To Let Go, to Love, to Forgive


“I have good news! My cancer is in remission.” I’ve called Elsie Schwartz to talk about the High Holy Days, but the news about her illness is an unexpected surprise and a huge relief. At 89, Elsie has taught me a great deal about life and about choosing to face death by living fully and fully loving.

I ask Elsie to tell me how forgiveness enters into her life.

“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t carry a grudge,” Elsie says. “I look for forgiveness. It’s part of my heritage as a Jew. They tell us in the Torah, ‘To forgive is divine. If you forgive others, God forgives you.'”Elsie makes it sound so simple.

According to psychiatrist and author Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, “Forgiveness means letting go of the past.” But so many of us seem determined to cling to past hurts and resentments, as if these provide some odd form of safety or control. I know the challenge of letting go of disappointments from one’s past and the pain, for instance, of not having an all-accepting, always-loving mother. I can see how forgiveness isn’t possible if one is still hanging on to such old stuff. But what a relief when we do, like a weight being lifted.

“I’ll tell you something,” Elsie says. “I had a friend who’s the opposite of me. She hasn’t talked to her daughter for years, because she doesn’t know how to forgive. Well, this friend got angry at me when I suggested that she help her daughter out when the daughter was in need. When I knew she was angry, I told her I was sorry I’d upset her, but instead of letting it go, she hasn’t spoken to me in two years.”

Elsie apparently tried various ways to bring down the wall her friend erected, to no avail. When Elsie found out she had cancer, mutual friends told this friend, but she never called Elsie.

One day, Elsie ran into this woman. “I told her that I forgave her for being so angry at me and for not talking to me,” said Elsie. “I told her that, now that she knows I’ve forgiven her, when I die she won’t feel uncomfortable. Jewish law says that if you’re still angry with someone when they die and you hadn’t forgiven them, you have to go to their grave and ask for their forgiveness. I felt good about saying this to her.”

Imake an effort to apply to my own life what I learn from people like Elsie. This New Year, I have a perfect opportunity. For better or worse, by the time Rosh Hashanah begins, my sister and I will have transferred my mother’s primary care to strangers.

It’s been a painful, difficult decision, but the assisted-living facility near my sister in North Carolina seems to be the best place for mom, now 82, to grow older and to be taken care of. Unfortunately, her dementia means that mom doesn’t recall that she agreed to the plan. She’s extremely angry with us for “putting her away,” as she calls it. “We would never have done this to our parents,” she bitterly told me in a recent phone call.

As the New Year approaches, I consider my mother’s frightening transition, her anger – and her rather nasty comments to my sister and me that are reminiscent of past interactions with her. I reflect on a host of feelings and memories (both painful and joyful) that we each have from our family’s past, and I see that forgiveness might be more of an issue for us this year than ever before.

I mention this to Elsie (who kiddingly informs me that she charges $50 an hour, which I think is pretty inexpensive for all of her wisdom). She suggests that I ask for my mother’s forgiveness, since mom is so angry about the move. I realize that she might not be able or willing to forgive, and then I’ll have the opportunity to do some letting go of my own. There certainly is an assortment of things I need to let go of from the past, in order to forgive her. It would be good to do that while I still have her around to love.The late Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman said, “We achieve inner health only through forgiveness – the forgiveness not only of others but also of ourselves.” I see how the fact that I am neither able nor willing to take care of my mother anymore – or feel responsible for her happiness – is something for which I need to offer myself forgiveness.

It’s hard to believe how my mother is declining. I feel like I’m losing her and that somehow this move she’s making confirms it. It seems really important to have things current and clean between us. This is not easy, but the High Holy Days give me a chance to focus on this task.

Norman Cousins once said, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” And so, as the adventure continues, the New Year begins.

The Year of The Grudge


Left to right, from top: Dennis Prager, Rabbi Harvey Fields,Rabbi Boruch Cunin and Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

The Year of The Grudge

The dominant stories of 5757 centered around ourcontinual war of words fought over religion, sex, politics andhistory

By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor

Can’t we all just get along? Reviewing the events of the pastyear in our community, the answer seems to be: just barely. For theChinese, this has been the Year of the Rooster. For Los AngelesJewry, let’s call it the Year of the Grudge.

The big stories of the year were not Jew vs. Black, or Jew vs.Gentile, but Jew vs. Jew — a continual war of words fought overreligion, sex, politics and history. At least we can’t be accused ofpettiness.

To help us parse the cyclone, let’s take it by subject:

Sex

From late November well into February, the pages of The JewishJournal carried heated arguments over whether homosexuals should beordained as rabbis. The firestorm was ignited by Dennis Prager, who,though no shirker from controversy, must have had no idea what nervehis arguments would drill into. In the Nov. 22 issue (“Homosexuality,Judaism and Rabbis”), he declared that to ordain practicinghomosexuals as rabbis would be “to overthrow Judaism’s historicattempt to channel human sexuality.” Ordaining gays would open thefloodgates, warned the radio talk-show host, and soon we’d face thespecter of bisexual rabbis performing quadruple weddings on bisexualcouples, with two rebbetzins — one of each gender — in tow. OK,maybe we exaggerate his concerns, but not by much.

Faster than you could spell “Limbaugh,” the community was all overPrager. Sixteen local rabbis, including prominent Conservativeleaders, signed a letter, accusing his piece of being “homophobic,poorly argued and cruel.” Then came letters accusing the rabbis ofad hominem attacks. Then more letters from some of the 16rabbis, who said that they objected to the letter they had signedtheir name to. Then Prager again, defending himself. And that’s notto mention the letters from members of the community, swarming toPrager’s defense or eager to pile on. Finally, Rabbi Harold Schulweisof Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom, on Feb. 28, chimed in with abrilliant essay on Torah, compassion and human sexuality — a subtlebody check to Prager’s reasoning and a model of learned discourse forPrager’s critics. Now if only Schulweis had written in on Nov. 22.

Religion

For an instant, it appeared that a small group of Orthodoxcongregations would finally pull us together– by teeing us all off.In late March, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States andCanada declared that the Reform and Conservative movements are notJudaism. Some, such as Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi HarveyFields, at first thought the pronouncement — given a misleadingheadline in the Los Angeles Times — must have been a Purim joke. Butit wasn’t, and rabbis from Fields to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’sMarvin Hier railed against an attempt to undermine the very Jewishnotion of critical interpretation. Orthodox lawyer Baruch Cohenlambasted Fields et al. for their misunderstanding. The Union ofOrthodox Rabbis, he explained, did not say that the majority of usweren’t Jews, just that the religion we practiced wasn’t Judaism.That felt so much better.

Politics

At home, problems surfaced, or resurfaced. Chabad once again facedoff against the American Jewish Congress and the city of BeverlyHills over the right to raise its 27-foot Agam menorah over SantaMonica Boulevard. This time, Chabad lost.

Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, neatlydivided the Jewish electorate. The Jewish Federation Council’sexecutive board finally came out against it, but only after a raucousdebate.

Jews, however, did come together this year to — of all things –vote Republican, for Mayor Richard Riordan over Tom Hayden.

The news from Israel didn’t exactly help heal domestic rifts.Successive waves of suicide bombings, some of which wounded membersof the Los Angeles community, provoked unanimous grief and outrage.But the search for solutions divided us. Those leaning leftcriticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the settlers forundermining the Oslo peace accords. Those leaning right unleashed achorus of we-told-you-sos and called for Oslo’s ultimate demise.

At the annual sermon seminar, convened for area rabbis, not onecleric presented a sermon in praise of Israel. Beth JacobCongregation’s Rabbi Abner Weiss urged his colleagues to put asidetheir differences on Israel and celebrate its accomplishments. Buteven louder was the silence from more and more members of thecommunity who are turned off to the news from Israel.

Religion and Politics

Two words will suffice here: The Wall. The Orthodox attack onnon-Orthodox women and men holding a prayer service at the WesternWall Plaza on Shavuot and Tisha B’Av provoked outrage at home.Conservative and Reform Jews felt the sting of religious persecutionin, of all places, a Jewish state. And the Orthodox believed that asacred space was used to score political points in the ongoing battleover the religious status quo.

But the hardest hand-wringing was taking place amongIsrael-affiliated fund-raising organizations, who feared that thethreats to pluralism in Israel would shrink donations back home.

Perhaps the problem was that we had, thank God, too few externalthreats to unite us. David Duke, the poster boy of the Ku Klux Klan,visited Cal State Northridge last September and spoke to some 1,100people. But the real drama was all in the pregame show — should hebe invited or not. The speech itself was as dull as anything said inthe mayoral race.

More Rancor, Please

The Jewish Journal did its part to stir the pot withinvestigations into the dire lack of funding of Jewish day-schooleducation; the slightly kooky world of the Kabbalah Learning Center;sex and power among the rabbinate, and stories and Jewish girls andsexuality.

And Schulweis, fresh from reconciling us on the gay issue, openeda new storm front: proselytism. In a passionate essay and sermon, hecalled on Jews to open their arms to potential converts and to moreactively bring non-Jews into the fold, no matter how rent the foldis. Schulweis drew fire for his suggestion, which many critics saidwas un-Jewish (it’s not) or impossible (to be determined).

And now the Good News

It’s easy, amid the fury, to be blinded to what’s right with ourshtetl-by-the-sea. We’ll mention, in passing, the synagogues,schools, clubs, community centers, museums, libraries, havurasand businesses that continue to serve a flourishing community. As ofJan. 3, there were three– three— Jewish theaters in LosAngeles. Also, there was Laemmle’s Jewish Cinema Series, a Yiddishfilm festival, the “Exiles and Emigré” exhibit at the LosAngeles County Museum of Art, and “Too Jewish?” at UCLA’s ArmandHammer Museum.

A conference on “The Jewish Quest for Purpose” drew 550 youngpeople to the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica (150 had to be turned away,to find purpose elsewhere). About 400 youngish men and women showedup for a conference on Zionism last month. The Kosher festival,Jewish festivals in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, thefirst Sephardic festival– all attracted huge crowds to bask in asense of togetherness, no matter how fragile.

In any case, healing may be at hand. On July 2, rabbis fromdifferent denominations met to discuss ways to draw Jews together.And on July 11, the Federation took out a full-page ad in TheJournal, calling on us all to support unity and respect diversity. Inother words, there’s always next year.