Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth

It might seem crazy what I am about to say

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break

I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space

With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune..  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on. 

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It fills our world and floats in the background and many of us never know that it is there.  If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing, happiness, you are living along a single axis.  Your life is broadcast in black-and-white.

But if you understand that happiness is means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

7 Haiku for Parsha Vayikra (in which your sin is dealt with) by Rick Lupert

Any good book starts
with a long discussion of
animal innards.

A fistful of fine
flour – we’ve come so far in
how we measure things.

Deep fried, gluten free,
and no honey – This is how
the Lord likes to eat.

Reading this is like
going to medical school.
P.S. Don’t eat blood.

We use every part
of the disassembled bull
to atone for sin.

Why do animals
have to pay for human sin?
He sprinkles the blood.

Why do animals
have to pay for the ancient
sin of Jewish guilt?

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Pope wins praise for repudiating Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death

Jewish organizations are hailing Pope Benedict XVI’s unequivocal repudiation of the claim that the Jewish people can be held forever responsible for the death of Jesus.

The Vatican already rejected the claim in general terms in 1965 with the landmark Nostra Aetate document issued by the Vatican II Conference, opening the door to formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue. But in a new volume of his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict employs a detailed scholarly analysis of Catholic teaching to make the point clear.

The Anti-Defamation League called it “an important and historic moment” in Catholic-Jewish relations that would build on Nostra Aetate.

Excerpts of the book, which is due out March 10, were released Wednesday.

“Now we must ask: Who exactly were Jesus’ accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death?” Benedict writes in a passage regarding Jesus’ condemnation to death by Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

Noting that the Gospel of St. John states that it was “the Jews,” he asks, “How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus’ death?” John’s use of the term, he writes, “does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it ‘racist’ in character. After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers.”

What John meant by “the Jews”, Benedict writes, was the priestly “temple aristocracy.”

In another passage, Benedict explicitly rejects the notion that the expression reported in the Gospel that “His blood be on us and on our children” meant an eternal curse against the Jewish people. Instead, the pontiff writes, “It means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, said the pope’s book marked “a landmark moment” in Catholic-Jewish relations.

“Pope Benedict’s theological repudiation of the deicide charge not only confirms the teachings of Vatican II, which formally rejected collective Jewish guilt, but seals it for a new generation of Catholics,” Steinberg said.

Yom Kippur Dilemma

Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Challenge Your Child

This was my bar mitzvah portion 51 years ago, and I still remember what the rabbi said to me about it on the pulpit. So for all you parents and rabbis who speak to young adults becoming bar or bat mitzvah, take note: your words just may be remembered.

My rabbi, Rabbi Louis J. Swichkow, spoke about the 12 spies. Only two of them had the faith in God and the courage to say that the Israelites could conquer the land of Canaan, but they were right. Indeed, the entire Jewish people had to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness because of the faithlessness of the majority’s report.

Because I had spent the previous summer at Camp Ramah, and because at the time you had to be taking at least six hours per week of Jewish studies during the year to go back to Ramah, I was going to continue with my Jewish studies after my bar mitzvah. Rabbi Swichkow therefore used me to say to the congregation that real leaders are often in the minority, but they, like the spies, are often right.

I was more than a little embarrassed about that talk. It was bad enough that I was being singled out in public; no 13-year-old wants to be seen as different from the crowd, even for purposes of praise. Moreover, in my case I knew that the praise was less than completely warranted.

After all, I was not continuing with my Jewish studies out of a pure desire for more Jewish learning; I just wanted to go back to Ramah! That made me feel guilty as well: I was being held up as a leader for reasons that were not worthy of real leaders who sacrifice something for the good of others. In my case, my motives were instead completely, and embarrassingly, utilitarian.

I have often thought about that talk. In part, I suppose, that is because even though I knew that the rabbi was not accurately describing me at the moment, I somehow felt challenged to measure up to the kind of leader he said I was. I do not know whether I have accomplished that particular feat, but it is not a bad thing to give teenagers — and adults, for that matter — goals to reach for.

As Rabbi Jack Bloom, a psychologist, taught me as a part of a group of rabbis many years later, the very act of presenting a person with a view of himself or herself that is positive — perhaps even somewhat more positive than the person actually is — sometimes gets the person to think of him/herself that way and to strive to manifest that positive characteristic.

“You are a leader,” “You are a compassionate person,” “You like to learn about your heritage,” “You make sure that others feel good about themselves,” etc. are all important things to say to people, not only when they are deserved, but when you want to reinforce their own desire to aspire to a good goal. That is an important lesson for parents to learn in raising their children, for supervisors to use in encouraging their workers and for any person to know in interpersonal relations generally.

Another lesson that I learned from Rabbi Swichkow’s talk as I thought about it over the years is that human actions often are motivated by a variety of desires. In fact, we rarely do things for one reason alone — we may have one primary motive in our consciousness, but when we think about it, there are also other reasons why we do what we do.

A potential convert to Judaism, for example, may begin a process for conversion primarily in order to marry a Jew, but that person should only ultimately convert if over the course of the conversion process he or she also becomes motivated to become Jewish for the sake of Judaism itself.

When I was a bar mitzvah, I was not continuing my Jewish studies because I had made a conscious decision that I wanted to learn more about Judaism, and I certainly did not do that to be a model and a leader among my peers. But there was, in truth, a part of me, that part motivated by a previous summer at Ramah, that wanted to return there to be further exposed to living a Jewish life as it had been presented there. That desire to probe my tradition further became a greater part of my conscious motivations as life went on, but it was there in nascent form already on my bar mitzvah day.

And so I return to the spies. Caleb and Joshua saw the same land that the other 10 spies had seen, but they announced that the Israelites could conquer it despite its challenges. Sometimes that kind of positive self-perception and that kind of faith in oneself and in God is all that is needed to accomplish more than we ever thought we could.

So even if my rabbi’s bar mitzvah talk engendered embarrassment and guilt in me, I now want to thank him for challenging me in the way he did that day.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, is the author of “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

Turn Memory Into Blessing

Holidays bring up feelings and memories about people who have died. They also offer opportunities to address unresolved issues. The four Yizkor services and the themes of their days correspond to different tasks of mourning.

Yizkor provides temporal focal points where the new people we are becoming meet again with those we have lost, allowing us to continue the relationships and keep them growing and healing. Yizkor allows us to assess our individual growth in a world without those we’ve lost.

Each day provides a unique window on the nature of grief, encouraging us to approach healing from a different perspective and address a different task or season of mourning. Each creates a context for continuing relationships with our dead, helping to make peace as relationships transform from physical to spiritual connections.

Continuing our conversation with those we have lost is essential to healing. These conversations are central to our emotional lives. Yizkor engages memory for healing. The pain of our history becomes less of a burden. Memory becomes a blessing. The conversation is restored.

Each day of Yizkor provides a distinctive frame of mourning issues. At Yom Kippur, we settle accounts with others and with God. We put right our relationships with the people who are gone, asking them for forgiveness.

We focus on unresolved issues, feelings and guilts we may carry. It is also a day to forgive those we mourn. Also called in plural form, Yom HaKippurim, the day of “atonements,” it is a day when we atone not only for our own sins but also for those of others. This contextualizes a dynamic connection that remains between the living and the dead.

Shemini Atzeret, Yizkor’s day two, ushers in the winter season. It is marked by adding to the liturgy a daily prayer for rain. This prepares us for sadness, bringing us closer to mourning’s cold and brittle aspects.

This time of the broken heart is necessary to healing, just as the time when the earth lies fallow — absorbing moisture — is necessary to bring forth the buds of spring. Our tears connect to the rain and necessity of winter to prepare us for spring. Thus, we honor the need for change and contemplate what it means to let go of the past.

The third day of Yizkor, Pesach’s eighth day, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and calls for a release of bondage to grief. It acknowledges the difficulty of yearning for freedom as we seek a new life, as we celebrate spring and the budding of hope!

Finally, Shavuot, the summer harvest festival, commemorates the giving of the Torah and the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel. These themes encourage reflection on gifts given and what they taught, commemorating these gifts with acts of thanksgiving.

For Pesach, the commemoration of the Exodus and the release from the grip of winter and its tears provide powerful healing metaphors. Mourners have insight into bondage as they are held by the grip of grief. Pesach’s Yizkor can move the mourner from concern about the deceased to concern with his or her own healing.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzryiam, means narrow places. Pesach Yizkor might focus on finding the passage from the tight places that remain in the mourning process, restricting peace of mind and enjoyment of life, to the freedom to remember the deceased as a blessing.

Each year, the Passover story is told anew. In re-telling the story, we see how it has changed. Through each year’s lens, we monitor how time has moved us from the bondage to the blessing of memory.

Passover begins with the elimination of chametz, which inflates food and causes bread to rise. Chametz also threatens healing, for when we inflate or idealize the dead, we lose their reality. Healing relationships becomes harder.

The four children come to the Passover table with different attitudes that correspond to the seasons of mourning. The Simple Child represents mournings’ unbearable yearning. The Angry Child is enraged by bondage to past issues and pains. The Mute Child is simply stunned by loss and unable to articulate feelings. The Wise Child has moved on to healing-wholeness.

With whom do you identify? Has the story changed since last year?

Mourners’ bondage may appear as guilt over unresolved issues. They may be bound to live the agenda of the deceased and not their own, like the slaves in Egypt, living in someone else’s land. This exercise may help you, as you move toward freedom.

Bondage to the Past

We may be tied to something fulfilling and unable to let go. We may have unresolved issues. How are you in bondage to the past or living in someone else’s kingdom?

Pharaoh: How is your loss a tyrant holding you in bondage — a taskmaster, as you do its bidding and not your own?

The Plagues: What punishments have you endured because of this bondage?

Matzah: What have you failed to give proper time, attention and nurture due to mourning?

The Sea of Reeds: What obstacles impede your freedom?

Manna: What has sustained your journey?

The Golden Calf: What has distracted you from the tasks of healing?

Moses and Miriam: Who are your role models and teachers in this wilderness?

The Promised Land: Describe your hope for the future.

God: Envision a healing power to carry you to freedom and the Promised Land.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) Brener is also a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

For German Teens, Shame Stirred Action

When six German teenagers entered the beit midrash at YULA boys high school, there was an indescribable sense of tension in the air. The four girls and two boys seemed hesitant and slightly anxious as they faced 60 Jewish boys eager for discussion. As a natural skeptic, my personal attitude toward conversing with people of possible Nazi ancestry was not very optimistic.

But within a few moments, the Germans’ anxiety visibly disappeared due to our welcoming disposition. And I must admit that by the end of the program I learned a beneficial lesson, which applies to every single Jew alive today.

Along with other German students, these visitors had participated in translating a German book, “Never Tell Anybody your Name is Rachmiel,” by Rosine De Dijn. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish single mother who managed to hide her son with a family in Belgium before she was deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Inspired by a visit from De Dijn, the teens began a project to translate the book into English so that the descendants of the rescuers and of the Holocaust survivor, two of whom live in California, could learn of their ancestors’ story.

When the school contacted the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the museum extended an invitation to the students, a teacher and the author. The trip was funded by a German foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future.

As I learned of their story, my admiration for the noble actions of these students grew, and my pessimism began to slowly decline. However, the images of the atrocities of the Holocaust — and the voices of my Holocaust-survivor grandparents — constantly reverberated in my mind.

Following a brief description of the book, a question-and-answer session opened. With many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience, myself included, an array of hands propelled into the air. One of the many interesting questions posed to the German teens was, “Do you feel guilty?”

German student Hagen Verleger answered: “I do not feel guilty, however I feel greatly ashamed.”

I was fascinated with that answer, because I realized that shame and guilt are directly connected, but they are far from synonymous.

While the Nazi story ends with shame, it began with an excess of pride. Hitler and the Nazi party exemplified the utmost arrogance in their stride to conquer the world and “ethnically cleanse” society. But after their defeat, surviving members of the Nazi party and the generation of Germans to follow them were internationally blacklisted.

The students explained to us that for a very long period of time not many people would openly admit to being “German” due to the stigma attached to the nationality. Germany went from being the superior race and nation to bearing a universal mark of Cain.

But things have changed for this generation. The students pointed out that the 2006 World Cup competition in Germany saw the German flag flown with pride at this international event, with black, red, gold and the eagle emblem appearing on shirts, signs and venues all over the country. Clearly, this generation of Germans has found a way to deal with their infamous past and appropriately display national pride once again.

Exemplifying this revolution in Germany’s national attitude, the six visitors from Germany commendably presented a translated book — a product of their stirring shame. Although Germany’s actions cannot and will never be atoned for, the German students of my generation took ownership of this inherent guilt and utilized shame to spark a contribution to society.

By willingly encountering Jews, these German teens have exposed the wrongdoings of their fathers with the intent of setting the ethical standards for the generations to follow. It is their version of our “Never Again” slogan.

Hearing all of this, I started to think about what we, direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, can learn from the grandchildren of pre-1945 Germany. After recapping the issues discussed, I realized that what my generation and the German teens have in common is that we are the youth of our nations.

Obviously, nothing previous generations of Jews have done can be equated to the crimes of Nazi Germany on any level whatsoever. But every generation does have its faults. Moreover, it is every generation’s responsibility to recognize and remedy the faults of their predecessors.

As a teen, I find it essential to look at our past and scrutinize Jewish history in order to improve or even attempt to improve my generation and set the tracks for future generations.

One issue that has always vexed me and continues to haunt the Jewish people is that of our lack of unity. Whether the issues are political, religious or moral, they cause serious divisions within our nation, which have devastating effects on our chances for success. Political differences, which resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a fellow Jew, and religious differences between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel not only split us internally but destroy our reputation in the eyes of the outside world.

Will we look back on our ancestors’ mistakes with futile guilt, unproductively blaming ourselves? Or will we be stimulated by our shame and become motivated to possibly rectify those faults? Will we unify or continue to be fragmented and suffer our demise?

Adam Deustsch is a junior at YULA High School for boys.

Sitting relationship shiva

The voice on the other end of the cell phone stopped me cold: “I’m engaged.”

I couldn’t breathe. My worst nightmare was happening. My
ex-girlfriend — the one I still hadn’t gotten over, the one I still imagined having kids with — was getting married. How could I not have seen it coming? It had been a year and a half since our breakup, and I didn’t want to see it. She loved someone else.

I went into a tailspin: nonstop tears, no sleep, breakup grief all over again.

But this was worse than before, much worse. This was the real deal. She was gone. Off the market. No way to rationalize my way out of the heartache.

I was desperate. So I called my rabbi.

Now, I’m not religious. My rabbi is a great guy, but I’m not one to call him for this kind of stuff. I have a therapist and the bleeding ears of my friends for that. But nothing had helped me get over her. I thought maybe the rabbi could give me something different, some tidbit of spiritual wisdom that would get me back on track. Something besides the “If it’s beshert” speech my dad always gives.

The rabbi was sure he could help me. He met me at a deli and without delay smacked me with some tough love: “Shep, it’s simple. You’re unhappy because she’s happy.”

Woah, Rabbi, ouch, man!

“Am not!” I said, on the defensive, “I love her, I want her to be happy… I do!”

The Rabbi dismissed this with a chuckle and shook his head: “You’re human. If she were miserable without you, you’d feel better right now. Problem is, she’s moved on and you’re left with a big void. You need to fill up the void with things in your life that make you happy.”

OK, so it wasn’t revolutionary therapy here, but I had to admit it was pretty unbearable to think of her doing bridal showers and florists while I was ordering in pizza and beer. I also had to admit the joy-o-meter had kind of hit rock-bottom levels in the last year. Could the cure be so simple? Do things, lots of things, that make me happy. Paint, go to movies, write, hike.

Fill up the void. That would help, sure.

But what about the regret, the overwhelming guilt? I was tormented by the feeling that if I had only done things differently, if I had only been a better boyfriend, if I had only asked her to marry me two years ago, things could have worked out for us.

The rabbi was having none of it: “She wasn’t right for you. Know how I know? If she were, she’d be sitting here with you now, a ring on her finger and a baby on the way. But, Shep, let’s be honest. You dragged your feet. Maybe you did have an opportunity to marry her. But you didn’t ask her.”

Oh, the sting of it.

“You have to trust that you both didn’t move forward because it wasn’t meant to be,” he said.

Aha. The ol’ beshert. I knew it’d find a way in there.

Truth be told, the pain had been lingering so long, it never occurred to me that our breakup had actually been the right decision. Maybe there really was an inner wisdom at work, stopping us both from taking the next step. We loved each other deeply, but it had been a volatile mix from the get-go. The relationship took so much effort. We had worked our butts off in counseling and still couldn’t save the thing.

“If she had come back to you it still wouldn’t have worked,” the rabbi said, “She’s not the one.”

The “one.” That was it. That was the heartache. In my mind she had never stopped being the one, my soulmate, even after she was long gone.

In Judaism, we sit shiva after a death. We grieve, confront and try to accept. It’s an ancient process, and it helps.

But unlike when my mother died — which was so devastating but so absolutely final — this girl was still out there. There had still been a chance. I never sat shiva for our dead relationship because I always thought she might come back.

I couldn’t fill the void she left, because I didn’t want to believe the void really existed.

But it does exist. And, trite as it may sound, it’s up to me to fill it up and be happy in my own company.

So it’s time, finally, to sit shiva. Face the loss. And let go of the guilt.
My ex and I weren’t beshert. She wasn’t the one. The case is airtight, the proof is incontrovertible: She’s engaged to someone else.

“One more thing,” said the rabbi. “Try to be happy for her. You’ll heal faster.”

Shep Koster is an actor and artist who lives in Los Angeles.

I Was Kid Free and Guilt Free! For A Week!

My children were unexpectedly away for a week this summer, and I didn’t miss them a bit. Apparently, that’s grounds for expulsion from the Good Mommy Club.

My husband, 8-year-old son, 14-year-old daughter and I were on our way back to Los Angeles from a trip to Squaw Valley, and we’d stopped in the Bay Area to stay with family friends overnight. As we were packing the car the next morning and getting set for the long ride home, our hosts suddenly invited our two children to stay for the week.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “That’s way too much work for you.”
But they insisted that it was the perfect week for such spontaneity. Their own two kids, who are very close with ours, had nothing to do: no school, no camp, no anything.

“Let them all be together and have one last summer fling,” the mom said.
After a bit more requisite protesting on our part, my husband and I fished our children’s bags out of the trunk, went online to buy a pair of one-way airplane tickets for the following Saturday and found ourselves headed back to Los Angeles in a most unfamiliar position: just the two of us, alone.

At first, we felt more strange than giddy.

“Miss them yet?” my husband said after we had been rolling for, oh, three or four miles. But about halfway down I-5, it started to sink in: We realized that we’d been talking for hours and that no one had interrupted us to ask that we turn up the music (if it was theirs) or turn down the music (if it was ours). Or to tell us he was hungry. Or she was thirsty. Or had to go to the bathroom. Or to ask us when we would be arriving home — over and over and over again.

The next day I wasn’t even unpacked before I boasted to a friend — a bit smugly I admit — that we were child-free. She answered back: “You must miss them, though.”

“No,” I replied, “I don’t miss them at all.”

“Oh,” she said. “Wait a few days. You will.”

But I didn’t. Not then, not in a few days and not even on my last day of freedom. Frankly, I enjoyed every moment of it.

My husband and I dined out all but one night — and without the slightest consideration that my daughter doesn’t like Thai food or that my son won’t try Indian. We ate late, lingered over our last sips of wine and took long evening walks.

I slept in for a solid week, drank coffee and read my morning newspapers uninterrupted. When I sat down at my desk to work, my computer was not set on RuneScape, my son’s favorite online game. And my scissors, pencils and pens, pencil sharpener, dictionary, notepads and Scotch tape were exactly where I had left them the last time I used them. Miracle of miracles!

When I went to take a shower, no wet towels littered the floor, and I didn’t have to step over my daughter’s housecoat, blue jeans or discarded shoes to get there.

And every time I looked in the refrigerator or freezer for some juice, a piece of fruit, a bowl of ice cream, whatever, it was there because the hordes of teenagers that usually hang out at my house had not emptied it out five minutes after I’d returned from a $200 grocery store run.

I spent no time on the phone arranging carpools for my daughter or schlepping her to sleepovers, the mall or movies. My son did not noodge me for countless play dates, complain of being bored or pester me to buy him comic books or a Game Boy for his next birthday (still six months away). It was heaven.

I bragged to just about everyone I ran into that we were without our children for the week. Almost all of them asked if I missed them and almost all of them seemed surprised — some even slightly horrified — when I said no.

My husband asked me several times, as well, if I missed the kids, though he seemed more amused than shocked by my response: “Not even a little.”

Now, before you get your knickers in twist, know this: I love my kids deeply. And I was thrilled to see their sweet faces when they arrived home. But for goodness sake, they were gone for a blink. Next summer, I think I’ll try to convince them to go away for two weeks. Or maybe even three.

By then, after 51 weeks of togetherness, my Good Mommy credentials should be reinstated, my membership in the club renewed.

Randye Hoder is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Pain and Pleasure and Guilt, Oh My!

Late last Saturday night, a thin strip of indoor/outdoor red carpet led from the parking lot of the Magic Castle in Hollywood to a small, close-ceiling function roombehind the glamorous house of tricks.

Inside, 100 or so young Jews gathered to celebrate the third issue of Guilt & Pleasure, a literary quarterly out of New York whose first issue featured a cover photograph of a border collie smoking a cigarette. Stacks of the summer 2006 issue lay about, but it was too dark in the small, nightclub-like space to read anything but the turquoise-colored title: “The Magic Issue.”

A bar anchored the back of the narrow room, featuring no-host, all-you-can-afford $10.50 cocktails, and several rows of folding chairs faced a teensy stage.

The young man next to me, a writer with darkly alert eyes and a sardonic smile, said the magazine serves a young, hip, intellectual Jewish audience “not quite being served” by Heeb, another magazine out of New York.

It seems to me the distinction is perhaps the Gen Y equivalent of the differences among the AJCommittee, AJCongress and the ADL — that is to say, indecipherable to outsiders. As near as I can tell, both publications are aimed at young Jewish men with darkly alert eyes and sardonic smiles, and the women who hope to marry them.

All around me were plenty of examples of both: dressed up (the Magic Castle has a coat-and-tie policy, even in its dungeon), animated and about as cool as Jews who aren’t Leonard Cohen can possibly be.

The emcees, Jill Soloway and Jessica Chaffin, took the stage, having won the thankless job of trying to figure out exactly what kind of Jewish jokes would make these particular Jews laugh. Both were trying hard for laughs, which of course is the death of cool.

They brought on the magician, Andrew Goldenhersh, who looks like Rasputin but otherwise seemed very nice. He held two raw eggs, had volunteers strap him into a straight jacket, and said he would wrestle his way out without cracking the eggs. When he had freed himself, he reached inside the white coat and pulled out two fully alive chickens.

It was brilliant, but that’s not magic, of course; that’s tricks.Out came a contributor to the issue, Gregor Ehrlich, who read his essay on how his life has intersected with the lives of various chickens. After a few very dry, very sardonic minutes, a heckler called out, “What’s this about?”

“It’s about chickens,” Ehrlich said — unflappable — and continued.

Indeed, what is it about?

Ever since national studies back in the 1990s showed a marked decline in the numbers of young Jews affiliated with Jewish life, along with a rise in intermarriage rates, Jewish professionals and the foundations they hit up have made it a priority to captivate this precious demographic — aka, the future of our people.

No one knows what works, so everything gets a try. Salons? Here’s a couple grand. Yiddish rappers? Here’s another thou. Leadership seminars in a snowy resort town? Here’s $100K.

Both Guilt & Pleasure and Heeb are nonprofit publications that required substantial donations to get them going and keep them afloat. The former distributes 20,000 copies of a 154-page, four-color journal on heavy stock. That’s a lot of cholent for the poor. Heeb received its tens of thousands from foundations established by Andrea and Charles Bronfman and Steven Spielberg, and G & P has tapped many of the same resources. The idea is that publications will reach and give voice to a generation of Jews otherwise cut off from their roots, thus drawing them back to the fold.

They cost a lot. But do they work?

There is no hard evidence. But the media echoes Heeb produces make Judaism palatably hip to the youth market, at a time when Israel, that other noticeably Jewish product, has been less than beloved by college kids. And every Jewish generation needs a safe place for its intellectuals to play among themselves, whether it was the original Yiddish Forverts or Commentary, Lillith or G&P.Back at the Magic Castle, the comedians finally took hold of the night.

Jeffrey Ross, a standard fixture at celebrity roasts and my favorite un-famous comic, got up and killed. He insulted the venue — “I had to put on a tie for this s—hole?” — insulted the organizers and insulted the audience.

When he called the cheeky Times columnist Joel Stein “just like Tom Wolfe, but without the talent,” some in the audience gasped at the audacity, because Stein, like Jon Stewart, is Jewish hipster royalty — the court jester with mainstream media exposure. Plus Stein was sitting in the front row. (No worries, he has a sense of humor.)

Ross got big laughs with well-told Jewish jokes. “The other night my girlfriend and I rented a Jewish porn movie,” he deadpanned. “It was called, ‘I Don’t Do That’ … which I think was a remake of ‘Eeeew.'”

Rewind 40 years, clean it all up a bit and you’re back in the Catskills.Same with the next comedian, Jeff Garlin. The co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned out to be a real Falstaff in the faux-English venue, one-upping Ross in viciously insulting the hosts, the Castle, the audience, then improvising a set that ranged from anti-Semites trying out their accents to comedian Dane Cook.As I left, an embarrassed magazine promoter pulled me aside. “Write about the magazine,” he said, “not the evening.”

OK: Guilt & Pleasure is good, often very good, and the magic issue is its best.But the evening wasn’t all bad, either.

What seemed to work was what Ross and Garlin did, which, really, was the stuff that worked for Mason and Rickles and Groucho, and no doubt for generations of tummlers and badchanim before them. Insults. Self-deprecating humor. Mockery. Screwing with the status quo, even when the status quo are hip Jews who think they’re the ones screwing with the status quo.

Every generation of Jews thinks it is the revolutionary one, the one that will upturn the traditions and set the old ways. But we are a people with a long, valued tradition of invective and obstreperousness. This week’s Torah portion makes a point of singling out the wayward son for punishment, but centuries of rabbis afterward found a way to soften the harsh decree, and bring him into the fold.

The strength of Jewish culture is its ability not just to give birth to its own critics, rebels and jesters, but to set an honored place for them at the table. To think there is a status quo that Jews will not attack, or to think any one generation is the first to attack it — now, that’s illusion. l

Sacrifices Address Emotion of Guilt

The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.

The Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”

Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.

Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.

Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?

The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect.

At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.

But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.

Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.

Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.

These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one’s character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.

Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.


Scales of Injustice

I was 10 the first time I stepped on a scale. It was the summer of 1978, and I was visiting my grandmother in Florida.

Every day, grandma and I went for our daily two-mile walk, past the golf course, past Publix, the supermarket where the old people bought prune juice and cod liver oil. On the way home we’d stop there to weigh ourselves on the giant outdoor scale.

“Girls have to be thin and beautiful,” grandma would say. “The world judges on first appearances.”

My grandmother didn’t look like you’d expect a grandmother to look — soft and round and smelling of gingerbread. No, this grandma was all sharp angles and points — her make-up and hair carefully arranged, her clothes stylish and neatly pressed. She was skinny, and the needle hovered around 120.

Then it was my turn. My grandmother would peer over my shoulder. “Same as yesterday.” Or: “You’ve lost a pound. Aren’t you happy?”

And I was.

Was I ever really “fat?” Well, no, I suppose not technically. As a child I was a gymnast, muscular, firm; my greatest pleasure was going to gymnastics and coming home to a large cheese pizza, the oil dripping on my leotard and tights. I loved food, loved everything connected with it: cooking it, reading about it, consuming it. I could (and still can) match my father Whopper for Whopper; at the dinner table my mother would shoot me dirty looks when I reached for a second helping. But this food-love was never a problem; as a child I ate pleasurably, without guilt. Occasionally, I’d weigh myself on my mother’s little green scale, wearing layers of clothes, a pair of hiking boots. The numbers meant nothing to me.

They did to my mother. She always warned that if I wasn’t careful I’d “blow up like an elephant.” This had always been impressed upon me; I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t conscious that fat was something “bad.” I remember calling home from a neighbor’s house — I must have been about 7 — for permission to sprinkle “real” sugar into a cup of tea; I was constantly warned by my mother and grandmother never to gain weight. Fat was ugly, undignified, a sign of weakness and failure. But though I was aware of this, I never really worried about it. Fat, like fatal car crashes or terminal illnesses, was something that happened to other people.

And then adolescence hit, and I quit gymnastics. My muscles wilted. My waist cried for looser belts. My breasts grew faster than I could say “D cup.”

Not surprisingly, food stopped being a source of pleasure and became, instead, the enemy. My grandmother refused to let me come to Florida unless I lost 10 pounds. The kids at school came up with all sort of creative nicknames for me (“Flabby Abby!”).

My mother insisted I “get hold” of myself and lose weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Diet Workshop. I devoured books on the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Pritikin Weight Loss Program. I’d be “good” for a day or so, but then I’d binge on cookies, cakes, ice cream.

This Yo-Yo cycle went on for three years, until my grandfather died, left me a few bucks and I had enough money to send myself to a weight-loss camp, or food rehab, as I liked to think of it. Sure, it was expensive — about $3,500 for nine weeks, money I could easily have put toward college — but I thought it was worth it, and I happily forked over the cash. Losing weight seemed something I had to devote all my energies to, a full-time job, and at home there were too many distractions. I couldn’t wait to go to camp, couldn’t wait to return home and lead a different (read: happier, better, party- and boy-filled) life. How would it not be? I’d be thin.

I lost 15 pounds that summer, which I kept off for a little over a year. And then it crept back on (plus 10) and I returned to camp. This went on for six years: thin, fat, camp, thin, fat camp. In the end, none of it really mattered. Sure, I was happier when I fit into a pair of Size 6 jeans, but I was beholden to the numbers on the scale, beholden to a cycle of eating that affected everything I did.

I’d like to say that epiphany struck me over the head and one day, in a flash of clarity, I discovered that who you are on the inside matters more than externals. But the truth is much less exciting. Over time I simply got fed up — pun intended — of dedicating my energy to calories. After devoting six summers and 25 years to my size, I got bored of focusing so much thought on my body and ignoring what was going on in my head; of putting myself in an environment where I could feel superior instead of learning to feel that way in the real world; of being convinced that my life would be better once I knocked off 10 pounds, only to discover that it wasn’t.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve overcome my obsession with achieving a certain body type (I’d do anything, for example, to be 5-foot-8. Even 5-foot-6 would be fine). Our appearance is endlessly appraised; we live in a culture that values Cameron Diaz over Kirstie Alley, and it’s hard not to fall victim to that. My heart breaks when I see an overweight kid; nothing’s worse than being a fat child.

And food certainly still ranks high in my personal pantheon. By no means am I ready to throw in the kitchen towel and accept fat defeat. I order low-calorie or low-fat meals on airplanes, and have been known to hand the contents of the hotel minibar to the front desk. Still, you can be conscientious without being crazy. You can be a little zaftig and still attractive; some of the sexiest women I know — most of them, actually — have extra meat on their bones. And you can be fit no matter what you weigh.

But I never step on the scale, I don’t deprive myself, and I don’t eat like a refugee who might never see food again. I work out, but not maniacally. If I feel heavy, I eat less. Mainly, I try to remember that there is a wealth of things to worry about other than the size of my thighs (which are really not huge). There’s no reason to miss a social gathering because I’m too fat. There’s no reason so stay home because I’m too big.

After 25 years of dieting, this is what I know: There’s more to me than the sum of my parts, no matter how much they weigh.

Abby Ellin is the author of “Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help” (PublicAffairs, June 2005).

Proud to Have Guilt

Once Mireille Silcoff had been hired to edit a new quarterly Jewish magazine for young people, she needed to give it a name.

“At one point I just started asking people, ‘What are the first things you think of when you think about your Jewishness?'” Silcoff recalled. “You can’t imagine how many times ‘guilt’ came up. And ‘pleasure’ came up enough to be interesting.”

Guilt & Pleasure — “A magazine for Jews and the people who love them” — hit newsstands across North America last month, offering readers content ranging from long-form essays and memoirs to fiction, comics, photography and archival material.

The magazine aims not only to inform and entertain, its creators say, but to get Jews talking about issues they think ought to be more fully explored.

Each issue of Guilt & Pleasure will revolve around a theme. The first, called “Home & Away,” will examine issues of “place and identity and the nexus between them,” publisher Roger Bennett said. It includes original contributions from novelists Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and Etgar Keret as well as graphic artist Ben Katchor. The second issue will look at fights and battles; the third will be about magic.

Each edition will be connected to interactive Web-based discussion guides.

As a “strong proponent” of secular Jewish culture, Shteyngart — who wrote the best-selling “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” — says typical Jewish newspapers, emanating from a “very organized community basis,” don’t speak to him. Guilt & Pleasure, which he called a Jewish Paris Review, does.

“For as long as there have been Jews in America, there have been Jewish secular cultural enterprises,” he said.

Still, he sometimes wonders what, if anything, binds non-religious Jews.

“What among secular Jews makes us a community? Are we a community? I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

But he’s hoping Guilt & Pleasure will spur some discussion on the topic.

For more information, visit

A Defiant, Guilty Plea in AIPAC Case

Lawrence Franklin’s plea-bargain pledge to cooperate with the U.S. government in its case against two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) officials was put to the test as soon as it was made.

“It was unclassified and it is unclassified,” Franklin, a former Pentagon analyst, insisted in court last week, describing a document that the government maintains is classified. The document is central to one of the conspiracy charges against Steve Rosen, the former foreign policy chief of AIPAC.

Guilty pleas usually are remorseful, sedate affairs. But Franklin appeared defiant and agitated in an Alexandria, Va., courthouse on Oct. 5 when he pleaded guilty as part of a deal that may leave him with a reduced sentence and part of his government pension.

Franklin’s prickliness could prove another setback for the U.S. government in a case that the presiding judge already has suggested could be dismissed because of questions about access to evidence.

Franklin’s performance unsettled prosecutors, who will attempt to prove that Rosen and Keith Weissman, AIPAC’s former Iran analyst, conspired with Franklin to communicate secret information. The case goes to trial Jan. 2.

The argument over the faxed document furnished the most dramatic encounter Wednesday.

“It was a list of murders,” Franklin began to explain to U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis when Thomas Reilly, a youthful, red-headed lawyer from the Justice Department, leapt from his seat, shouting, “Your Honor, that’s classified!”

Ellis agreed to seal that portion of the hearing. JTA has learned that the fax was a list of terrorist incidents believed to have been backed by Iran.

There were other elements of Franklin’s plea that suggest he is not ready to cooperate to the fullest extent. The government says Franklin leaked information to the AIPAC employees because he thought it could advance his career, but Franklin says his motivation was “frustration with policy” on Iran at the Pentagon.

Franklin said he believed Rosen and Weissman were better connected than he and would be able to relay his concerns to officials at the White House’s National Security Council.

He did not explicitly mention in court that Iran was his concern. But JTA has learned that Franklin thought his superiors at the Pentagon were overly distracted by the Iraq war in 2003 — when he established contact with Rosen and Weissman — and weren’t paying enough attention to Iran.

The penal code criminalizes relaying information that “could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” Franklin’s testimony would not be much use to the prosecution if he believed Rosen and Weissman simply were relaying information from the Pentagon to the White House, sources close to the defense of Rosen and Weissman said.

“I was convinced they would relay this information back-channel to friends on the NSC,” he said.

In any case, the section of the penal code that deals with civilians who obtain and relay classified information rarely, if ever, has been used in a prosecution, partly because it runs up against First Amendment protections for journalists and lobbyists, who frequently deal with secrets.

A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, Rosen’s lawyer, said Franklin’s guilty plea “has no impact on our case because a government employee’s actions in dealing with classified information is simply not the same as a private person, whether that person is a reporter or a lobbyist.”

The essence of Franklin’s guilty plea seemed to be only that he knew the recipients were unauthorized to receive the information. Beyond that, he insisted, he had no criminal intent.

Admitting guilt to another charge, relaying information to Naor Gilon, the chief political officer at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Franklin said that he wasn’t giving away anything that the Israeli didn’t already know.

“I knew in my heart that his government had this information,” Franklin said. “He gave me far more information than I gave him.”

Franklin turned prosecutors’ heads when he named Gilon, the first public confirmation that the foreign country hinted at in indictments is Israel. Indictments refer to a “foreign official.”

The suggestion that Franklin was mining Gilon for information, and not the other way around, turns on its head the description of the case when it first was revealed in late August 2004, after the FBI raided AIPAC’s offices. At the time, CBS described Franklin as an “Israeli spy.”

Asked about his client’s outburst, Franklin’s lawyer, Plato Cacheris, said only that it was “gratuitous.”

But Franklin’s claim reinforced an argument put forward by Israel — that Gilon was not soliciting anything untoward in the eight or nine meetings he had with Franklin beginning in 2002.

“We have full confidence in our diplomats, who are dedicated professionals and conduct themselves in accordance with established diplomatic practice,” said David Siegel, an embassy spokesman. “Israel is a close ally of the United States, and we exchange information on a formalized basis on these issues. There would be no reason for any wrongdoing on the part of our diplomats.”

Franklin also pleaded guilty to removing classified documents from the authorized area, which encompasses Maryland, Virginia and Washington, when he brought material to his home in West Virginia.

He sounded another defensive note in explaining the circumstances: He brought the material home on June 30, 2004, he said, to bone up for the sort of tough questions he often faced from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s then-deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

Franklin, who has five children and an ill wife, said he is in dire circumstances, parking cars at a horse-race track, waiting tables and tending bar to make ends meet. Keeping part of his government pension for his wife was key to Franklin’s agreement to plead guilty, Cacheris told JTA.

Franklin pleaded guilty to three different charges, one having to do with his alleged dealings with the former AIPAC officials; one having to do with Gilon; and one for taking classified documents home.

The language of the plea agreement suggests that the government will argue for a soft sentence, agreeing to Franklin’s preferred minimum-security facility and allowing for concurrent sentencing. But it conditions its recommendations on Franklin being “reasonably available for debriefing and pre-trial conferences.”

The prosecution asked for sentencing to be postponed until Jan. 20, more than two weeks after the trial against Rosen and Weissman begins, suggesting that government leniency will be proportional to Franklin’s performance.

Franklin is a star witness, but he’s not the entire case. The charges against Rosen and Weissman, apparently also based on wiretapped conversations, allege that the two former AIPAC staffers shared classified information with fellow AIPAC staffers, the media and foreign government officials.

Two other U.S. government officials who allegedly supplied Rosen and Weissman with information have not been charged: David Satterfield, then deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and now the No. 2 man at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton-era National Security Council staffer who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The problem with the wiretap evidence lies in the government’s refusal to share much of it or even to say exactly how much it has. In a recent filing, the government said that even the quantity of the material should remain classified.

In a Sept. 19 hearing, Ellis suggested to prosecutor Kevin DiGregori that his failure to share the defendants’ wiretapped conversations with the defense team could lead to the case being dismissed.

“I am having a hard time, Mr. DiGregori, getting over the fact that the defendants can’t hear their own statements, and whether that is so fundamental that if it doesn’t happen, this case will have to be dismissed,” Ellis said.

DiGregori said the government might indeed prefer to see the case dismissed rather than turn over the material.

AIPAC fired Rosen and Weissman in April but is paying for their defense because of provisions in its bylaws. AIPAC had no comment, nor did lawyers for Weissman.



Reversing Trend

Amy Klein’s article, “In Search of a Leader,” (Oct. 7), paints a gloomy picture for the future of Conservative Judaism, which it dubs the “Conservative Crisis.” While it is true that current statistics paint a dismal picture, the trend can be reversed.

During four decades of active participation at Conservative synagogues, camps and schools, I’ve come to know and respect numerous clergy. Our rabbis and cantors are, by and large, observant men and women who abide by the tenets of our faith. They maintain kashrut, don phylacteries, perform mitzvot and allow halachah to be their guiding light. They are exemplary role models.

What is it that keeps them from speaking out? Why are they reluctant to tell their flock to trash the treif, turn off the TV on Shabbat and say their brachot throughout the day?

Two concerns drive their behavior. First, they fear losing members. The other problem is that our rabbis fear that if they push too hard, their boards may form search committees at contract time rather than engage in contract renewal.

The Conservative movement must regain its position as the moral compass for its followers. Its clergy must take assertive roles when advising members on religious matters. Additionally, its religious schools must be expanded to include in-depth study of Jewish texts, fluency in Hebrew and serious observance of our customs and rituals.

For this to happen, the Jewish Theological Seminary and its affiliates must direct synagogue boards to empower their clergy to take the initiative. Rabbis and cantors must be given assurances that their boards are solidly behind them.

An assertive rabbinate will be respected and revered. Once the Jewish community sees that the Conservative movement is proactive and consistent in its approach toward religious matters, membership rosters will once again grow.

Leonard M. Solomon
Los Angeles

Guilt Judo

The real “guilt” should be felt by The Jewish Journal staff, who once again have distorted and insulted the Jewish tradition by the “guilt” cover story (“Guilt Judo,” Oct. 7).

Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness, a day of divine love, a day of purification and resolution. The day that Rabbi Akiva was martyred and ascended to heaven with the words of the Shema” on his lips.

Yes, people struggle with this day, but the more one knows the true significance, the freer one is to experience the essence and meaning.

Joshua Spiegelman

Numbers Puzzle

As one who follows L.A. Jewish population statistics, I was quite puzzled by a statistic in Amy Klein’s article (“How We Worship,” Sept. 30) about some pretty uncommon (but, hip) AnJewlinos. The piece includes a totally unattributed 27 percent increase in the L.A. Jewish population since 1997, from 519,000 to 660,000.

Then Julie Brown’s article titled, “Jewish Population on the Rise in South Bay,” (Sept. 30), uses a Jewish Federation/South Bay estimate of 40,000 that is actually 12 percent lower than the Jewish South Bay population of 45,000 found by the 1997 L.A. Jewish population survey.

If we’re supposed to reflect upon ourselves on these Days of Awe, let’s resolve to do it accurately.

Pini Herman
Los Angeles

Darfur Genocide

While I greatly appreciate The Journal’s inclusion of a story about the Darfur genocide (“The Darfur Genocide Is Still On,” Sept. 23), it was a mistake to publish your Washington correspondent’s submittal without first checking his facts.

The article stated that American Jewish activism against the genocide is “fading” and “eroding”; while that might be true in Washington, D.C., from whence the article’s author hails, nothing could be further from the truth in Los Angeles, the home base of The Jewish Journal.

Contrary to the assertions of the article’s writer, James Besser, support for Jewish World Watch, an organization founded one year ago for the specific purpose of organizing the L.A.-based synagogue community against the genocide in Darfur, has grown exponentially since its inception — there are now more than 25 Reform, Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in Los Angeles mobilizing and energizing against this genocide.

As examples to demonstrate this activism, this summer, Jewish World Watch exposed more than 2,000 children in Jewish camps in the L.A. area to an extensive curriculum about the genocide, and Jewish World Watch engaged more than 20 schools in advocacy projects. The students in these schools have raised tens of thousands of dollars to provide drinking water to the refugees in Darfur, and have sent hundreds of letters to the United Nations and to President Bush.

In fact, Jewish World Watch, in addition to its genocide-related education and advocacy agenda, has sent thousands of communiqués to protest the genocide, has reached thousands of people with its advocacy and educational programs and has raised the funds to build two complete medical clinics in refugee camps in Darfur.

Indeed, it was disturbing that The Journal and/or its writer entirely ignored these significant and persistent organizing efforts in Los Angeles.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik
Jewish World Watch

Ed. Note:

Jim Besser’s report focused specifically on the reluctance of national Jewish organizations to make activism for Darfur a priority.

The Journal’s extensive reporting on local efforts to aid Darfur can be found at www.jewishjournal.com. Also, please read Rabbi Lee Bycel’s Op-Ed inside this issue. More importantly, go to www.savedarfur.org and get involved.


I read your article, “What to Ask a Jew,” (Oct. 7), with interest. When I finished, I was perplexed. Of course, what you wrote probably applies to many Jews, but what is your point and, more importantly, what are you suggesting as a solution? A problem needing a solution assumes that the people affected agree that there is a problem in the first place.

Are many people attending services bored because the service is boring or are they there to ease their conscience once a year, or to satisfy their mother, father or spouse, or to set an example for their children? They would probably wish to be somewhere or anywhere else.

Are these people bored because they are not there to pray but to put in an appearance? Maybe for these people it’s more of a social event.

I would suggest that the main hypothesis could be that these people just don’t go to synagogue to pray. It’s no more complicated than that. How do you make or encourage people to become more religious?

Bill Bender
Granada Hills

Resisting Nazism

Tad Daley (“A Picture of Hate,” Sept. 30), associated with presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, questions if he or any reader would have resisted the call of Nazism, as a German in Nazi Germany.

The present pope not only quit the Hitler Youth, he recently insisted that Palestinians cease their anti-Semitism in their political dispute with Israel.

Perhaps Mr. Daley, you can insist that Mr. Kucinich make the same response to the Palestinians as a precondition for your continued support of him.

Charles S. Berdiansky
Los Angeles


Boy Do We Need Teshuvah Now!

When I was a small boy — 6 or 7 — I became acutely aware that being a Jew made me a member of a tiny minority. I asked my mother why there were so few of us, and her answer was quick: “Judaism’s a hard religion, with lots of rules. When you’re Jewish, it’s not enough to believe, you have to actually do the right thing. Most people don’t want to work that hard.”

As I grew older, I discovered another reason for a scant Jewish presence in the world: persecution. Demographers have estimated that without the carnage inflicted by the Crusades and the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms, there’d be about 100 million of us.

But when it comes to one major cause of a diminished Jewish presence, assimilation, I do believe my mother was right. Being authentically Jewish is tough. It’s also part of what makes Judaism vibrant and meaningful.

I was reminded of this several years ago, when my youngest daughter brought home a study packet from school centered around the month of Elul and the concept of teshuvah — repentance, or literally, return. This fourth-grade material listed the elements of self-improvement elegantly and succinctly:

1 — Feel bad about what you did.

2 — Stop doing it.

3 — Admit you did it out loud.

4 — Decide not to do it again.

The quartet pertains only to sins committed against God. When one transgresses against another human being, a fifth stage is added: Beg forgiveness from your victim and, if not met with immediate assent, persist at least three times.

Repentance the Jewish way is tough love at its finest, a perfect road map for self-improvement grounded in a profound understanding of psychology. Yes, it involves guilt and much has been made of “Jewish guilt.” But that’s just one more bad rap against our religion perpetrated by self-hating individuals who’ve tried to reduce 3,000 years of proud, Jewish legacy to a loathsome whine.

“I’ve been crippled by Jewish guilt,” goes the chant, “therefore I can’t move forward.”

But the old joke — “How many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change” — is true. And healthy guilt — honest, heartfelt regret over doing the wrong thing coupled with the courage to effect behavioral change — can be a wonderful, empowering emotion.

Back when I worked as a child psychologist, I was clear about distinguishing my role from that of other doctors when I met new patients. “They do stuff to you,” I explained. “I work with you.”

My patients appreciated that, none more than the seriously ill kids I treated at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. These were youngsters with cancer and diabetes and birth defects and cystic fibrosis who’d been poked and probed and cut open and irradiated for much of their young lives, and craved a sense of control over their destinies.

Years later, as a cancer patient myself, I appreciated this on a whole new level. But even my physically well patients grasped the notion of being respected as volitional beings, and they reveled in confronting their maladaptive habits and learning new ways to cope. One of the many joys of my years as a psychologist was establishing partnerships with thousands of kids, guiding them toward insight and helping them help themselves.

Yes, the bulb has to want to change, but when it does, it shines brighter than ever.

Teshuvah is tough, but boy, do we need it now. Because repentance in the short attention-span, sound-bite-driven zeitgeist of the 21st century has devolved to smarmy, self-serving, spin.

And pseudorepentance — talk show repentance, public relations repentance, politician’s repentance — is worse than no repentance at all, because it consoles the wrongdoer, teaches him he’s gotten away with it and fuels further bad behavior.

Teshuvah raises the probability of improvement. Spin-doctored recitations virtually guarantee the repetition of sin.

In a teshuvah-driven world, Austria would stop trying to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German, and France would shudder at offering moral lessons to anyone.

In a teshuvah-driven world, countries like Switzerland and Sweden who maintained a noxious neutrality during World War II, and profited from it to the tune of billions of dollars, would be scrambling among themselves to return the filthy lucre to its rightful owners and would cast aside their postures of staggering self-righteousness.

A healthy dose of teshuvah would cause self-styled “progressives” to remember the transgressions of their philosophical forbears, when the left refused to condemn Hitler as long as the Nazi leader aligned himself with Stalin, only to relent when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The same goes for the spawn of those religious leaders who turned a blind eye to the extermination of millions, while inveighing against the establishment of the State of Israel.

Today, the philosophical spawn of both groups have chosen to forsake the only democracy in the Middle East and to align themselves with corrupt, thuggish Arab dictators, obsessing upon Israeli misdeeds, while maintaining a good German silence when Jewish babies are shredded to death in Jerusalem pizza parlors.

The failure to do teshuvah leads to the horrible confirmation of Santayana’s warning, quoted so often that it’s become a cliche, but no less valid for that: Forget the past and you’re condemned to repeat it.

Teshuvah is hard. Being Jewish is hard. But what holds true for muscle, applies to the human spirit: no gain without pain.

So perhaps there’ll never be a lot of us, and maybe that’s good — quality over quantity.

We Jews must adopt a dual approach: Never forget what has been done to us, never allow the world to forget and never cease to defend ourselves with power and vigilance. At the same time, we need to look deep within our own souls, taking a no-excuses approach to our own shortcomings, and working harder at self-improvement.

Teshuvah’s good stuff. We Jews need more of it.

So does the world.

Jonathan Kellerman is the author of 24 novels, five nonfiction books and numerous essays and scientific articles. He is clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at USC School of Medicine. His current novel is “Twisted” (Ballantine.) His novel, “Gone”, will be published in April.

The Painful Holidays

A feeling of trepidation takes hold of my heart. The Jewish holidays are upon us again, and as a 30-something single in a family of all married siblings, I’m feeling anxiety and pain.should be excited, as I get to spend two days with my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and their kids. However, for weeks before a holiday arrives, I experience apprehension that grows exponentially as each holiday draws closer.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love my family very much. I’ve always gotten along with my siblings and their spouses; I love my nieces and nephews like crazy, and I’ve always considered my family to be closer than most. The idea of being with them should ease the pain of being single and alone, and should ease the sense of loneliness I feel being single among married couples.

Hence, my feelings of guilt, because I do not look forward to being with my family during the holidays. I don’t look forward to having to put on a happy face, when cheerful is the last thing I feel. I don’t look forward to the questions my nieces invariably ask, when wanting to know why I am not yet married.

It is as if an important part of me is missing. I watch the loving eye contact between my siblings and their spouses, the hand holding under the table as we eat the holiday meals and the cheerful chattering of my nieces and nephews. I listen to talk of the kids’ baseball leagues, dance lessons and where the next family get-together should be held.

Someone tries to pull me into the conversation every once in a while, but I don’t really have anything to add. I feel separated from what is going on.

What I really want to say aloud is, “What about me? I want someone to talk to, to love, who will understand me, and really listen to me, and have things in common with me. I want to enjoy my own little boy and girl.”

Sitting in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, I have tears in my eyes, because another year has past, and I’m still alone. And being with my family only makes it worse. Seeing the happiness among my family members and knowing it’s due to the one thing I don’t have — a loving spouse and children — makes my heart ache.

Jewish holidays are times when families come together. But I don’t have my own family yet. And this point is driven home to me very clearly every time I’m with my siblings for the holidays.

I sit at the meals wishing there was someone who could understand what I’m going through, and I’ve come up with what I think is a really good idea: If there were one or more singles sitting at the meals with me, this would surely ease the loneliness I feel. They would probably be feeling some of the same emotions as I am, and we could support each other, just by sharing these times together.

I would have someone to laugh with when my nieces asked their probing questions, someone to roll my eyes at when my siblings were acting mushy and I was feeling vulnerable, and someone who would be going through what I was going through and could relate.

There are always some singles who have nowhere to go for the holidays, because their families aren’t observant or perhaps they live too far away. If these singles were invited for the Jewish holidays by families like mine, where there is one single among many married couples, this could have multiple benefits.

First and foremost, it would be a tremendous mitzvah on the part of the families doing the inviting. It would also alleviate some of the pain that the singles feel at being the only one who is single. Personally, having another single around for the holidays would make me feel less alone and more open to enjoying my family’s company, without the added burden of loneliness.

Before the holidays wrap up for the year, I wish to call out to families who have singles in their midst. I wish to tell them that we, the singles, are lonely and need help this time of year, help that could come from having other singles around.

So please, this year when we are all trying to make changes, do something new, something good, and invite singles to your tables and to your homes on Yom Tov. You will warm others’ hearts, and maybe even your own.

Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist working in New York. She can be reached at michelesherenstein@yahoo.com.


Like Some ‘Guilt’ With Your Chick Lit?

“The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (Dutton, $24.95).

When Ruth Andrew Ellenson achieved the writer’s milestone of selling her first book, her father responded in classic Jewish parental fashion.

“He was thrilled and said, ‘Honey, that’s wonderful.’ Then there was a long pause,” Ellenson recalled. “And he said, ‘I guess this means I have to wait longer for grandchildren.'”

As the editor of the newly released “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” Ellenson now has both the professional and personal credentials to speak on behalf of any Jewish woman who struggles with the notion of “letting my people down. I’ve always been interested in what’s complicated about being Jewish and how you balance the different parts of life,” said the 31-year-old freelance journalist. “Jewish women have been given opportunities they never had before. We live in a time of choice and so there are myriad new ways to feel guilty.”

Ellenson’s anthology, which consists of 28 essays by some of America’s most prominent Jewish female writers, presents itself as a kid-in-the-candy-store experience for the angst-ridden Jew. Got guilt about marrying a German? Overeating on the holidays? Not thinking about the Holocaust enough? Joining the Israeli army to please your father? Pore through this collection and there’s bound to be an essay that will resonate. Consider the reviews of the book, which range from Publisher’s Weekly to the Los Angeles Times and have been consistently positive — yet far from homogenous. Each critic, it seems, has his or her own favorite group of essays.

“I didn’t want people to only write about the guilt they have because of their non-Jewish boyfriends,” said Ellenson, who’s kicking off a book tour of readings at the Skirball Cultural Center Sept. 15. “I wanted to veer away from stereotypes and I really looked for a diversity of experiences.”

Daphne Merkin in “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” and Tova Mirvis in “What Will They Think,” for example, both explore the legacy of growing up Orthodox and how they continue to embrace and/or struggle with that identity. Kera Bolonik recalls the time she came out to her mother, who divulged her daughter’s lesbianism to her Yiddish club. Rabbi Sharon Brous ruminates on why “she’s a living breathing trigger for other people’s guilt” because of her status as a spiritual leader.

Mothers, grandmothers and boyfriends, however, certainly do not escape scrutiny and they take center stage in some of the funnier and more poignant essays. Cynthia Kaplan’s “American Express” chronicles the writer’s relationship with her ailing grandmother and deftly straddles that fine line between hilarious and heartbreaking. Lori Gottlieb writes about the failure to screen her mother’s calls, while Binnie Kirshenbaum figures out how to honor her mother’s memory without having children. Then there’s Amy Klein, The Journal’s religion editor, who provides a play-by-play account of her online romances in “True Confessions of a JDate Addict.”

In addition to Klein, Gottlieb and Brous, other L.A. contributors include fiction writers Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and novelist/TV reporter Francesca Segre. What links the anthology together “is the issue of how everyone seeks to incorporate Judaism into their lives even if they don’t fit a traditional Jewish mold,” Ellenson said. “Some use humor, some use introspection, but everyone’s trying to be honest about how they connect or don’t connect to being Jewish.”

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Los Angeles and New York, Ellenson has spent years reconciling various contradictions and complications of identity. The daughter of Rabbi David Ellenson and of a convert mother, Ellenson, in her book’s introduction, writes about attending a church in Virginia to watch her grandmother sing in the choir.

“So there I sat, a rabbi’s daughter in the church of her forefathers, bathed in the ruby light of stained-glass windows depicting Jesus,” she said. “And paralyzed by guilt.”

Ellenson describes growing up in “a practicing Conservative Jewish home with an emphasis on the intellectual. I was always very connected Jewishly, even when I was rebelling,” she said. “Like during the time I was yelling at my father about why can’t we be Buddhists, I was involved in Young Judea and going on trips to Israel. Or how about this? I love Shabbos lunches, but I hate going to services.”

For Ellenson, who received her master’s in fine arts from Columbia University, “rejecting my Judaism has never felt right, nor has trying to be more observant than I actually am. The question of where people find their happy mediums has always fascinated me,” she said. “And that’s what I loved about creating this book. It made me appreciate that through my own guilt, I have been searching for the truth and trying to embrace what I love and what I struggle with.”

Currently at work on her first novel, Ellenson says “an anthology is the best way to explore a question you’re deeply curious about because you’re dealing with a variety of opinions. It allows you think about things in a way that you haven’t before.”

So will there be a sequel to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt?” Ellenson laughs before answering. “The thought of saying no to that question fills me with guilt.”

Ruth Andrew Ellenson appears with Aimee Bender, Gina Nahai and Lori Gottleib, Sept. 15, 7:30 p.m., Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. $20. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 335-0917 or visit www.writersblocpresents.com.

On Sept. 25, at 2 p.m., Ellenson, Amy Klein, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Lori Gottleib and Francesca Segre will be at Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. For more information, call (310) 476-6263.


Got Closure?

I’m 18. I’m flipping through my yearbook, reading over the cursive messages of my friends: “Stay sweet” and “Great sitting next to you in French” and “Have a great summer.”

On the next page, there are a few more notes advising me not to change, to remember that night at the beach drinking wine coolers, to “keep in touch.”

I have a couple days left of high school, but in my mind I’m already gone. I have no idea when I turn the next page that what’s written there will keep me from really leaving for several years.

Across two blank white pages is scrawled, “UR UGLY.”

I snap the yearbook shut. I snap it shut with enough force to make a whooshing sound. I wasn’t sure — perhaps because the forensic humiliation team was off-duty that day — but it looked like each letter had been written by a different person.

I later found out who stole my yearbook and, with his crappy-hearted little buddies, jabbed a ballpoint pen into my paper-thin self-esteem. If you think they owe me an apology, “UR RIGHT.”

That was many Yom Kippurs ago. And what do you know? I’ve never gotten one. While I’m tempted to have you feel sad for that poor, innocent schoolgirl who never got the apology she so richly deserved, I’ve done worse, way worse.

Well, ’tis the season to be sorry. Or at least to think about what sorry is, to whom we owe an apology, to whom we owe forgiveness and, frankly, what good is any of this repentance anyway?

Moses begged God’s forgiveness for 40 days and 40 nights, Kobe Bryant’s going on at least that long plus a $4 million sorry ring. We all have our ways of expressing remorse, but what are we buying with our flowers, phone calls and fine jewelry? Maybe the more observant among us are trying to be “inscribed in the book of life,” to obey strict talmudic laws, but people like me, we just want to feel okay about ourselves. We’d like our names erased from the Book of Guilt.

And here’s where I unearth the “buried lede.” I said a big sorry this year and it changed everything. I was dreading it, I was nauseous when I did it, but it finally became obvious that I was carrying around guilt like rocks in my pockets — my hands were still free but I couldn’t quite get comfortable.

I had to do it; I had to call an ex-boyfriend and hope he’d be big about my saying he was … small. You know what I mean — down there.

If you’re a male reader, or maybe just a member of the human race, you are probably wincing. I still can’t believe I did it. I know it’s not murder or adultery or stealing or any of the big biblical sins, but it’s the most personal kind of attack, a surgical strike designed to go right to a the core of a man’s sense of well-being and blow it to smithereens.

No one ends up dead, but it’s this kind of cruel remark that erodes your confidence until “UR IN THERAPY.”

I could make excuses for why I said it — we were breaking up, I was devastated and hadn’t slept in days, he was so perfect there was no other target but the one below the belt — but those don’t matter. Beyond the fact that it wasn’t true, it was a bell you can’t unring.

“Even if a man only spoke badly about another man, he must appease and beseech until he is forgiven,” said Maimonides, who may not have had this sort of slight in mind, but you never know.

The 12th-century theologian also specified that the only person who can grant forgiveness is the person who was wronged. There was no getting around it, no asking to speak to the supervisor and going right to God. According to Jewish law, I had to repent, had to mean it, had to swing at forgiveness at least three times before giving up.

Years had passed since the day I broke up with that guy, the day I said the bad thing. I talked to him on occasion, his birthday or mine. We made small talk, but never about the “small” talk.

I wondered if he even remembered.

In 12-step programs, there’s a powerful concept very similar to the Jewish High Holidays and their focus on deliverance through atonement. In order to stay sober, one has to “become willing to make amends.” Because more of the people I know practice the 12 steps than traditional Judaism, I’m more familiar with their amends process. It’s methodical, and like Judaism, the focus is not on gaining God’s forgiveness but on making it up to the person you harmed.

Both traditions suggest that the only real redemption comes from being faced with the same situation again and doing it right the next time.

From the Babylonian Talmud: “How is one proved to be a true penitent? Said Rabbi Judah: If the opportunity to commit the same sin presents itself on two occasions, and he does not yield to it.”

Well, the universe has been kind enough to provide me many an ugly breakup and I knew better than to go back to my original sin. By acting better, I was making what 12-steppers would call “living amends.” Still, in the parlance of “recovery,” I hadn’t “cleaned my side of the street.”

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous gives some pointers I found useful, suggesting, “We should be sensible, tactful, considerate and humble without being servile or scraping.”

I could do that. I made the call.

After some chitchat, I slowly lowered my sorry. It went something like this: “When we broke up, I said some very cruel, very personal things. I said things that weren’t true and for that I’m deeply sorry.”

It was as if he’d been sitting by the phone for years just waiting to hear that. He knew exactly what I meant. There was a pause.

“Yes,” he said. “That really hurt. I’m glad you called. Thank you.”

As guys do when faced with intense emotional situations — and when living with their new girlfriends who are probably in the next room — he hustled off the phone right quick. And the deed was done. Or undone.

I’m not being overly dramatic when I tell you I hung up that phone and walked lighter, sat straighter, not weighted down by those rocks. And something unexpected happened. I didn’t miss that guy in the same deep-down way I had for so long, because partially I was tethered to him by a past I couldn’t put away until I took it out for show and tell and made it right. I guess anything that can keep an addict clean and a people together for thousands of years must have some magic in it.

My guy accepted the apology with grace. But what about the yearbook guy? Could I forgive someone who never repented?

To be honest, the yearbook guy is just one portrait in my Gallery of Grudges, an easy example, because it’s far away and time has blurred the anger. It hangs next to “Evil Stepmother in Repose,” “Still Life of Guy Breaking Into My Childhood Home” and “Portrait of a Teacher Who Said I’d Never Amount to Anything.” What about them?

I took the question to a couple of rabbis.

“There is no obligation to forgive someone who has never apologized. There is a benefit, however,” said Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. “Hatred corrodes the soul, while not usually hurting the hated at all. It ties knots inside of us, which can’t really be unraveled by another’s apology as much as by our own willingness to let go.”

Oh, that old “letting go” thing. So much easier said than done. Have you noticed that spiritual teachers in almost every discipline won’t let go of telling us to let go? Dr. Phil practically has it tattooed on his tush.

Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple agreed, saying, “Forgiving relieves us of the burden of bitterness. It can help take the chip off our shoulder and that is always a good thing.”

Chips off the shoulder, rocks out of the pockets, I think I get it. Let go and the heavy stuff lightens up. Life gets better. We act better.

Leder hit me with perhaps the most persuasive quote I’ve heard all year. From Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach: “If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating. But since I have only one soul, I do not want to waste it on hatred.”

I should talk to rabbis more often.

As for letting go, that happened with yearbook guy when I put it into perspective. Was it all about me? Was he a second-string sadist coming off the bench to impress his friends? Was he an angry kid with problems of his own? More importantly, was I truly ugly? I was no cover model, but I was holding my own. I can see that now. The question is, what was he holding? And is he still holding it?

This is where Leder dropped some more wisdom on me. He said, if possible, we should let someone know that they’ve hurt us, giving them the chance for repentance. If they repent, we forgive.

This seems fair. Fair, but at this moment, utterly impossible for me in most cases. Not to mention the fact that there’s probably a statute of limitations on petty high school hurt feelings crimes. As for the other grudges, I’ll have to think about it. A soul is a terrible thing to waste.

Teresa Strasser will join other Journal Singles
columnists at Friday Night Live on Oct. 10 for “Dating Dos and Don’ts” at Sinai
Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Visit Teresa Strasser on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .

Signs of Thaw Seen in Israel-Europe Ties

After years of mutual distrust and periodic acrimony, there are signs of a thaw in relations between Israel and Europe.

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was feted in London this week, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom pressed a new "friendship with Europe" initiative. Also, the European Union recently put out feelers about including Israel in plans for a "wider Europe."

But though the stage for warmer ties was set by the revival of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there are still deep differences between Israel and Europe on the Palestinian issue.

And while Israel’s relations with European governments may be improving, the same can’t be said about public opinion: In much of Europe, Israel is still getting what it considers to be hostile press.

In London early this week, Sharon received expansive red carpet treatment. In a rare gesture of friendship and support, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited his Israeli counterpart to a private dinner at his home at 10 Downing St. British officials were at pains to point out that few foreign dignitaries are honored in this way.

"Not even Blair’s close friend George Bush was invited to dinner at No. 10," a senior official was quoted as saying.

For several months now, JTA has learned, Britain’s Foreign Office has believed that Sharon wants to make peace with the Palestinians, but will find it difficult to make concessions.

Sharon, however, maintains that Britain and the rest of Europe first need to change their attitude toward Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon argues that the power struggle between Arafat and the P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, really is a struggle over the peace process, which Arafat wants to destroy and Abbas wants to push forward. To prove his point, Sharon presented Israeli intelligence reports to Blair, and is openly urging British and other European leaders to boycott Arafat. The Americans back Sharon on this, but the Europeans, so far, mainly do not.

Sharon warns that if the Europeans keep strengthening Arafat, and if Abbas is forced to step down as a result, Israel will have to reconsider its attitude to the internationally approved "road map" peace plan.

Despite these differences, European attitudes to Israel seem to be changing dramatically. In July, soon after the road map was set in motion, Israeli and E.U. officials met in Brussels for the annual review of Israel’s economic association with the European Union.

According to Oded Eran, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, the Europeans were unexpectedly forthcoming: They declared that E.U. relations with Israel no longer would be contingent on progress in the peace process.

More importantly, the officials indicated that the European Union was interested in including Israel in its plans for a "wider Europe." They even suggested upgrading the economic association with Israel.

There was, however, one request of Israel: that it ratify the Kyoto Protocol on environmental protection, which would mean enough countries had signed the treaty to bring it into force, despite American objections.

The new European openness to Israel has struck a receptive chord in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Arguing that Israel has neglected ties with Europe for too long, Shalom launched what he calls a European "friendship campaign" with a visit to Italy last week, which he intends to follow up at the upcoming session of the Council of European Foreign Ministers in Brussels.

For their part, the Europeans make it clear that although they want to play a role in the peace process, their aim is only to aid or complement the United States, which will continue to be the main player.

As Israel-E.U. ties warm up, there is a lot of old animosity to overcome. Britain is a case in point: In the run up to the war with Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke about a double standard and seemed to compare Israel to Iraq; Blair himself pressured Bush to pressure Israel to accept the road map; Britain hosted a conference on reform of the Palestinian Authority without inviting Israelis, and Britain last year also unofficially embargoed arms to Israel that it felt might be used in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Some British media, especially the BBC, continue to be hypercritical of Israel. Indeed, the screening of a recent BBC documentary on Israel’s unconventional weapons led the Foreign Ministry’s PR bosses to sever ties with the BBC.

This kind of media treatment, the pressure of large anti-Israel Muslim populations in several European countries, complex European guilt feelings toward the Jews, Europe’s colonial past and Europe’s strong human rights focus all make for highly problematic relations between Europe and Israel, which many Europeans see as an "occupying power."

As a fragile new Israeli-Palestinian peace process gets under way, it remains to be seen whether early signs of Europe’s reassessment of ties with Israel herald a fundamental change in attitudes and policies.

Guilt and Responsibility

Since the barbarous July 30 bombings that claimed the lives of 13innocent Israelis, we have heard and read the following claim: Notonly was the atrocity predictable, but it was also a direct result ofIsrael’s recent actions. I strongly take issue with this.

This argument lacks both political realism and morality. Lack ofpolitical realism — because it suggests that terrorism serves as acatalyst in the peace process. We know, however, that after six yearsof direct peace talks, political disputes cannot be resolved by useof violence. Lack of morality — because it contributes to therevictimization of the victim.

In February and March of 1996, in a quite different politicalclimate, a wave of suicide-bombing attacks traumatized Israel andclaimed the lives of 65 innocent people. We heard that Hamas was outto derail the fast-advancing peace process. Now, after the peaceprocess has been slowed down, we are told that Israel is to blame forthis latest terrorist attack.

Does anyone remember the Sharem el-Sheik Summit? Leaders from allover the world, headed by President Clinton, gathered following awave of four attacks on Israelis; they all pledged to prevent futureterrorism. Arafat was there.

A reminder: From September 1993 through all of 1995, the peaceprocess was in full swing. Forty-one donor nations pledged $2.4billion in aid to the newly formed Palestinian Authority. The futurelooked bright, yet there was terrorism. There was no Har Homa housingproject, yet there was bloodshed.

Since the inception of the political process between Israel andits Arab neighbors, it was clear to us that in order to achieve peacein the Middle East, we urgently needed to bring about a profound anddramatic change in our region’s political culture, from a belligerentculture that believes in power and violence to one ofnon-belligerency that believes in compromise and peacefulcoexistence.

One wonders if this message of steadfastly rejecting violence wasabsorbed by the Palestinians. Clearly, the answer is no. Since thesigning of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, 231Israelis have been killed as a result of acts of terror.

The recent deadly attack at the marketplace could have beenprevented by Arafat. We know, for a fact, that Arafat has the abilityto destroy terrorism. While we are fully aware of the fact that it isvirtually impossible to completely and successfully preventterrorism, we demand that a 100-percent effort to combat terrorism beinvested by Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

Indeed, the July 30 twin bombings were carried out by Islamicextremists. Hamas, an Islamic terrorist organization, tookresponsibility for the attack on the Thursday thereafter. We know whois responsible. The attack, and the conditions that enabled it, tookplace in a militant political atmosphere — one that accepts violenceas a legitimate form of political discourse. Much of the blame shouldbe put on Arafat, who cultivated and encouraged this atmosphere.

It is not only obvious that violence and peace are mutuallyexclusive, but it is equally obvious that one cannot be an honestpartner for peace while countenancing terrorism. No nation, includingthe United States, is immune to the threat of this type of terror.Only two weeks ago, a potential mass disaster was averted in New Yorkas terrorists were apprehended while planning a major strike against”American and Jewish targets in New York.”

Words, however heartfelt, are not enough. We expect thePalestinian Authority to take the necessary measures to restore ourconfidence in its ability and desire to combat terror.

Yoram Ben Ze’ev serves as Israel’s consul general for theSouthwestern region of the United States. He can be reached atisrainfo@primenet.com.