequences.

The tale of the man who sells his soul to the devil for worldly success is generally intriguing but loses much of its usual impact in “Good.”

Considerable parts of the dialogue and acting are flat and stilted, and the viewer is hard-put to invest his emotions in this particular Faustian bargain.

“Good” is based on the play of the same title by the late British Jewish author C.P. Taylor, which was a big hit on the London stage in the early 1980s.

Judging by reviews of the time, the original play was notable for its sardonic humor, including a Chaplinesque turn by Hitler, which is sorely absent from the movie.

“One Day You’ll Understand” opens Dec. 5 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and “Good” opens Dec. 31 at the Music Hall and Town Center, Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

The seminar of a lifetime


As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

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

Shalom Auslander is my failure


A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High

School?

Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.


Originality trumps repetition in the holiday songs battle


I will be frank. I’m tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over. So the best Chanukah present I’ve received this year is a pile of Chanukah-themed CDs with lots of new holiday songs, many of them quite good. Here’s what crossed my desk this December.

The Klezmatics: “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (JMG) and “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). I wasn’t that enthused by the “Matics” Guthrie Chanukah set when it was released last year, but I have to admit I was wrong.

This is a spirited, jaunty and frequently funny set that should be particularly appealing to children (and will give their parents a respite from “The Dreydl Song”). The set adds four instrumental tracks to last year’s release, allowing the band to stretch out and show their chops, but my favorite is a carry-over, “The Many and the Few,” a classic example of Guthrie’s skill at rendering narratives into song lyrics redolent of ballad classics.

“Wonder Wheel” continues the Klezmatics’ collaboration with the Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing indeed. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby “Headdy Down,” from a weirdly Asiatic/alternative-country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.” One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are. One expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.

The LeeVees: “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” (JDub/iTunes). When the LeeVees’ “Hanukkah Rocks” came out on JDub last year, I wrote, “Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own…. The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce (‘Tell your mom to fry, not bake’) and of not getting presents (well, there are ‘six-packs of new socks from each of our moms’).” Now, they have added an EP, mostly of playful acoustic versions of the previous Chanukah tunes and a punchy new tune “Jewish Stars,” downloadable from iTunes. Like the originals, these are amiable, bouncy and witty rockers. Thirteen minutes of pure pleasure.

The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble: “Chanukah Is Freylekh!” (self-distributed). This is a very jolly set of European-style performances — tsimbl and fiddle predominate, no brass — that often feels like a family gathering. And that’s appropriate, because the CD comes with dance directions for kids, as well as the usual translations, bios and such. It is a delightful recording, fueled by Cahan-Simon’s warm, friendly sound. Available from Hatikvah Music, (323) 655-7083 or hatikvahmusic.com.

Poppa’s Kitchen: “A Rockin’ Hanukkah” (self-distributed). A cheerful MOR-rock set of new Chanukah songs from Robert Romanus (who you may recall from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Scott Feldman. The EP (only 21 minutes) has one song for each night, a cheerful blend of California rock and holiday spirit, witty lyrics and some hook-filled tunes. Available from cdbaby.com.

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: “Fli, Mayn Fishlang! Fly, Fly My Kite!” (Yiddishland). It is devoutly to be hoped that casual listeners will not dismiss Schaechter-Gottesman as the “flavor of the month” because she has become so prominent of late; she has more than earned the attention, and I, for one, hope it continues for a long time. The quality of musicians she attracts is one mark of how good she is — this set includes contributions by Lorin Sklamberg, Binumen Schaechter, Matt Darriau and Ben Holmes. This CD features her Yiddish children’s songs, which have a charming wistfulness that reminds me more of a French chanson than anything else. There are also songs for several holidays (including a couple of Chanukah tunes) and, as usual from Schaechter-Gottesman, a lot of yearning lyrics about the changing of the seasons. Available from yiddishlandrecords.com.

Julie Silver: “It’s Chanukah Time” (HyLo). Of course, there is another way to pep up those tired traditional holiday songs — you can reinterpret them, change the lyrics around, make them contemporary. This is often a recipe for disaster, but Silver’s “The Dreidel Song” reworked as a frisky country rocker works wonderfully (almost hilariously) well, and sets a high standard for the rest of this set. A reggae “Al Hanisim” and a Latin-flavored “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” work almost as well. The only problem with this approach, even when it’s done right, is that the focus shifts from the message of the holiday to a guessing game: What’s next, a goth-metal “Mi Yimalel,” “Maoz Tzur” as a morning raga? Silver doesn’t do anything that absurd, so the set doesn’t spiral out of control, but there is an inevitable lingering doubt in the listener’s mind that some of the choices were motivated by the need for the unfamiliar rather than the musical possibilities. Still, it’s a nicely played and sung set. Available from hyloproductions.com and at Barnes & Noble.

In addition to these Chanukah-themed recordings, there are two big-ticket items to keep in mind when doing your year-end gift shopping. The ongoing partnership between Naxos Records and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has resulted in 50 CDs showcasing the remarkable range of Jewish American music; although they will continue to issue new recordings on a regular basis, they are celebrating this milestone by offering a set of those first sets. The deluxe box set of all 50 Milken Archive CDs will be available for $349, a savings of $100 if purchased individually. Available at milkenarchive.org.

If you are feeling less ambitious or less solvent, or if you know an aspiring Jewish musician, you should consider Yale Strom’s latest project, “The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook,” published by Transcontinental Music. This volume boasts more than 300 songs that Strom has collected in his travels through the Old Country, and comes with a CD that features his performances of 36 of them. At $49.95, it is a must for anyone interested in East European Jewish music. Availble wherever music books are sold.

George Robinson, film and music critic for Jewish Week, is the author of “Essential Torah” (Shocken Books, 2006).

What are you thinking about this Rosh Hashanah?


“I’m actually thinking about changing my behavior with my brother — he’s 7 — because I’ve been pretty mean to him. I can be a little more nice, even if he annoys me…. I learn a lot during the holidays. You learn about how to react, and what you should do and how you should be, like you can’t be rude to people. And you have to ask forgiveness for all the stuff you’ve done and make it a new start, like you’re starting all over again.”

 
— Brandon Ross, 10, Canfield Elementary School and Temple Emanuel Religious School

 

“I’m going to set the table for Rosh Hashanah with a tablecloth and lots of food…. I like the challah. My dad always buys chocolate chip challah because it’s my favorite.”

 
— Lexi Shafa, 6, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy

 

“I think we need to have a cleaner world so people can live longer and not get diseases, like lung cancer. We need to do a better job of throwing away trash and recycling. I think we don’t need to cut off as many trees as we do. We should find a new way to make paper than just cutting down trees. I had a chance to go to Costa Rica and see the rain forest, and I saw how many stumps there were and it was really sad. I think the High Holidays is a time to pray and to thank God for all the beautiful stuff that we have, like good health, and a good education, and a roof over our heads; and it’s a good time to be with family and to enjoy yourself.”

 
— Teddy Sokoloff, 9, Center for Early Education and Temple Emanuel Religious
 

“I’m going to go buzz buzz like a bee, and go round and round and round like a challah and dip the apple in the honey.”

 
— Moses Bar-Yotam, 4, Institute of Jewish Education

 

“I like some holidays, and some holidays I feel sad. I like Passover and I like Rosh Hashanah — I like a lot of them. I feel happy at the sound of the shofar. It’s a holiday when my family comes together.”

 
— Ariana Garrotto, 7, El Rodeo School and Temple Emanuel Religious School

 

“I’m going to daven for the Beit Hamikdash [Jerusalem Temple] to come back, and for all my aveirot [sins] to leave and that we should have a happy year. I’m going to work on lashon hara [gossip] and give tzedakah so everybody has a house and money to live.”

 
— Evan Teichman, 7, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy

 

“My aunt got really sick and then she got better, so I’ll be thinking about how she keeps getting better. I’ve been thinking about my dancing a lot — I’m a hard-core ballet dancer. My family has been spending a lot of time together, so I can’t really say I want to spend more time with my family because we are spending as much time together as possible. If we wanted to spend any more time together we would have to stay up all night!”

 
— Tess Levinson, 10, Center for Early Education and Temple Emanuel Religious School

 

“On Rosh Hashanah my cousins are coming to my grandma’s house, because I’m having Rosh Hashanah at my grandma’s house. We used to have it in my house, but now it’s at my grandma’s.”

 
— Liv Berg, 4, Institute of Jewish Education

 

“I think about what I might have done this past year to hurt someone or to help someone, and I think about whether I want to repeat it. My sister and I get into fights, and sometimes the fights are bigger, and I really hurt her or she really hurts me, and I feel bad and I don’t want to do it again.

 
“I had my bat mitzvah in April, and now I feel more obligated to do the High Holidays, because now I’m part of the adult Jewish community. For my bat mitzvah, I helped an organization called, Turn Purple; it helps homeless kids. In April, everyone who is involved wears purple, and they have a petition that people sign to get a bill so we don’t have homeless kids.”

 
— Shoshana Young, 13, Beverly Vista School and Temple Emanuel Religious School

 

“I’m trying to work on teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah [repentance, prayer and charity]. I’m kind of excited and I don’t know if I’ll be judged as bad, in the middle or good. I want to be good; I’m trying to work on that. I’m trying to be nicer to my friends and stuff, because they’ll be happier and nicer to me if we work things out together.”

 
— Lorien Orpelli, 9, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy

 

“As a school, [Temple Emanuel] really makes the High Holidays great because everyone comes together and sings songs, and it’s a lot of fun. There is no other holiday where you learn about your religion as much as on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You learn about your religion and you come closer to your religion and get more of the meaning of it — you say, ‘I’m Jewish and I should be doing this or should be doing that and helping the community.’ I think the High Holidays are the most important holidays because it’s about finding your mistakes and saying you can do better the next time.”

 
— Max Shapiro, 11, Center for Early Education and Temple Emanuel Religious School

 

“I am going to be a better fire-truck driver and be a firefighter when I get big.”

 
— Nathan Nassir, 4, Institute of Jewish Education

‘Sex and the City’ Workout


“You’re joining a gym again?” I laughed. “If you could get back even half the money you’ve spent on gym memberships, you could go to Hawaii!”

“This time it’s different,” my friend said. “I’m joining that new one right by the mall. It’s so convenient, I can’t not go! And I’ll even use my free sessions with the personal trainer. I swear to you I am not throwing my money away this time.”

Where have I heard that before? Gym joiners are a dime a dozen here in fitness-obsessed Los Angeles. And you can’t drive three blocks without seeing some kind of gym or studio. Where I live, every time a new Starbucks pops up so does another gym. But I gave up on gyms long ago.

I joined my first gym while in college. My friends and I signed up for a three-month trial together, intending to rid ourselves of the proverbial freshman 10 — the end result of late-night doughnut runs.

We went religiously for three weeks, and then at least twice a week for three weeks after that, and then once in a while for three more weeks, and then we took a break for finals. After finals, the excuses began: “I have too much studying to do.” “I have a date.” “My sister has my car.” “I need to go shopping.”

We didn’t sign up again when the three months ran out.

Over the years I joined a few more gyms, always with the best intentions. But eventually my motivation to workout just wore out. For every reason there was to go, I had at least three reasons not to.

After I swore off of gym memberships, I decided that I needed to come up with different incentives to get moving. I used my dog. My dog loves to walk, and I love my dog. But dogs tend to stop frequently, and my dog must have been concerned that the female dogs on our block were not aware of his existence. So even though our walks were delightful, it became less of a fitness routine and more of a way for my dog to mark his masculinity.

Although the dog-walk routine didn’t pan out, a bit of canine inspiration led me to a workout regimen that finally worked.

When I next ran into my gym-joining friend, she was sipping a low-fat frap at the Starbucks next door to her new gym.

“Hey! How’s the new workout?” I asked.

“Um, good. The trainer was great, but kind of expensive once the freebees ran out. The locker room is very clean, and the juice bar totally yum,” she said, diverting her eyes and concentrating on the whipped cream oozing up her straw.

“You quit, didn’t you?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

“You stopped going?”

“I just needed a break.”

“I told you so,” I said as I ordered a tall decaf latte.

“OK, so you did,” she said defensively. “And what about you? What are you doing for exercise?”

I raised my eyebrows and smiled coyly. “I invented my own routine. I call it the ‘Sex and the City’ Workout,” I said.

“I’m intrigued,” she said. We took a seat in a quiet corner in the back. “How does it work?”

“Do you remember Pavlov? Well, I now am conditioned just like his dog.”

“You drool?”

“Don’t be silly. I developed a system so that I associate exercise with something I really want. I got an elliptical machine and put it in front of the TV.”

“I bet you hang your dirty clothes on it.”

“I do,” I admitted. “Exercise equipment always turns into a clothesline. Anyway, the trick to my workout is DVDs of ‘Sex and the City.'”

“I don’t get it.”

“I love watching ‘Sex and the City,’ right? Well, I allow myself to watch only if I am on the elliptical. So just like Pavlov’s dog learned to associate the bell with food, I associate exercise with my favorite show. If I want to watch, I have to workout. It’s that simple. I got caught up in season five one night, and when I looked down I had burned more than 3,000 calories.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It’s the best idea I ever had. My regular workout consists of two episodes — first episode on the elliptical and second episode stretching and lifting weights.”

“Wow,” she shook her head. “You do look, uh, pretty fit.”

I showed her my upper arm and allowed her to poke my bicep.

“I’m not only in shape,” I bragged, “I am also the ‘Sex and the City’ trivia game champion. I was the only one in my havurah who knew where Carrie and Miranda bought their cupcakes.” (Magnolia Bakery.)

“So you just watch ‘Sex and the City’ over and over?” she asked.
“When I could recite Carrie’s lines as well as she could, I decided to move on. So I addicted myself to ‘Gilmore Girls,'” I said.

“Ooooh, I love that show!”

“Then ‘The Sopranos,’ ’24,’ ‘Will and Grace’….”

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 8
The Hollywood Palladium’s got the beat tonight. Head there for ’80s retro fun wrapped up in a good cause. Bet Tzedek — The House of Justice presents its annual Justice Ball benefit with headliners The Go-Go’s.

8:30 p.m. $75-$150. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. (323) 656-9069. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

 

Sunday, July 9
A midsummer night’s edutainment comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony. Tonight, they perform “Ahava: From Israel with Love” at the Ford Amphitheatre, with Chen Zimbalista on marimba and Alon Reuven on French horn. Explanatory introductions of each piece will be given by conductor Noreen Green.

7:30 p.m. $12-$36. 2850 Cahuenga Blvd., East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673.

Monday, July 10
TV gets some artistic recognition, thanks to Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). Today FIDM opens its new exhibition, “The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design,” which continues through Sept. 9. On display are highlights from 40 years of television costuming, including clothes worn by Sonny and Cher, Barry Manilow and Carol Burnett, on their shows and specials.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. (daily, except Sundays). Free. FIDM Museum and Galleries on the Park, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 624-1200, ext. 2224.

 

Tuesday, July 11
The sound of music drifts through the air, mixing with that signature zoo scent, this evening. The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association kicks off the first of two “Music in the Zoo” nights. Tonight, hear the Masanga Marimba Ensemble of Zimbabwe, the Scottish Wicked Tinkers, the Mediterranean music of Shaya and Rafi and the Irish Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder. Plus, the animals get a later bedtime of 8 p.m. and “Club Med Circus Performers” monkey around.

Tues., July 11 and 25, 6-9 p.m. Free (children 5 and under), $7-$16. Los Angeles Zoo, Griffith Park. (323) 644-6042. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Wednesday, July 12
Invisible friends get revenge in “Bunbury: A Serious Play for Trivial People.” The play by Tom Jacobson features the never-seen characters of Bunbury (of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and Rosaline (of “Romeo and Juliet”), teaming up to sabotage classic literary works. It is performed at the Skirball Cultural Center, and recorded to air on L.A. Theatre Works’ radio theater series, The Play’s the Thing, which broadcasts weekly on public and satellite radio, including 89.3 KPCC.

8 p.m. (July 12-14), 3 pm. (July 15), 4 p.m. (July 16). $25-$45. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P.,
(310) 827-0889.

Thursday, July 13
July gets a little hotter with Stephen Cohen Gallery’s “Summer Skin” exhibition. The group show features nude works, some naughty, some nice, by artists like Diane Arbus, Anthony Friedkin and Horace Bristo. The raciest stuff, by guys like David Levinthal, Larry Clark and Robert Mapplethorpe, can be seen in a separate viewing room.

July 7-Aug. 26. Free. 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 937-5525.

 

Friday, July 14
Literature takes center stage with The New Short Fiction Series, a host of evenings in which actors read from a published work of fiction. This year’s first featured writer is author and poet Carol Schwalberg, whose “The Midnight Lover and Other Stories” will be performed, tonight.

8 p.m. $10. Beverly Hills Public Library Auditorium, 444 N. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-2220.

The Aftermath


“Are you sure we won’t scare him off?” my aunt asked when I called to formally ask whether my boyfriend could come to our crazy seder.

That question echoed through my head as I introduced him to the gaggle of cousins and family members who greeted us at the door. Most of them had read my previous column for this page, in which I deliberated whether bringing him would be a good idea. I could read their thoughts, “Wow, he actually came!” While I’m sure some others were thinking, “Brave soul.” I could see the question, “Who is he?” in the eyes of some of my younger cousins, but all I did was introduce and smile. Once the initial surge was over, we pushed our way into the living room, which had become a makeshift dining room for oodles of family members. I could sense the engineering talent that it took to transform the space, as all 42 of us — family members, friends and guests — took our seats.

I had prepped my boyfriend for what he was going to encounter. From a Hebrew 101 lesson the night before, to a quick 1-2-3 seder crash course in the car ride over. With my sister as my partner-in-crime, we introduced the flight to Japan (yeah, don’t ask), our Mr. Potato Head chant (really not sure where that one came from), our sandpaper-clapping-won’t-stop-until-everyone-does-it L’Shana Haba’a routine and a lesson about the correct pronunciation of “Dayenu.”

The night began and as we sat around with sparkly crowns on our heads, since we are supposed to feel like royalty (great addition by the way, Leora!), I kept stealing glances at my guy. He did have a slight deer-in-headlights look, especially after we had heard the “Mah Nishtana” in Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, French, Yiddish and Klingon. OK, kidding about the last one, but it’s close enough. But the look quickly faded into a silly grin, especially once the frogs started flying.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs were flying everywhere!

It was about that time that I realized I had forgotten to warn him about the other plagues. He was definitely surprised once the “hail” — pingpong balls — were launched. One whizzed by and landed in front of us. I looked over and was met with a smile, so with a playful glint in my eye I tossed my pingpong ball…errr… hail backward over my head and turned around just in time to see it land perfectly in my cousin’s cup. Of course I asked if in true pseudo-Purim carnival fashion I had won a goldfish for my marvelous abilities — I’m still waiting for the answer. He definitely took it in stride when handfuls of “lice” (slimy glow-in-the-dark insects) were tossed around and landed inside more than one person’s crown, and he grabbed at the chance to don a zebra mask in tribute to the disease of the livestock.

Dinner came into fruition around 11 p.m. (so early!) and we all ate, talked and enjoyed ourselves. The night was going famously, and I hoped it would last through the third and fourth cups of wine, when the kids start falling asleep, and the adults become even more boisterous — if that’s possible.

As the night continued we pounded the tables, spilled many cups of wine, and turned the floor into an indefinable mish-mash combining plastic frogs, pieces of matzah, pillows that had slipped off chairs and a young child or two who had crawled beneath the tables to snooze.

I know for a fact that my boyfriend thought we were nuts as we “ooh-ah-ahhed” our way through the second-to-last song. But he didn’t just stare at me with concern in his eyes, he didn’t look at me like I was an escapee of the Hagaddah House of Horrors, he joined in. Perhaps he was a bit shy at first, but as he looked around and saw that we were all doing it, that we were all participating in these crazy traditions, he gained an inner confidence and began to mimic our movements. He adopted our mishegoss for a night, our sounds effects for “Chad Gad Ya,” meowing, bamming and “watering” along with the rest of us.

Was he tired after his first marathon seder? You bet. Was he amazed that it was past 2 a.m. when we finished? I know I was. Was he wishing he didn’t have to wake up at 7 a.m. to go to work the next day? I have no doubt. But he did it all with an open mind and a smile on his face, which is all I could have ever wanted, or asked for.

And yes, he even called me the next day. Did we scare him off? Nope — or should I say, not yet? I wonder when I should start prepping him for cousins’ camp “beach days”…. Hmmm. I think I’ll give him some more time.

Caroline Cobrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She can be reached at Carolinecolumns@hotmail.com

yeLAdim


Thank You!

The Navon family — Rebecca, Ariella, Eitan, Elisha and Asaf — gave us our pick for our new name: YeLAdim, which means children in Hebrew. The large L and A are in honor of where we live (good thing we aren’t in New York or it wouldn’t work). Thank you to all the kids who sent in ideas for a new name — you are really creative!

Kein v’ Lo:

Vashti

This section of the page will be a way for you as kids to sound off on an issue. This month’s kein v’ lo (yes and no) is about Queen Vashti. Is she, in the 21st century, a role model for women?

The Kein Side:

  • She stood up for what she believed in by refusing to dance in front of her drunk husband and his friends — wearing only her crown — during the royal feast. Even under penalty of death she stood by her convictions.
  • In earlier verses, she is referred to as “Vashti, the queen.” When she tells the king she won’t come, she is called “Queen Vashti,” to show that she has a mind of her own. The king’s advisers feared Vashti would start a trend. One adviser in particular (who some identify as Haman) told Ahashsuerus that he should issue a decree that women should obey their husbands, which he did.

The Lo Side:

  • She hosted a separate feast just for the women, but the sages say she held it in the same palace so the women would have a chance to flirt with the men. Some say she was incredibly vain and didn’t want to dance because she had a skin disease.
  • She was the great-granddaughter of the villainous King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had destroyed the sacred Temple. On Shabbat, she would summon Jewish women and children and force them to work and do humiliating tasks.

We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line Vashti. We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim. And whether you like poppy seed or cherry filling in your hamantaschen

— Happy Purim!

About…Purim

“Purim is when we celebrate Jews being free to have their way of life and live peacefully. It teaches fairness and kindness, because it said Haman needed to be kind to people that were not like him, and that Esther was very fair in how she got him to stop.

“But the most important thing about Purim is that it’s a lot of fun. You eat yummy foods and have a big carnival. For Purim, I plan to attend my religious school’s Purim carnival and hear the Megillah.” — Mimi Erlick, 10, Farragut Elementary School, Culver City, and Adat Shalom Religious School.

Do you want to share your opinion about something? Just e-mail kids@jewishjournal.com and put About…(your topic) in the subject line. We’ll print as many as we can.

 

Big Sunday Gets Big Boost From City


Big Sunday began in 1999 with 300 Jewish volunteers devoted to a day of good works. That was impressive in a city notorious for lack of civic involvement — but that was just the beginning.

What started as Mitzvah Day for congregants of Temple Israel of Hollywood gradually spread across the city and beyond the Jewish community, with 8,000 participants from all socio-economic and religious backgrounds working on 150 different projects last year. Now the event has taken another big leap — suddenly, Big Sunday is the business of the city of Los Angeles.

This year, Los Angeles assumes the headline role in sponsoring the May 7 event. The planning began officially last week at Temple Israel. About 170 attended, including about 30 representatives of city government, among them Larry Frank, deputy mayor of neighborhood and community services.

Frank said that the mayor’s office would “like to help the whole city do what you’ve been doing for the past seven years.”

“We want this to be as big as the marathon, as big as the Grammys,” he said. “We want everyone to be able to participate.”

This year, as a result of the city partnership, event founder David Levinson expects as many as 25,000 volunteers.

“Do the math,” he said at the planning meeting. “We had 8,000 last year. Mayor Villaraigosa’s citywide day of service in October drew 7,500. That’s already over 15,000.”

The variety of projects last year was diverse, ranging from bathing rescued basset hounds to furnishing apartments for the homeless. Some volunteers painted murals and planted a garden at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista, while another crew in the kitchen made casseroles to freeze and distribute to AIDS victims.

“My honest belief is that everyone wants to help and everyone can help,” said Levinson, a playwright and TV writer who still chairs the event.

“If someone says they can’t make it because they have a 1-year-old, I tell them to bring [the baby] to a nursing home. All she has to do is breathe, and she’ll make the residents happy,” Levinson said. “We had a blind theater group washing cars. At a party we threw for low-income seniors, one of the activities was making silk flowers for shut-ins at a nursing home.

“It’s not about the haves helping the have-nots,” he explained. “It’s about everyone working together.”

Last year’s participants hailed from more than 100 synagogues (all denominations from Reform to Orthodox to Reconstructionist), churches, schools, offices and clubs, as well as hundreds of individuals and families. They worked on almost 150 different projects from Acton to Anaheim.

As book captain, Racelle Schaefer, a Temple Israel member who has volunteered every year, spends months organizing book drives at schools.

“We also get donations of new children’s books from Houghton Mifflin,” she said. “Last year we distributed over 8,000 books throughout the city on Big Sunday.”

Corporate, private and organizational donors underwrite the day, including Temple Israel. The budget this year is $450,000. The city’s participation will include providing security, busing and street closures. Additional donors are both welcomed and needed, Levinson said.

“I have absolutely no idea how we’ll pay for it this year,” he added. “It’s a cliff-hanger, but we always figure something out.”

An improved Web site will make coordination easier. Volunteers can click on a listed project and get an automatic confirmation, map, contact person and any special instructions.

“I see Big Sunday as an appetizer platter for volunteers,” said Sherry Marks, vice chair and volunteer coordinator. “There are hundreds of worthy nonprofits that need our people. If you wanted, you could start at 7 a.m. and work at four or five different sites during the day.

“You could make meals at a shelter, take senior citizens out to tea or provide makeovers for women who are re-entering the work force,” she continued. “[The volunteering] often works as a catalyst, getting people to make an ongoing commitment to a particular organization.”

For more information visit www.bigsunday.org

 

There’s the Rub — in Tel Aviv


Tierra couldn’t be more Los Angeles. But for this nouveau combination of mostly organic restaurant, massage parlor and oxygen bar, you’ll have to go to Tel Aviv, where this combo venue clearly out-Hollywoods Hollywood.

The only thing missing — so far — is a Hollywood-style patron, such as Madonna or Oprah. In the meantime, you can settle happily for Yaniv Ben Rachamin, the handsome young waiter. On a recent visit, he needed some crib notes to describe the eclectic menu offerings, but he’s surefooted and helpfully well muscled for any visitors who order the seven-minute, 22-sheckel (about $4) massage with their entree.

Like the others of the wait staff, Ben Rachamin is a certified masseuse. His specialty happens to be a Chinese-style regimen whose name he had trouble translating into English. But as he willingly demonstrated, the good fight against carpal tunnel syndrome knows no language barriers. You just remain at your table in your chair and let him go to work.

Tierra’s setting in its bustling, mostly residential neighborhood is stylish coffeehouse; the food is inventive. One typical appetizer consisted of figs stuffed with mushrooms, macadamia nuts and chicken — flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and a Hindu date dressing (34 sheckels). Not all the entrees strain to be eccentric; there’s “grilled pullet and polenta” for 58 sheckels and “calamari paperdello” for 54 sheckels. Some menu offerings are mouth watering; others more creative than tasty. But there’s a full bar to wash everything down.

Co-owner Yonatan Galili says he keeps the menu as organic as possible — except when going exclusively organic would raise prices. He’s gone through several career iterations, including successful industrial engineer, to reach this entrepreneurial exploration of the mind/body/stomach connection.

He sees the massages as a way for a person/diner to “be with himself for seven minutes.” He adds: “We are very aware of the Western way of life. We serve food that is friendly to the stomach so you can eat here and then later keep on working.”

Of course, another option is to get high at the oxygen bar and forget all about working. Galili has two flavors of oxygen — “secret” concoctions created specially by an expert in designing flavors for oxygen bars. One is to relax you; the other to energize you.

The giddy feeling that ensues doesn’t seem quite legal, but apparently, it’s OK to inhale. Just be glad that you’re not the one flying the airplane home.

Tierra is located at Yirmiyahu 54, Tel Aviv, 03-604-7222. Hours: 9 a.m. to last customer.

 

Hillel Students Help Rebuild Gulf Coast


Southern Mississippi’s Jewish population suddenly mushroomed — as 135 members of the campus organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life fan out through the area, repairing roofs of houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Hillel students, who wore distinctive orange T-shirts that read “Rebuild and Repair: Tzedek Means Justice,” arrived New Year’s Day and stayed until Jan. 15. They constituted the largest-single group of Jewish volunteers to visit the storm-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast since Katrina struck the area last August.

“We all hear about this and we feel sorry for the victims and send money, but so few people actually get up and do something about it,” said Jacob Leven, a UCLA sophomore who studies engineering.

In addition to Hillel, other Jewish groups were active in Mississippi relief work. Shortly after Katrina struck, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatched a group of emissaries to Biloxi to assist with emergency search-and-rescue efforts.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent its director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, to Biloxi to assess the progress of one of its affiliate organizations, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.

“We are a human-rights organization and disaster relief is not the focus of the work of our center,” Adlerstein told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “But it is the interfaith part that got us involved through a back-door channel, and who knows where it will lead us.”

The Hillel volunteers, each of whom paid $125 plus transportation, were split into various teams to replace the roofs on 16 houses, all of them belonging to non-Jews. At night, they slept on the floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.

The program was coordinated by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, a Washington-based international social-service initiative sponsored by Hillel, which received $108,000 in funding from United Jewish Communities.

“During the past few days, the destruction we have seen has been devastating,” University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker said. “Before coming down, I had no idea how bad the situation was, and after seeing it firsthand I realized how important it is that we are down here. The work we’re doing is a very small part of what needs to be done.”

One building Hillel couldn’t fix up was Beth Israel Synagogue, which was severely battered by the hurricane. That’s because the congregation’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to rebuild the shul at the current site or move to a new site entirely.

“If we make no improvement on it at all, it’ll cost $350,000, and that’s low-balling it,” said Stephen Richer, the congregation’s president. “But that’s probably not the best thing to do. We’ll probably redesign it so we don’t have a flat roof. For what we want to do, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”

Founded in 1958, Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Mississippi, had 60 member families before Katrina, representing about half the coastal region’s Jewish population.

“A few people have left, and some like me are waiting for their homes to be fixed,” said Richer, interviewed in the crowded 36-foot Coachman trailer that’s parked in his front yard.

Richer, who’s also executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, bought the trailer used for $50,000 and drove it up from Florida; he’s been living in it ever since because his own house is full of mold and uninhabitable.

So is Beth Israel, which sits on the corner of Southern Boulevard and Camelia Street, only a few blocks from U.S. 90, which parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction is everywhere along the coast, from the twisted remains of a local Waffle House to the floating Treasure Bay Casino barge that ended up on the beach, half a mile away from its moorings.

The synagogue’s administrator, Bonnie Kidd, said she was able to save the office computer, fax machine and important books. Mark Tabor, who lived in an apartment on top of the synagogue and was its caretaker, rescued the Torah scrolls just before Katrina hit.

“It looks as bad inside as it does outside,” said Tabor, a retired military officer who is temporarily living with his son in Mobile, Ala. “Eventually I will come back to Biloxi, as soon as they decide what we’re going to do.”

As bad as Beth Israel is — with its damaged roof, cracked wooden pews and mold — it’s nothing compared to the destruction elsewhere in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.

“We know about 15 Jewish families who lost everything. They have nothing except the clothes on their back,” Kidd said. “Some of them left, some of them are staying with family or friends, and some of them have been able to go through the ruins and see what they could salvage.”

Since the storm, the Conservative congregation has been holding Shabbat services regularly at Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi.

“Our particular congregation is very ecumenical. We’ve participated in Friday evening services” at Beth Israel “for over 20 years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to bring in a non-Christian group,” said the Rev. Marilyn Perrine of Beauvoir, which also hosted Hands On USA, a volunteer group that includes Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers. “My folks are very open and excited about having Beth Israel in our building.”

Local churches also offered to host Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the visiting rabbi and cantor that had been sent by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism keep Shabbat, and with most Biloxi-area hotels destroyed by Katrina, there was nowhere within walking distance for them to stay.

In the end, nearby Keesler Air Force Base invited the congregation to use its chapel, Richer said.

Wayne Lord, the commanding general at Keesler, “came to Kol Nidre services before we started and made the most gracious remarks about the role of the U.S. military in preserving religious freedom,” Richer said. “We had probably over 100 people there — not only our members but also FEMA workers and Red Cross volunteers. We had a national audience.”

In the meantime, members of Biloxi’s dwindling, older Jewish community wonder what the future holds in store for them.

Real estate broker Milt Grishman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Israel in 1963. When Katrina hit, Grishman was already at his brother’s house up in Jackson, Miss.

“This is the first storm I ever evacuated for, and I’m glad I left,” he said, estimating that between 10 percent to 15 percent of Beth Israel’s members won’t be coming back.

“We’re such a small congregation that just a few can be significant,” Grishman said. “We had a fair number of military retirees living on a pension, and I’m not as optimistic as some others on our board.”

That’s because local unemployment is now running close to 25 percent, and of the 17,500 hotel rooms along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast before Katrina, only 5,000 are now open, according to Richer. Of the 13 casinos that were either operating or about to open, only three have reopened — which could put a severe dent into Biloxi’s tourism-driven economy.

“Some companies are deciding this is not a good place to be and are leaving,” Grishman said. “There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and a condo boom, and all that’s encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

First Person – A Love Story


This is the story of my friend Valerie, whom I first met just last year. Valerie sent me an e-mail introducing herself as Shira, a Jew-by-Choice who worked as a flight attendant. She wondered if I was the same Rabbi Mark her fiancé Glenn knew from his synagogue’s high school youth group. Glenn and I had lost touch with one another when his family moved to California. Was I the same individual, Val asked, and, if so, would I officiate at their wedding?

Thanks to Valerie, two best friends were reunited after more than three decades apart. More importantly, Glenn and Val had found each other. Their love was intoxicating, with family and friends commenting how happy each was to have found his/her soul mate.

On a sunny October afternoon, I performed the ceremony as Glenn and Valerie married in a traditional Jewish wedding on a yacht in Marina del Rey. We joined with their children, parents, relatives and friends for a joyous ceremony on the deck replete with a wind-blown chuppah. Val’s artistic touches were evident in the wedding program she designed, the ketubah she selected and the extra touches that made the day special. Adding to the festivities were other yachts in the harbor whose captains blew their horns in celebration with shouts of mazal tov from their own passengers.

Two months after that glorious day, Glenn called to tell me that his beloved Valerie had suffered a brain aneurism and was in critical condition in an area hospital. I rushed to the ICU unit, only to find our beautiful, 47-year-old Valerie near death. I sat with Glenn, Val’s daughters, and other family members as a neurologist informed them that Valerie was brain dead and being kept “alive” by machines.

Amid the overwhelming shock and grief, the medical staff gently raised a sensitive but timely subject: Would the family consider donating Valerie’s organs to others? Their initial reply was no, since Valerie had thought that Jewish law prohibited organ donation. They too believed that donating organs was a sin. Fighting back tears, I counseled family members that organ donation is not contrary to Jewish law. In fact, rabbinical authorities from all Jewish movements agree that organ donation is a tremendous mitzvah and the highest form of pikuah nefesh (saving life).

An emotional discussion followed. What would Valerie want her loved ones to do had she known that organ donation is permissible according to Jewish law?

In the end, Valerie’s family consented to donating her organs. I sat with my friend Glenn as a nurse from OneLegacy (the Southern California transplant donor network) completed the paperwork to initiate this awesome mitzvah. I witnessed the OneLegacy team spend day and night painstakingly matching Valerie’s organs with compatible donors, as her family and I made plans for her funeral.

On a sunny December afternoon, we laid Valerie to rest in a local cemetery. We remembered her as a fun-loving, vivacious young woman. Val made friends easily and instantly, from passengers on her flights, to total strangers in stores and restaurants. She lived each moment to the fullest, and radiated warmth and joy to those around her.

In life, Valerie gave 100 percent to whomever she was with and whatever she was doing. In death, Valerie gave the ultimate gift. One of her kidneys is now in the body of a 76-year-old man who had been on dialysis for six years. He is married and the father of three children. His kidney function is now good and he is off of dialysis.

Valerie’s other kidney went to a 50-year-old man. He is single, active and used to ride his bicycle 40 to 50 miles a week. Prior to the transplant, he had been on dialysis. Valerie’s kidney was a “zero mismatch,” meaning that it was a perfect match for this recipient. He told the transplant team that he knows he “won the lotto” by receiving such a perfectly matched kidney. He is doing well and his prognosis is quite good.

These are just two of the fortunate recipients of Valerie’s donated organs. The quality of their lives has improved dramatically since their transplants. In some cases, they are alive because of their transplants.

I will never understand why my friend Valerie was taken from us in the very prime of her life. When I sit and cry with her family, I cannot know their pain and anguish nor can I comprehend their tragic loss. I do know that they find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that Valerie gave the gift of life to others. Amid the darkness, they have found a ray of light and hope for the future.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

 

Our first annual big list o’ mensches


To its detractors, Los Angeles seems very much like a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah — besotting civilization with a trash culture of celebrity murder trials, reality TV and movies that trade on violence and superficiality. Even to Angelenos, the city can be trying and sometimes disheartening. Our metropolis seems almost biblically plagued with crawling traffic, battling gangs and stratospheric home prices; with a vast divide between rich and poor, between legal and under-the-table and between cycles of boom and bust — as well as with fires, earthquakes and mudslides. And yet, by the standard that should have saved Sodom — 10 righteous souls (we consider families as one) — Los Angeles’ future shines bright at the dawn of 2006 C.E. For Los Angeles is amply provided with tzadikim — good people who do good work in the community. The men and women featured here — beginning what we intend to make an annual list — are just a sampling of what is worth celebrating in our community.

MENSCHES

Angels in America


Angels are everywhere in America these days, and a lot of them are tacky. When I was growing up you saw them once a year, adorning Christmas trees. Since then they’ve swarmed across the thin border that divides religious imagery from kitsch. Gift shops stock angel T-shirts, angel bookends, angel-print pillowcases and little angel wings to attach to your pet chihuahua.

Rarely a week goes by without an angel-themed book on the best seller list, and Hollywood has fallen into step with shows like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and this season’s “The Book of Daniel.”

But this week’s cover story celebrates not make-believe angels, but real live ones.

Jews and angels, it turns out, have a complicated relationship. We borrowed the notion from the Sumerians, the good folks who clued us in on the serpent, the Flood, the ark and writing. The Hebrew word for angel is malach, which means “messenger.” In Jewish lore, these messengers shape-shift between the godlike and the human, not just from era to era, but from reference to reference. In Genesis, Hagar encounters an angel, then later refers to “the Lord” who spoke to her. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but an angel of heaven intervenes to stay his hand.

In other passages, angels take the form of men, visiting Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac; then visiting Sodom to warn Lot to flee before destroying the city. In one of the most physical manifestations, an angel wrestles with Jacob, leaving him wounded. Reading the Bible, you are left with no clear notion of the Hebrew angels: Are they flesh and blood or the voice of God? Are they dreamed of or three-dimensional? The biblical notion of the angel is amorphous, open to argument, hardly the stuff of T-shirts.

In post-biblical literature, angels multiply. Scholars attribute this in part to the influence of other wisdom traditions on Jewish thought in Hellenistic times. By the Middle Ages, Jewish magic and angels were intertwined. By one estimate, the world of medieval Jewish mysticism counted as many as 496,000 angels.

“Houses and cities, winds and seasons,” writes Joshua Trachtenberg in “Jewish Magic and Superstition” (Penn, 2004), “each speck of dust underfoot … no thing in nature exists independently of its … heavenly ‘deputy.'”

Christians got angels from Jews. We meanwhile have all but sloughed off our belief in heavenly intermediaries. With the exception of smallish sects, most Jews see angels not as guardians from above, but as metaphor for the power of our souls, something akin to what that great Chasid Abraham Lincoln posited in his inauguration speech when he spoke of, “the better angels of our nature.”

This special issue of The Jewish Journal recognizes and celebrates those better angels.

Originally we were taken with the idea of the lamed vavniks, the 36. In Jewish lore, these are the 36 people who walk the earth anonymously, pure souls engaged in holy work, whose unique goodness is all that stands between humankind and God’s harsh judgment.

But — here’s the truth — we knew we wouldn’t have enough room in this issue for 36 profiles. The cruel realities of ad pages knocked 26 righteous people off the list.

Ten was the next-best number, because 10 was the number of decent people Abraham offered to find in Sodom to save the town from God’s wrath. Ten people — in this context we chose to consider families as one — going about their lives in humble goodness could indeed change the fate of a People, not to mention a wicked city.

We know that other publications produce annual year-end lists of The 10 Most Powerful or The 10 Hottest New Stars or The 10 Richest. More power to them. But we saw no point in telling people who already know they’re rich, or gorgeous, or powerful, that they are.

The people we chose to profile inside undoubtedly know that they are making a positive difference in people’s lives. They know they are doing so not because that’s their job, not because they have to, but because in helping others, they attend to the better angels of their nature. Some people may buy ceramic angels, and others might believe that angels watch out for them, but these people are compelled to intervene to improve the lives of others — to be the angels that humans have long imagined should exist.

Consider Jennifer Chadorchi, a 20-something Beverly Hills resident who has provided thousands of homeless men and women with food and social services. Or Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen, whose Pico-Robertson home serves as a collection and distribution center for goods to needy families.

Or consider Saul Kroll, 87, a retiree who volunteers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center 35 to 40 hours per week. He’s been doing that since 1987, logging some 24,400 hours. Sometimes he takes a day off to drive his 90-year-old neighbor to the doctor to receive cancer treatments. “Don’t tell someone, ‘OK, call me if you need help,'” Kroll says. “Just go on over and help.”

Now, that’s an angel.

 

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?


 

To try to figure out all the volunteer projects social worker Karen Gilman is involved in — and where she finds the time to do them all — is to sift through a complex maze of stories of individuals who need help, or organizations that need help, or a volunteer staff that needs organization, or funds or whatever she can give.

For her job, Gilman is a social worker, who deals with parents of developmentally disabled children ranging in age up to 3.

“Some of my work-work interferes with my volunteer work,” she joked.

That volunteer work is vast. She served as the sisterhood president of Temple Israel of Hollywood and currently co-chairs its AIDS lunch project, which distributes food once a month. Gilman is also social action chair for the Western Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which presents the women’s positions on legislative policy.

She also works with Shane’s Inspiration, a nonprofit group that creates handicapped-accessible playgrounds around Los Angeles, and serves on the Special Olympics Mini Meet committee, as well as Fiesta Familiar, a yearly training program for parents of children with disabilities.

There’s more — like volunteering at her temple gift shop and working with the day school children on volunteer projects — but the real questions are: How does she do it? How does she not get burned out?

By way of an answer, she tells stories of second-graders who donated money anonymously so a poor person could celebrate Purim, the school lunch lady who called her to find out what to do for a severely lactose-intolerant child on pizza day and the parents who advocate for their children and “turn their pain in something for their families. That keeps us going,” she said, although even the mere question of what motivates her is curious to her.

“Once in a while, someone will do something out of the kindness of their hearts for someone else,” she said. “When you’re able to pull together the research and make something happen for someone, and they can utilize the resources, it’s gratifying.”

That’s Gilman’s main motivation. She was raised by socially conscious and politically active parents and grandparents in Chicago.

“They set the stage that this was the right thing to do,” she said.

“She doesn’t seek the limelight,” said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. “She really does it modestly. She just cares a lot — she knows she has the ability, and she knows a mitzvah and how to do it.”

That’s why the temple decided to surprise her by honoring her — only her — last year.

“They really shouldn’t have done it,” Gilman said, more embarrassed than upset. “Everyone works together on all these projects, and no one person is more deserving than another for praise. The highest form of giving charity is doing so anonymously, so it’s not really good to draw attention to oneself in one’s charitable work.”

For Gilman, volunteering is a team effort, one that requires motivating others to join her: “They are doing something good together with their friends, you get to spend a great time together with your community and it will make you feel good. People love giving anonymously and selflessly. Usually, Jewish people are easy to convince. They usually understand the concept of charity pretty well.”

Karen Gilman

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home


 

When the doorbell rings at the Cohens’ Pico-Robertson home — or more accurately when the door edges open, since it’s almost never locked — the littlest of Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen’s six kids grab their shoes. If it’s someone dropping off donated food or clothing, they start shlepping things in while the older ones begin sorting and organizing. If it’s someone coming to collect those items, the kids take them through the living room and yard to help them pack up the day’s offerings — unserved food salvaged from caterers; groceries donated by local markets; or furniture, clothing, toys and electronics that the area’s wealthy families don’t want, and that one of the 52 families that depend on the Cohens sorely needs.

The Cohens’ cramped three-bedroom home is the headquarters, warehouse and distribution center for Global Kindness/L.A. Chesed, the network the Cohens founded less than three years ago.

With caring brown eyes peeking out of her broad face, Yaelle, in her late 30s, is a pint-sized Moroccan tornado in bright yellow-and-orange sneakers. In a perpetually hoarse voice, she answers about 35 phone calls a day from donors and people desperate for help.

The Cohens understand desperation. Eight years ago, Nouriel’s beauty supply business went under, and the family had to give up their Beverly Hills home. He hasn’t had steady employment since then and has had to rely on his parents and family to get by.

“But now when you look ahead, you can see that was all for the purpose of good, because we had to really feel what was going on in people’s hearts and minds when they are really down,” says Nouriel, whose distinguished gray beard and smiling blue eyes do little to attest to his Persian ancestry.

The Cohens raise money to help families with rent, bills, day-school tuition or transportation. They help with bar mitzvahs, and have sent families housekeepers and gardeners to restore dignity to rundown homes.

Late every Friday afternoon the family gets a load of challah the kosher bakeries didn’t sell, and the kids, ages 1 through 12, wheel strollers and carts through the neighborhood doling out the loaves.

They host huge Shabbos lunches and singles events and help a handful of families in Canada, New York and Israel.

Often, they become de facto social workers, referring families to resources for abuse, addiction or mental health issues.

The Cohen operation shuts down from 5-8:30 p.m., so the family can have dinner, do homework and get through bedtime. But other than that, they’re on.

And on Chanukah, the Cohens sent their clients’ wish lists to Chabad of Malibu, where families purchased and wrapped the gifts. Those packages were set up in a dream-like display on the ornate furniture left over from wealthier times in the Cohen’s living room/dining room.

Recently, Nouriel started a new business and it seems to be taking off. While he looks forward to giving his family more comfortable quarters, he thanks God for the new sensitivity they have.

“We see what people throw away — thousands and thousands of dollars worth of beautiful clothing,” Nouriel says. “Why would someone throw it away? Because it means nothing. Money comes and goes. The main thing is what you are doing in this life.”

For more information call (310) 286-0800.

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen and family

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis


 

There’s a worn American flag hanging in the second-story window of Moshe Salem’s stately Valley Village home.

Which is strange if you think about it, since much of Salem’s existence is centered around Israel. He’s Israeli, his wife is Israeli, as are their four kids. Most of his friends in the Valley are Israeli, and for the last three years, he’s been volunteering as the president of the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC), a small organization that wants to serve as the central representation of Israelis in Los Angeles — an endeavor that has not quite come to fruition just yet.

There’s more of Israel inside these huge mahogany oak doors, which open onto a marble floor and thick, ivory columns: The walls flanking the entryway are decorated with dozens of colorful hamsas, hand-shaped amulets that ostensibly protect against evil; in the corner of the two story-high living room is a tarnished silver Middle Eastern tea set and several hookahs, and, of course, there’s Moshe himself, the 45-year-old advocate for Israel and for Israelis in America.

Although the organization originally began in 2001 as a pro-Israel advocacy group, when other organizations like StandWithUs began to effectively fill that role, the CIC changed direction to try to foster a relationship between Israelis and Israel, its culture and values.

After he became president of the CIC in 2002 — a term that ends in February — Salem began working three to four hours a day on CIC projects, such as hosting speakers, sing-alongs, holiday activities; working with The Federation and Jewish Agency; organizing events like the recent Rabin memorial at the University of Judaism; or inviting Israeli soldiers to talk about Israel’s care in the execution of missions.

“There is a great need for one central Israeli organization,” says Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Shalom L.A., a Hebrew newspaper here. Shor does not believe the CIC has fulfilled that role yet, due to a membership of 5,000 out of the estimated 200,000 Israelis in Los Angeles and a lack of funding, but he says Salem has been tireless in his work.

“One good thing about him is that he’s trying. He does give his time and effort,” Shor says.

When he’s not at the CIC, Salem runs his diamond business, which he started a few years after he came to California in 1981. Like many Israelis here, Salem originally came to America to make some money, never intending to stay. But after a wife, four children and years of what he calls “living on the fence” — about whether to return to Israel or not — Salem has come to terms with the fact that they’re probably not going back to Bat Yam. Which makes it all the more important for him to try to forge a connection between Israelis and Israel.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you doing this, giving your time, your money?’ (Time away from work is money),” he said. “You have more substance in your life rather than just getting up in the morning, going to parties, going to the movies,” he said.

On a personal level, he said, he does it for his children, too: “I think my kids observe a lot. When they see an article in the Israeli papers, or when we have a gathering at the house, it enriches their life. I think, I hope, I pray that I’m embedding in them Jewish Israeli values that way.”

On a more global level, he said that somebody has to do the work that he is doing.

“If everybody says, ‘I can’t do it, I’m too busy,’ then who would do this? If nobody would do these things, then what you’re doing is emptying the community life from any cultural or spiritual values,” he said. “A community that does not have spiritual and cultural values is a doomed community.”

Moshe Salem

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

With Us — Always


The communitywide memorial rally held in Los Angeles just days after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was heart-wrenching, tearful, agonizing and awful.

But it was also good.

The police cordoned off Wilshire Boulevard between La Cienega and San Vicente boulevards in front of the Israeli Consulate, and an impromptu congregation gathered — one that was almost as diverse as L.A. Jewry itself. Some 10,000 people came together to mark not just one man’s death, but to mourn a loss of promise, of hope, of innocence.

I don’t recall a single word that was spoken, but I do remember standing beside people I had never seen before, singing “Hatikvah,” and feeling like such an event could be, might be, the beginning of the end to the internecine madness and hate that led, inexorably, to Rabin’s murder.

That’s what was so good about it.

A decade later, the entire community marked Rabin’s death with…bupkis.

No organization, no school and no synagogue held a special event to recall and reflect.

Ten years ago, the Wilshire Boulevard rally was just one of several gatherings. Some 3,000 people packed Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, 2,000 more attended a ceremony at the Museum of Tolerance and hundreds more poured into Temple Beth Am.

As the Hebrew date of his murder approaches (Nov. 14), there is still no large-scale event scheduled. The welcome exceptions are a memorial service that day being held by UCLA Hillel at Spiegel Auditorium, which holds 300 people (www.uclahillel.org), and a to-be-announced event organized by the Council of Israel Communities.

In New York, a massive community-wide event was held last week. In Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation held a “Tribute to Yitzhak Rabin” at the National Liberty Museum, with Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendel and the consulate general of Israel. There were also communitywide events in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The purpose of these events is not emotional as much as educational. The raw emotions of Nov. 4, 1995 have healed, but the meaning and lessons of that day still resonate.

In Israel, a 1997 law requires official commemorations of Rabin’s death. Schools work it into their curriculums and ceremonies.

Across Israel, the murder is marked by days of ceremonies, debate and soul-searching. This year, the 10th anniversary will culminate in a state-sponsored graveside memorial, which former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton will attend.

Here, too, such commemorations can serve a similar purpose.

At a time when a generation of Jewish youth grow up surrounded by negative images of Israel, Rabin’s legacy, even unadorned and unvarnished, is powerful and positive:

It Is a Lesson in the Importance of Words.

As Rabin pursued compromise, fanatics in Israel demonized him as a terrorist, an apostate and a Nazi. His more moderate political opponents often did nothing to suppress or denounce the extremists. Hateful words inexorably led to hateful deeds.

“Yitzhak did not die because of the sole lunacy of a lone madman,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said at VBS’s 1995 memorial. “The assassin breathes poison air…. Yitzhak died because when people burned his effigy, when people dressed him in a Nazi uniform, when people in high places called him ‘traitor’ and ‘murderer,’ too few raised their voice, too few were moved by moral outrage to cry out to everyone. We are fragile human beings, and we are killed by words.”

It Is a Lesson About the Limits of Power.

Rabin, a general who fought and led Israel through some of its most dire battles, realized that ultimately, a nation cannot survive in constant conflict with its neighbors. As our correspondent Leslie Susser wrote last week, Rabin shared with another Israeli leader an understanding that Israel needed strong diplomatic ties, it needed to address realistic issues of demography and democracy, and it needed to achieve a state of non-belligerency, if not peace, with its neighbors. How ironic is it, Susser wrote, that he shared this strategic outlook with his political opponent, current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

It is a Lesson About the Power of Pragmatism.

The miracle of Israel’s existence is its ability to be practical. Rabin would have preferred to hang on to territory; he would have preferred not to shake Arafat’s blood-soaked hand. But he believed the Oslo peace process gave Israel its best chance for long-term security.

“He wasn’t a visionary or a prophet,” Rabin’s longtime aide Eitan Haber told the Los Angeles Times. “He was the most pragmatic and analytical man I ever met in my life.”

A few months after the assassination, I met Rabin’s granddaughter, Noa Ben Artzi-Pelosoff, in the atrium of a Beverly Hills hotel. She had come to Los Angeles to promote her memoir about her grandfather, written after her simple graveside eulogy had captivated the world.

She was 19, on leave from military service. We spoke for a half-hour. She was removed, on book-tour autopilot.

That’s when I decided to ask her whether she saw him.

She put down her third or fourth cigarette and looked at me for the first time.

I told her that someone I loved had also died recently before his time, and I kept seeing him, over and over, wherever I went.

“Not in your dreams, right?” she said.

“No,” I confided. “At the snack stand by the beach, walking on Melrose….”

“Yes,” she said. “Everywhere.” Her eyes welled up: “I just see him, or feel him, around me.”

“It’s not weird, is it?” I said, knowing the answer.

She said it wasn’t strange or frightening, but in a way very comforting, a sign that she would be OK.

Everything may be OK, or not. But it will certainly be better if we keep the memory and lessons of Yitzhak Rabin’s life and death close to us.

Next year on Wilshire Boulevard….

 

Juvenile Offenders Taste Teshuvah


The slightly built, 13-year-old Latino boy sitting in the Starbucks near downtown Los Angeles didn’t know much about teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance.

But it lies at the heart of L.A.’s Jewish Community Justice Project, and it kept this scared kid with the tremulous smile from a likely stint in juvenile boot camp for throwing rocks at a police car.

Instead of going before a judge, the boy was brought face-to-face with the policeman whose car he’d damaged, and in a two-hour meeting facilitated by two trained mediators, he had to tell the cop he was sorry.

Then he had to pledge to make restitution by working a set number of hours for his parents and a local gardening firm to pay $200 for a new car window.

“I felt nervous in that room,” the boy admitted. “I told him I was stupid, and not thinking about what I was doing at that moment. He was kind, he was a good person. He told me to thank my parents for raising me.”

It was the first time the boy had worked for money, and his mother said he was tempted to keep the first $50 he made.

“But I told him, ‘You have to take care of your responsibilities first,'” she said.

The Jewish Community Justice Project is a partner of the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project, which has been running a victim-offender restitution program in Los Angeles since 1992.

Four years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles funded the joint project between Centinela and two L.A.-based Jewish groups, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery program.

According to the agreement, the PJA trains volunteers to mediate in cases forwarded by local law enforcement and juvenile courts. There currently are almost 60 Jewish volunteer mediators.

“The alliance with PJA has been so exciting because they’ve recruited motivated, dedicated volunteers,” said Steve Goldsmith, Centinela’s executive director. “The religious component, the education of teshuvah, really keeps the people motivated.”

The mediation project is based on the legal concept of restorative justice, according to which offenders must take personal responsibility for their crimes and make restitution directly to those they have offended.

Participants say it dovetails neatly with the Talmudic notion of teshuvah, which specifies that one must seek forgiveness from those one has wronged before asking God’s forgiveness, something Jews are meant to do every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Part of teshuvah is attending to what one did, and turning to the person who was hurt or offended to see whether you can come back to an open relationship with that person and their family,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Levy helped create the Jewish part of the curriculum — eight hours of Jewish text study on justice and forgiveness — for the volunteer training program.

Daniel Sokatch, director of the PJA, said he brought his organization into the program in 2002, when Los Angeles became the nation’s murder capital.

“We realized that most of the murders were in the 310 area code, home to most of the Jews who don’t live in the Valley,” Sokatch said.

The most affected neighborhoods weren’t those where many Jews live, Sokatch said, but “it’s still our city, and in the words of Jeremiah, you must work for the welfare of the city where you live and there find your own well-being.”

Cases involving murder aren’t eligible for mediation. Most of the what comes to Centinela involves petty theft, vandalism, bullying and similar crimes.

One of the hardest parts of the program is making sure that appropriate cases are referred to them. There were 45,000 youths arrested last year in Los Angeles, Goldsmith said, yet Centinela received only 600 to 700 referrals.

To address that problem, Sokatch said, the next volunteer training program in early 2006 will include a separate, less-intensive track for volunteers, who will learn how to schmooze intake cops, “visit them every week, bring doughnuts and coffee and review the docket with them” to ensure that fewer juvenile offenders slip through the cracks.

Jordan Susman, a former television writer and filmmaker, was in Sokatch’s first group of volunteer mediators.

“I felt that’s what a Jewish organization should do,” said Susman, who is now a third-year law student. “It appeals to my Jewish point of view. The juvenile justice system is beyond broken — once you’re in the system, you learn how to be a better criminal. This is about breaking that cycle.”

Keren Markuze, a documentary television writer, has mediated about a dozen cases since her training last year.

“Jewish law is very big on giving people chances,” she said. “Let’s do everything we can to make sure the punishment is appropriate, especially when we talk about children.”

Jewish law also takes intention into consideration when looking at crime, Markuze noted. She described one case she mediated in which a boy stole pants, a shirt and shoes from a department store.

During the mediation, the boy confessed in tears that his mother was laid off and couldn’t afford to buy him a new school uniform, and he was tired of being humiliated by the other kids at school for his clothes.

“That’s an issue of economic justice,” Markuze proclaimed. “Of course, he had to learn that stealing is not a solution, but for him to end up in the conventional justice system would have been tragic.”

Restorative justice programs exist in many cities around the world, according to several Web sites devoted to the topic. And it’s not about feeling sorry for kids — statistics show that such programs work.

According to the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, recidivism rates are lower following mediation than following traditional punishment. Approximately 80 percent of young offenders who participated in mediation complete their restitution to their victims, compared to just 58 percent of offenders who were ordered to do restitution by the courts, but who did not sit face-to-face with those they had wronged.

“When you go to court, you’re not sitting across from your victim, forced to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say to you,” Markuze said. “It’s very powerful.”

Susman said he has his young offenders “do the math” to figure out the number of jobs lost because of crimes like theirs every year in Los Angeles. When they realize it’s their parents and friends who are losing those jobs, it “really affects them,” he said.

In the L.A. mediation project, Goldsmith said, about 70 percent of juvenile offenders complete their restitution pledges. He pointed to a study done by California’s Supreme Court that found the re-arrest rate was half that of young criminals who did not go through mediation.

“It helps divert kids from the court system, and it actually shows a pretty good success rate of keeping kids out,” said Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A. County Juvenile Court. “Not every kid needs to be brought into the court system if there’s another way they can be

held accountable, make restitution to the victim and develop a sense of responsibility.”

The mediators take away something from it as well. For Susman, who said he and his wife are “always looking for ways to incorporate more Judaism” into their lives, acting as a court mediator “is where my Judaism is expressed existentially through the actions I do.”

Markuze said she often “feels ambivalent” after a mediation, “because there’s so much more we as a society could be doing.”

Sometimes she feels the juveniles “aren’t really contrite.” But overall, she said, “I feel good I’ve given someone a chance to make amends.”

The next volunteer mediator training session will be held in the spring. For information, contact www.pjalliance.org.

 

First Person – A Mother of Wisdom


Calcutta’s kaleidoscope of teeming streets, sprawling markets and chaotic taxis has always mesmerized me.

At times, it seems as though all 10 million denizens of this eastern Indian metropolis are roaming the city at once, surging in tidal waves, an urban sea of humanity. It was here that Mother Teresa pursued her humanitarian mission for almost 70 years.

My wife, Simone, and I have visited Calcutta (now called Kolkata) often, setting aside time to plod our way through the cacophonous traffic along Chandra Bose Road to the calm oasis of Mother Teresa’s shelter for children, Shishu Bhavan. We would spend a day or two volunteering, as do so many others from around the world, to care for the youngsters. The volunteers always included Jews, who were welcomed as all others in this basically Catholic institution.

The children, salvaged from the streets or often left at the main gate, found refuge here from a harsh world. We fed and washed them, and played games with them. From one year to the next we got to know the familiar faces of those orphans and abandoned waifs not fortunate enough to have been adopted by families from India and abroad.

On one memorable visit to the shelter my wife sat on the floor telling picture-book stories to two wide-eyed toddlers tucked under her arms. In another room, I lingered at the crib bed of Priti, a disabled teenager whose congenital spinal condition left her helplessly prone and silent. Priti could not speak coherently; could scarcely move her limbs. I stroked her sleek back hair and hummed songs to her, as she studied me intently with her coal-black eyes. The nuns had told me she had little chance of long-term survival, and she has since died. Her contorted face remains deeply etched in my memory.

On earlier visits to the shelter we had never met Mother Teresa, who died eight years ago on Sept. 5. World traveler that she was, she had always been abroad when we were there.

This time we got lucky. We climbed the several flights of stairs and waited in the passage outside Mother Teresa’s room, curious and excited. A young nun who was to introduce us said that Mother Teresa’s small room was very Spartan. Emulating the poor, the nun said, Mother Teresa slept on a narrow cot, and used no electric fan to cope with Calcutta’s sweltering climate.

The door opened and a tiny figure in the familiar white and sapphire-blue bordered sari strode toward us in her bronzed bare feet. A graceful smile lit up her furrowed features, as she brought her palms together welcoming us with the traditional Bengali, “Namaskar.”

“Last Sunday I passed 80 years,” she said, with a cheerful lilt.

“In my religion,” I replied, “we wish you 120 years!”

Her quizzical look told me she might never have heard that Jewish birthday greeting before. I was convinced it hadn’t registered when, after telling her we were from New York, she spiritedly advised Simone, “You must go to our mission in the South Bronx … you can help out there.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the needs of the Calcutta shelter. As this scarcely 5-foot-tall dynamic woman spoke, I searched her eyes. They had an endless depth emanating a calm assurance and an artless candor. These hazel eyes seemed to project intense compassion.

Was I ascribing this aura out of awe inspired by her? Or was it a kind of celebrity worship?

I wasn’t sure.

She held up her right hand and bent each extended finger, one at a time, as she recited five words: “He did this for me.” Simone and I smiled at this simple prayer of gratitude. From somewhere on her person she produced two little yellow cards on which were printed a poem she had written. She offered them to us, touching our hands gently:

“The fruit of Silence is Prayer

The fruit of Prayer is Faith

The fruit of Faith is Love

The fruit of Love is Service

The fruit of Service is Peace”

I still have that yellow card. But I choose to remember first another poem, far more personal, said to be in her handwriting, found on the wall above her bed after she died:

“The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.

Be good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be good enough.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.”

For more information on Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, call (718) 292-0019 or write 335 E. 145th Street, Bronx, N.Y.

Jack Goldfarb has been traveling worldwide and writing about his journeys for more than 30 years. Formerly a resident of London and Tel Aviv, he now lives in New York City.

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Remembering Tibor


As Shavuot approaches, I can’t help but remember the afternoon of the first day of Shavuot two years ago when my neighborsand I stood outside our homes and wondered whether terrorists had struck again, as the sound of sirens permeated the air and an army of helicopters circled the smoke-filled sky above the Fairfax area. We soon learned that a small airplane had crashed into an apartment building, killing the four people on board, as well as one apartment resident, 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, Tibor Reis.

Since that day, I have thought a lot about Tibor and learned much about this kind and humble man. Tibor had been studying at his beloved shul, Young Israel of Los Angeles, until 2 a.m. on the first night of Shavuot. Before attending services early the next morning, he changed his regular routine and went to the mikvah, the ritual bath. (This act would take on a much greater significance after his death because his body was too charred to perform taharah — the ritual pre-burial washing.)

Tibor had been a member of Young Israel for more than 30 years. During that time, he had never recited the haftorah. He always deferred, saying they should give the honor to someone more worthy. At the synagogue that morning, the gabbai told him that no one was more deserving and so, on the last day of his life, Tibor had the last aliyah and chanted the haftorah for the first time. The haftorah described an esoteric view of Heaven with such verses as: “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.”

After shul, he had planned to go to a friend’s house for lunch, however he made the fateful decision to go home and get some much-needed rest. At 4 p.m., as he slept, the plane plummeted into the building. Everything in his apartment was destroyed by the fire — with the exception of his tallit and his kittel. He was buried in Israel, wearing those garments.

Tibor was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in the city of Komoren, on the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border. He was liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, where he helped his father survive. His mother and two brothers perished, while two other brothers, one now living in New York, the other in Israel, survived.

After the war, while living in Komoren under a very oppressive regime, Tibor was caught helping Jews escape to Austria, and was put into a Russian prison for three years. Although he was tortured, he never revealed the names of those working with him.

He was finally freed after brilliantly pleading his case before a judge. After his acquittal, a kind non-Jewish stranger helped him escape to West Berlin. He eventually made his way to America, and lived in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. He lived alone and had never married; his shul was the center of his life.

Young Israel’s Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz found special significance in Tibor’s Hebrew name, Moshe Yehuda. He said King David, who was a member of the Yehuda Tribe, also died on Shavuot; and that Moshe, who gave us the Torah on Shavuot, was considered our most humble Jew. Tibor was a serious scholar who studied every day; he spoke six languages. Young Israel is in the process of creating a library in Tibor’s memory.

Tibor took the bus downtown every day, where he repaired watches in the jewelry district. He had modest means but always gave tzedakah and tried to help others. He visited homebound people in the neighborhood on a regular basis and often sent money to his brothers and their families.

Tibor enjoyed cooking for himself and told everyone at the shul what he prepared for Shabbat, or about a great soup he made. He frequently shopped on Fairfax Avenue, and was somewhat of an institution to everyone. He walked all over and loved to schmooze along the way. People often helped carry his packages or gave him a ride home.

Those familiar with Tibor’s death ask the same question: Why did this good and decent man, who survived concentration camps and a Russian prison, die in such a horrible, violent manner? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this cruelest of ironies.

However, we can honor Tibor’s memory by making a special effort to reach out to those who are alone; and during Yizkor this Shavuot, we can take an extra moment to think of Tibor, as well as those who died who have no one to remember them.

Despite innumerable hardships, Tibor maintained a positive outlook and accomplished many things during his lifetime. Nothing exemplifies this more profoundly than the touching scene that took place after his memorial service at Young Israel before his body was sent to Israel for burial.

As the casket was carried down the street to his apartment building and the awaiting hearse, the sidewalks on both sides of the street were lined with an eclectic mix of Fairfax area residents. Many people cried as they stood quietly and respectfully, honoring Tibor one last time.

Rest in peace Tibor.

To contribute to the library, make checks payable to: Young Israel of L.A.-Tibor Reis Library Fund, 660 N. Spaulding Ave., L.A., CA 90036.

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

 

So Uncool, It’s Cool


 

I favor the type of acrylic French tip nails that are considered fashionable only by midlevel porn stars. I still wear Uggs. Pink is my favorite color. I’ve seen the movie “G.I Jane” twice, and not for camp value. I thought it was good.

Today, I embrace my uncool preferences.

I used to have to fake liking Raymond Carver novels and understanding Neil LaBute movies, but now I’m free.

This is a profound change. And I understand that seismic personal shifts are rarely associated with Demi Moore movies, but hear me out. The things that truly appeal to us are a reflection of our genuine personalities. Like it or not, the real me has some really cheesy taste. The more I’ve come to celebrate the tacky things I love, the more comfortable I’ve become with myself.

Seeing a movie in Silver Lake makes me feel like the rest of the world is Beck and I’m Josh Groban. I like the Valley, the blown-out look of the flora off the side of the 101. I relish Studio City with its strip malls and Mystic Tanning salons and La Salsas. When I visit my aunt in Northridge, I savor the cul-de-sacs and minivans as much as the Santa Ana winds.

Speaking of which, last time I was visiting my aunt in the 818, I said to my college-age cousins as they stepped out to go dancing, “Are you going to get your groove on?”

I was sort of being ironic, but mostly, I was just being earnest. And earnest is the most uncool thing you can be.

“Teresa,” my cousin Josh said. “You can’t say that anymore. In fact, could you not say that again, ever? Why don’t you just ask us if we plan to ‘bust a move?'”

Even my lingo is lame.

I can’t play pool or play poker. If it’s time for a leisure activity that reeks of wealth or coordination, I’m out. I’ve never skied, been within a gurney’s distance of a snowboard, played soccer, played blackjack or gone surfing. There are two “sports” at which I’ve excelled: ballet and Ping-Pong. While I truly can play a mean game of table tennis, I notice there haven’t been many movies celebrating the dark, defiant world of the pong hustler. Daredevil ballerinas? Those are just the girls who don’t throw up lunch.

If there is any occasion for nonchoreographed “freestyle” social dancing, I will “bust a move” on out of there. Social dancing is for the uninhibited. I am uptight. Today, I don’t fight that. I gladly sit out this dance and every other, no matter who grabs me by the arm and squeals, “C’mon, it’ll be fun. This is my song!”

Sometimes, my true tastes happen to intersect with something that actually is hip; as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I’ve always enjoyed single malt Scotch, for example. I drink it straight up, which seems to impress people. This isn’t because I’m too fashionable to imbibe Chablis or a “so two years ago” apple martini; I just like the taste of top-shelf booze and I don’t like ice melting into my good liquor. I also happen to live in Koreatown, which if I’m not mistaken, falls into the category of being so uncool it’s cool. I’m just here for the cheap housing and decorative gang tags, but folks seem to find this aspect of my lifestyle surprising, in a good way, like I’m gritty and urbane.

What’s more, Judaism seems to be in a chic phase. Is Teri Hatcher not the hottest of the “Desperate Housewives”? This year, everyone wanted to “Meet the Fockers,” making it one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time. The Fockers were cool.

I notice when people ask where my column appears, I no longer say “in a local weekly newspaper,” thus avoiding the J word, like I did for years.

But this isn’t just because hipsters throw out Yiddish words now and Ben Stiller and Barbra are machers. It all goes back to Demi, and to deciding to figure out what I truly like, not what I should, and to accepting all of it. I’m not talking about meeting strangers and bragging about the pink and the Ping-Pong and suggesting we sit down for a screening of “Striptease: the Director’s Cut.” There are some things you can keep to yourself, or let out in time. What I’m describing is an inner comfort with the totality of what makes you, from the accidentally cool to the supremely kitschy.

When you stop wasting time trying to figure out what’s cool so you can convince yourself to like it, you can begin what is, in a way, a spiritual practice. You can know that if last year’s Ugg fits, wear it.

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award-winning writer. She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

 

Web Links Your Wallet to Gifts From Israel


 

With Chanukah fast approaching, you might want to look to the east for the best gifts. Presents from the Holy Land have resonance for both the recipient and for Israel, whose economy could use a little boost from American consumers. Since most people can’t just run to Jerusalem for holiday shopping, consider these Web sites as outlets for gift items you can’t get anywhere else.

” target=”_blank”>israeliproducts.com

Buy a jar of honey from the actual Land of Milk and Honey. Or create a unique and original gift basket from this site, which includes cookies and pastries, spices and olive oil. And if you spend more than $100, then Linda Katz, owner of the site, will pay all of the shipping charges. Hers is a shop based out of Maryland, dedicated to paying all the overhead costs of importing Israeli goods. The two-year-old Internet company donates 100 percent of its modest profit to charities in Israel. According to Katz, her small staff takes no salaries and they all have other jobs. She said the main goal of her business is to distribute Israeli products in the United States.

” target=”_blank”>israelrose.com

A couple years ago, Flori Rosenthal of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel visited some family in New England. She was greeted with warm smiles and fragrant roses upon her arrival. When she asked where the beautiful roses came from, she was surprised to learn they came all the way from the Negev Desert in Israel. Since, she has arranged fundraisers for her temple by purchasing the roses in bulk and selling them to congregants and community members. The roses grow in a computerized climate-controlled greenhouse and come in eight varieties. Two types of mixed dozens are also available. The roses are freeze-dried and need hydration upon arrival. Instructions are included with the package. According to Flori, the hydrated roses last up to two weeks. The only catch for these beautiful desert blooms is you have to purchase a minimum of four dozen so they can be sent in bulk. Four-dozen roses cost $70 — that’s only $17.50 per dozen, shipping included. The deadline to order roses for arrival by the start of Chanukah may already have passed by the time this article goes to print, but if you hurry, you may be able to receive your roses before the eighth night.

” target=”_blank”>mavrikjewelry.com

This site brings beautiful custom-made jewelry found only in boutiques directly to your doorstep. Internationally acclaimed artisans such as Michal Negrin and others fashion breathtaking adornments from precious metals and stones, as well as other materials, inspired in the heart of the Holy Land. The pink, green, blue and gold crystals in Negrin’s rings surround a delicate flower set in a ring of brass. The rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces capture light and attention wherever they go. Another favorite set by an unnamed artist is a fiery blue opal set in a sterling silver square — a bargain at $49.95. While you’re at it, why not splurge on the earrings, too? Only $45 more. Oh, wait. We’re shopping for others, right?

 

Create a Bridal Look That’s Made for You


The ornately beaded gown spent decades wrapped in a sheet from the time grandma was a bride until her granddaughter walked down the aisle.

Both brides were beautiful and the dress was a focal point each time, thanks to the loving restoration work by dressmaker Camila Sigelmann, who made it possible for Amee Huppin Sherer to be married in Grandma Marian Huppin’s 1925 wedding gown.

It took Sigelmann about 40 hours and a lot of luck to find beads to match the originals, to repair and reinforce the gown, to make some modifications and to create a matching head piece.

“It was a real honor for me to work on the dress,” Sigelmann said. “I understood that not only was I working on a dress for a very important occasion but that it had a lot of family history. That gives the project a whole other dimension.”

Sigelmann, who teaches apparel design at Seattle Central Community College, has run her own dressmaking business for about six years. She is one of a number of seamstresses across the country who restore antique wedding dresses and create new, custom gowns for brides. Amee found her in the Yellow Pages.

It is a special and honorable profession for the dressmakers who have the opportunity to participate in some of the most joyous moments of family life. They speak of their work with pride and enthusiasm.

Victoria’s Bridal has been in the business for more than 20 years, making everything from contemporary to traditional gowns to theme weddings.

Choosing to have a custom-made wedding dress is more a matter of style and personal service than of price, said Denise Mahmood, store manager of designer Victoria Glenn’s shop Mahmood. She said formal gowns from Victoria’s start at $1,000 and tea length dresses start at $600. Prices vary considerably, however, based on fabric and style. The cost of a custom-made gown includes fittings and alterations, which can cost up to $200 extra when buying a manufactured dress.

Another dressmaker, Laure Rancich-Flem, cautions brides not to look at custom-made gowns as a way to save money.

“If someone comes to me and has found a dress in a magazine … I cannot make it cheaper,” Rancich-Flem said, unless the bride wants to make changes in the dress such as using satin instead of silk.

The dressmaker said the best reason to call a seamstress is because you want a special gown tailored to your body and your taste.

“If you’re going to do custom work it’s usually because you cannot find what you want in ready-to-wear. Maybe you don’t want a traditional gown, or you’re hard to fit … or you just want something very untraditional in fabrics, colors or styling,” Rancich-Flem said.

She recommended trying on some manufactured gowns and looking at bridal magazines before deciding to talk to a dressmaker. A trip to a bridal store will give a woman a chance find out what dress details she likes and what looks good on her.

All three women agreed on suggestions about how to find a custom dressmaker. The first thing to do is ask for recommendations from friends who have had custom gowns made or who have hired a seamstress to create other clothing. Brides without personal recommendations can ask at a fabric store for a list of dressmakers who specialize in bridal gowns.

The next step is to call some dressmakers, talk to them about their experience and see some of their work. This process should start about six months before the wedding.

Mahmood said brides should ask a dressmaker how long she has been in business, how many dresses she averages a month, if she’s overloaded with work and if there are other seamstresses working for her on contract. Ask to see the dressmaker’s portfolio book and some actual dresses she made and request a list of references.

Rancich-Flem said that once you and a dressmaker have talked about the details of your actual project, you should request a bid, including creation and design time and materials cost.

Sigelmann said the dressmaker and the bride, and possibly her mother, need to be able to forge a good personal relationship because they may be working together for up to six months.

Her clients tend to be working women and mature brides who have clear ideas about wanting something a little different in a wedding dress.

The dressmaker found the Huppin gown an interesting challenge; it was also an emotionally and intellectually intriguing project.

“It was a very special dress,” Sigelmann said. “I found myself wondering what her grandma was like and how did she feel when she wore the dress.”

Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

Make Resolutions That Will Stick


"We have spoken slander; we have acted presumptuously; we have practiced deceit."

Each year we beat our chest and resolve to change. And each year, we make promises to ourselves: I’m going to lose weight. I’m going to stop gossiping. I’m going to learn to play the piano.

Yet long before Chanukah rolls around, the resolve has dissipated. With all our good intentions, we never quite manage to change.

"Unless you hit a crisis … most people don’t change their lives," psychotherapist Yona Kollin said. Her husband, Gilbert Kollin, rabbi emeritus of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, said that while the High Holidays provide a helpful mechanism for making positive changes in our lives, most congregants who attend services "aren’t necessarily there for resolutions."

For those truly committed to making changes, he said, the High Holidays can facilitate that process as they are designed to take us through a process of self-assessment.

"You ask yourself, ‘What am I going to do in the year ahead better than in the year prior?’ It’s like a business plan," Gilbert Kollin said. "Imagine you’re in bankruptcy court. You’re filing a moral Chapter 11 and saying to God, ‘This business is bust. But give me a year.’ And God says, ‘Show me a plan.’"

Spiritual preparation for the High Holidays actually begins a month prior to Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul. During that time, we are encouraged to take stock of the past year, pinpointing our strengths and weaknesses, examining the impact of our deeds and clarifying our goals. Teshuva (returning to the desirable path) involves three steps: Regretting our misdeeds, confessing them and committing not to repeat them.

It’s not necessarily an easy process, but as Yona Kollin notes, real change requires effort. "In cognitive therapy, you think about what you want to do and practice it over and over until it becomes automatic," she said. "It won’t happen without practice."

"It’s what Heschel called ‘a leap of action.’ You become what you do," her husband added. The High Holidays "hopefully give an opportunity to focus on whether your actions represent your thoughts," he said. "If you find dissonance, you have to determine what you want to do and what actions you need to take in order to get there." Having the thoughts without taking the actions, he said, will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

Both Jewish practice and psychological theory prescribe similar formulas for making change: Identify the goal, identify the steps needed to reach the goal and put your intentions into action. Repeat as necessary. Make goals specific, and focus on just a few.

But why even bother trying to change the very habits that we already know we’ll be seeking forgiveness for next year? After all, the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) lists a whole host of sins we’re destined to commit.

"God doesn’t expect us to be perfect," Gilbert Kollin said. "God has the role of judge, but also the role of parent … who might not demand an ‘A’ so much as an honest effort," he said. "We know we’re not going to be perfect, but the question is: Can we do better?"

Shabbat in Jerusalem


Friday in Israel is not really a work day, but a semi-holiday. Friday is not a holy day, but it has a special flavor because it is when we finalize our Shabbat preparations.

I used to live on a gorgeous street in Jerusalem, Rehov Caspi. The street boasts a view of the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Jordan Valley and the hills of Jordan, a mere 30 miles away. The street is perched above a hillside park called The Promenade, which also faces the Old City. A short two-block walk away is Derech Beit Lechem, a street full of small shops. This neighborhood is abuzz on Fridays.

I was privileged to be one of only two women who were welcome at "The Parliament," a group of 10 or so men who meet every Friday morning at 7 a.m. in Yonotan’s lighting store. The men are both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and are mostly in their 60s and 70s. The elder parliamentarians are mostly from Eastern Europe and are old enough to be considered heroes of the War of Independence. One of the exciting aspects of living in contemporary Israel is that the founders of the country are still walking around.

During the meeting, Yonotan served small glasses of his special tea (black tea with sugar and fresh herbs), along with cheese borekas, olives and cucumbers. It’s a guy’s yackfest and I always felt like the proverbial fly on the wall. The conversations were lively, good-natured, where traditional morality prevailed while spanning the religious and political spectrums.

By 8:30 a.m. we’d all disperse for leisurely Shabbat shopping. Israelis, many of whom have survived the Holocaust or the siege of Jerusalem, will stock up on Friday as if the stores may not open for a week or more.

Hospitality is the rule and guests are considered a blessing. I never lacked invitations for Shabbat dinners and lunches as a single person, but I also loved hosting.

The small specialized stores of Derech Bet Lechem made shopping slower, but more fun and personal. The butchers subtly gave their approval when you purchased expensive cuts. Likewise, the baker let you know your good luck and good taste when buying the last box of date nut cookies and a sesame challah. The vegetable seller, a swarthy Sephardi, maintains a high testosterone environment and lots of photographs of ancient rabbis. Until you’ve tasted Israeli tomatoes and cucumbers, you simply do not know what the flavor should be.

Sundries and dairy products are purchased in the makolet, a small neighborhood market. This proprietor, Moshe, I saw more often than most of my friends. I cried with him when his mother died, and he cried with me when I had to move back to the United States. He gave me a bizarre blessing once, "Shabbat Achla!" The second word is "good" in Arabic.

Once the shopping was finished, I’d probably run into a neighbor and stop at a sidewalk cafe for a coffee. It’s not that I needed to drink anything after all the tea at Yonotan’s, but it was an excuse to sit and talk more.

Finally, I’d head home, shlepping my bags of whatever, and start chopping vegetable for salad, whipping up unbelievably rich tehina dip and boiling some soup. On Fridays, even the rock music stations help get you in the mood for Shabbat by switching their programming to shirim yafim, the beautiful songs from the early days of the state. The songs are sentimental and patriotic, and help you to slow down and appreciate Israel; that Israel actually exists.

In between preparing food, I’d set the table with a cloth only used on Shabbat and my strange but beautiful mismatched set of meat dishes. Each plate and bowl has a different Japanese pattern; but all being blue and white, they work together. I’d do any last-minute cleaning and straightening.

Once in a while, if I was very organized, I’d have the time for a tub bath, a real luxury because of water shortages, and an indulgence I permitted myself only for Shabbat. I have a special perfume, which I only use on Shabbats and holidays: Joy from France. Also, I have a special nightgown that I only wear on Shabbat, so that when I wake up, I know without a doubt what day it is.

When the guests would arrive, I’d have them leave their street shoes near the door and give them house shoes. It’s a custom I learned in Russia and Asia, which not only keeps the street filth out but puts most people at ease and makes them feel more at home.

What with the various blessings, many courses of the meal, the songs, and the Torah discussion, the Shabbat dinner usually runs at least two hours. Finally the well-fed guests waddle off and I put my feet up and began the long Shabbat rest.

What a glorious life. If you haven’t celebrated a Shabbat, give it a try. You may find, as I have, that it becomes the axis of your week.

Shabbat shalom!

Laurel Sternberg is a muralist who lives in Dana Point.