Abbas denies Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage

Jerusalem’s identity is Arab, and the city’s and Christian holy sites must be protected from Israeli threats, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said.

Abbas also said that Israeli authorities want to build a Jewish Temple on the site of the al-Aksa mosque and Dome of the Rock, in a statement issued Tuesday on the anniversary of an attempted arson of the Al-Aksa Mosque in 1969 by an Australian Christian, who was later found to be clinically insane.

“Their ultimate goal is to rob Muslims and Christians of their holy shrines, destroy the Al Aksa mosque and build the alleged Jewish temple,” he said.

He also said that Israeli excavation work in Jerusalem, and in the Western Wall tunnels beneath the mosque, “will not undermine the fact that the city will forever be Arabic, Islamic and Christian.”

Abbas concluded that “there will be no peace or stability before our beloved city and eternal capital is liberated from occupation and settlement.”

The Orthodox Union slammed Abbas’ denial of Jewish heritage in Jerusalem. Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director for Public Policy, said in a statement:
“President Abbas’ statement is only the latest in which he and other Palestinian leaders have outrageously denied the millennia-old connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.  The existence of our two holy Temples is not ‘alleged’—it is fact. Just as it is fact that Jerusalem has served as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people since the times of King David; just as it is fact that only under modern Israeli sovereignty have Jerusalem’s holy sites been protected and open to access by people of all faiths; and just as it is fact that Jerusalem must and will remain a united city, and the capital of Israel and the Jewish people eternally.”

Opinion: Time to assert Jerusalem’s Jewish heritage

Among his many statements related to Israel in the last couple of weeks, President Obama got at least one thing right when he said at a London news conference that Jerusalem goes deep into how the Jewish people think about their identity.

As we mark 44 years of a reunited Jerusalem this week, we should appreciate the centrality of Jerusalem to Jewish identity.

This is why most Israelis and American Jews consistently reject the idea that Israel surrender swaths of the holy city as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Jerusalem has been a touchstone of our identity throughout our history, and our contemporary experience gives Jerusalem a central place in our faith today.

From the religious perspective, when Jews pray, we face toward Jerusalem—and the Temple Mount in particular—no matter where we are in the world. We pray each day for the welfare of Jerusalem, and we conclude our most sacred services, the Passover seder and Neilah on Yom Kippur, with the pledge and prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Historically, we regularly read biblical accounts of our forefathers and mothers that take place in and around Jerusalem. King David made the city his capital 3,000 years ago, and it has been the national capital of the Jewish people—and no other nation—ever since.

Only brute force has kept us out. Such was the case, we must still recall, from 1948 to 1967, when Jews were barred entry to the Old City and denied worship at the Western Wall during the time that the West Bank was controlled by Jordan.

Since Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967, the city has been open to all. As noted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his recent address to Congress, “Only a democratic Israel has protected freedom of worship for all faiths.”

Moreover, reunification has enabled Jerusalem to flourish economically and culturally. While it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has a vibrant tourist trade, entrepreneurial businesses and first-rate theater and museums.

Some, in Israel and elsewhere, assert that Jerusalem can be easily divided with minimal impact upon the life of the city, let alone the sanctity and safety of its holy places. Indeed, there are neighborhoods, especially those to the east of the West Bank security barrier, where Jews seldom venture.

But modern Jerusalem is far more an interwoven checkerboard of Jewish and Palestinian areas than starkly segregated enclaves. The Arab area of Beit Safafa lies between the Jewish neighborhoods of Talpiot and Gilo, while the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah lies between the Old City and the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill. Moreover, an area like the City of David or Silwan may have more Palestinian than Jewish residents, but it is deeply connected to Jewish history.

It is no more feasible to separate the Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem from one another than to ethnically divide the neighborhoods of Manhattan.

Proponents of a “two-state solution” are wont to say that “everyone knows” what the details of a deal are. Those details often include the presumption that Jerusalem will again be divided and will serve as the capital of two states: Israel and Palestine.

It is high time to repudiate this presumption. The international community would never expect the Muslims to cede sovereignty over Mecca, the cradle of their faith and history, any more than Americans would be asked to return Philadelphia to the queen of England. The Jewish people should be afforded no less respect. Jerusalem must remain united under Jewish sovereignty.

Days after the 1967 Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, one of the great leaders of religious Zionism, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, wrote that the Jews were not worthy to hold onto Jerusalem in 1948 because they were divided into many factions.

“In 1967,” he wrote, “we entered the city through one gate, the Lions’ Gate, with one army, the IDF, under one flag.”

Of course, we Jews find ourselves in many factions today. We must fight on many fronts to assert the Jewish heritage of Jerusalem. On this Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, we must commit ourselves to confronting those who would redivide our capital from without and to working to unify the Jewish people from within.

We must do it for the sake of Jerusalem.

(Nathan Diament is the director of public policy at the Orthodox Union.)

‘Heritage’ positions American Jews in Jewish America

“Heritage,” warns Beth S. Wenger in “History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage” (Princeton University Press, $35), “is always a partisan effort.”

According to Wenger, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Jewish studies program, the heritage embraced by American Jews is invented if not entirely imaginary. She insists that the way American Jews see themselves can be “self-congratulatory, often embellished, and sometimes a blend of fact and fiction.”  She argues that “American Jews gradually manufactured a collective Jewish history in the United States,” and the end result has been “[t]he creation of a shared, usable Jewish past” but not necessarily a wholly factual one. 

Viewed from the stance of a professional historian, the whole enterprise of heritage-making strikes her as a “messy blend of truth and myth … often self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory, and almost always self-serving.” The purpose of Jewish myth-making in America has been to “[foster] a sense of Jewish belonging” in a place where we are a tiny minority, and she concludes that “Jews wrote America into Jewish history, and Jews into American history.”

A revolution in Jewish consciousness was at work among the Jews who managed to reach the New World. “The Zionist typology of the ‘new Jew’… had an American corollary,” Wenger writes. “American Jews created a myth of America as the new Zion, an alternate form of the Promised Land.” So it was that the Yiddish poet Avraham Liessin, writing in 1897, saw the Statue of Liberty as a symbol with special meaning for Jewish immigrants: “Man/freed from tyranny/grows free and proud/with a spirit that knows no bound/and a will forged of steel.”

Of course, Jews were always mindful that they represented a small fraction of the population, even if they refused to concede that America was essentially a Christian nation. Thus, for example, when Christian patriots depicted America as “the divine successor to biblical Israel,” Jews tried “to subvert the Christian nature of that claim by reinserting Jews into the story and allotting them a primary share of the founding myth.” Thus, for example, one prominent Reform rabbi celebrated the American centennial in 1876 by declaring that “Moses, the son of Amram, and George Washington are the two poles of the axis about which the history of mankind revolves.”

Here Wenger sees “one of the most common practices of Jews in America,” that is, the use of civic holidays “from Thanksgiving to Columbus Day to the Fourth of July” as occasions on which Jewish Americans “conjured and performed myriad versions of American history and sketched a Jewish place within it.” And she points out that it was not only a matter of making speeches and putting on pageants — the now-discredited notion that Columbus was Jewish came to be “codified as part of the collective heritage of American Jews.”

Some of the most compelling passages in Wenger’s books address the less familiar moments in Jewish history. She recalls that the Jewish War Veterans sold its own brand of shaving razor during the Depression as a fund-raising effort (“Use the J.W.V. Blade!”), and some radical Yiddish schools “openly ridiculed Judaism (and all religion) as corrupt,” as in a poem that appeared in one school primer: “The Rabbi and the Cantor —/Their income’s no pittance!/Of course. They tell us,/That the boss is always right.”

More familiar is her account of how Haym Salomon, an obscure participant in the American Revolution, was transformed into “the first and perhaps most enduring heroic figure of American Jewry.” Although he played a “key role in securing financial support for the American cause,” Wenger insists, “everything else said about him … can be characterized as either hopeful speculation or blatant distortion.” So it was that the Jewish community of Los Angeles gathered on Jan. 7, 1944, to unveil a monument in his honor — “a statue of ‘heroic size’ that depicted Salomon in a seated posture, closely resembling the image of Abraham Lincoln sitting solemnly at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.” After several moves, that same statue now stands at the Third Street entrance to Pan Pacific Park.

The self-invention that Wenger describes so expertly in “History Lessons” is not over yet.  When Robert Rifkin wrote a letter 2004 addressed to the Jewish community of 2054, he asserted that American Jewry “had come of age.” But Wenger warns us that “he likely overstated the finality of its evolution,” and her own conclusion is that “American Jewry remains constantly in the process of ‘becoming.’ ”

“History Lessons” is a work of scholarship, but it is an especially lucid and accessible one, and the book has a unique appeal for a nonacademic Jewish readership. Indeed, we are the subject of Wenger’s impressive study, and it is fascinating to read about ourselves in its pages.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

Heritage site renovations approved

An Israeli government committee approved the $25 million renovation of 16 national heritage projects and sites.

The Ministerial Committee on the National Heritage, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Tuesday approved the renovation of the sites—among the 150 sites and initiatives included in the “Plan for Renovating and Strengthening National Heritage Sites and Assets” approved in February—at a cost of $25 million. The plan caused some controversy when two West Bank biblical sites, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs, were added to the list.

Included on the list of the approved renovations is Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.

The committee meeting Tuesday was held at the Ben Tzvi Institute in Jerusalem, home to the wooden cabin used by the second president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, another site on the list.

“The heritage project is one that we owe ourselves, our children and future generations,” Netanyahu said.

VIDEO: Chinese Jewish father from Kaifeng visits daughter Jin Jin in Israel

From New Tang Dynasty TV (

And on a lighter note… How does it feel to be both Chinese and Jewish? Our Israeli team talks to a young woman from Kaifeng, China who belongs to both of these ancient cultures. Here’s her story.

We caught up with Jin Jin and her father, Mr. Jing, at the airport. He spent the holidays with her, here in Israel, and now he is returning to China.

[Jin Jin, Kaifeng Jew]:
“When I was a little child, my father always told me, ‘you are Jewish, you should go back to Israel,’ so I said, ‘ok, I am Jewish, I should go back to Israel.’”

Jin Jin has been living in Israel for the past two years and learned to speak Hebrew. She can now translate Jewish scri ptures into Chinese, to help the Jewish community in Kaifeng.

[Jin Jin, Kaifeng Jew]:
In Israel it’s according to the mother, but in China it’s according to father. So, since my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather is Jewish, so my father is Jewish and I am Jewish.”

Like all religious Jews ,Mr. Jing wears a Tsisit under his shirt and a Kippa on his head. He shows us his Kippaand explains.

[Mr. Jing, Jin Jin’s Father]:
“Here it says Kaifeng in Hebrew. Here it says Kaifeng in English. It’s handmade!”

So how is it possible that Jin Jins ancestors were Jewish? We went to see Michael Freund to find out. He specializes in locating descendants of Jews around the world and helps them return to Israel.

[Michael Freund, Chairman, Shavei Israel]:
“There was a Jewish community in Kaifeng for over a thousand years. Jews first arrived there around the eighth of the ninth century, along the silk route. They settled in Kaifeng which at the time was one of the imperial capitals of China. And over the centuries, a Jewish community in every respect, took root there.”

Back at the airport, it’s time to say goodbye.

[Jin Jin, Kaifeng Jews]:
“I think my father is right, there is a land that God promised to us. Yes, it is our home.”

NTD, Ben Gurion Airport, Israel.
Category:  People & Blogs
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Czech Republic surprises with Jewish treasures

A tight budget, an embarrassing exchange rate and exponentially expensive flights — it's a tough time to be an American, and an even tougher time to be an American traveler. But it's still possible to enjoy a first-rate European experience while keeping travel costs reasonable.

The Czech Republic's strong cultural balance between bustling urban life and calm rural communities features a wide variety of tourism options, from breweries to castles to Jewish ghettos. Major cities like Prague and Pilsen are ripe with history at nearly every corner, and Jewish tours offer everything from the construction of the second-largest synagogue in Europe to the creation of the mythical Golem.

Birthplace of Theodore Herzl, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, this increasingly progressive country is trying to shed the specter of the Nazi and Soviet occupations and embrace its Jewish past and present to bolster tourism, an important part of its national economy. (Full disclosure: The Journal took part in a Jewish Heritage trip sponsored by Czech Tourism.)

Divided into three main regions — Bohemia in the north, Moravia in the south and Silesia in the East — the Czech Republic provides travelers with an opportunity to savor both metropolitan grandeur and bucolic settings. While prices aren't cheap, U.S. tourists will appreciate favorable current exchange rates with the Czech crown that keep hotel and food costs comparable to a comfortable domestic getaway.

The Bohemian city of Prague features an abundance of landmarks — the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle — a rich arts tradition and deep Jewish roots.

The Jewish Museum in Prague is not a physical entity, but rather a collection of gothic and Moorish revival synagogues in Josefov, the city's Jewish quarter, and its Old Jewish Cemetery, with tilted, crumbling tombstones — some more than 600 years old. Synagogues on the tour include the Maisel Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall and Pinkas Synagogue. Inside, the sanctuaries display hundreds of artifacts, including refurbished Torah covers, silver yads (Torah pointers) and other ritual artifacts.

Prague's Jewish Museum, which attracts 500,000 to 600,000 visitors each year, honors the past while also helping to support the country's Jewish future. Much of the museum's revenue aids funding for the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, which compensates Holocaust survivors and develops programming for young people, executive director Tomas Kraus said.

The area's two active synagogues, the 13th century Old-New Synagogue (Alt-Neu Shul) and the High Synagogue, are not on the museum tour itinerary, but public tours are available through the Jewish Museum for an additional fee.

In the Old-New Synagogue, the great Rabbi Judah Loew is rumored to have created the Golem, the mystical monster intended to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks in the 16th century. When the Golem became increasingly violent, Loew struck a deal with the oppressors and destroyed his creation by simply rubbing out the first letter of the word “emet” (truth) from its forehead, leaving the word “met,” meaning death. According to the legend, the whereabouts of a Golem remains unknown, but many believe it's still in the synagogue's attic.

Multiple tourist shops have capitalized on the Golem myth and feature a hefty inventory of miniature dolls sure to satisfy anyone's souvenir needs.

Outside the Jewish quarter, the beauty of Prague is best experienced through a walk from Prague Castle to the scenic Charles Bridge and into Old Town Square, a site featuring street entertainment and dining, particularly the traditional staple of Czech cuisine — beef goulash.

Bohemia is also home to Europe's second-largest synagogue, The Great Synagogue of Pilsen, which features a variety of architectural styles ranging from Moorish to art nouveau. The synagogue was built in 1892, a time when the city of Pilsen's Jewish population was about 5,000.

Jiri Lowy, vice president of the Pilsen Jewish Community, says that the synagogue is now mainly used as concert hall for a community of about 100 Jews and a museum for tourists.

Pilsen is also known for its world-famous brewery, Pilsner Urqell, which dates back to the mid-19th century. Beer has been a part of the city's history since at least the 13th century, and Czechs revel in their country's branding as “the beer-drinking capital of the world.” National consumption is so pronounced that bottles of beer are often cheaper than bottled water.

To complement tours of Prague and Pilsen, a trip to the outer towns of Moravia provides insight into the origins of the nation's smaller Jewish communities.

The Jewish Quarter of Trebic, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is made up of 120 homes along the bank of the Jihlava River. While no longer home to an organized Jewish community, Trebic maintains its Jewish cemetery, a renovated synagogue-turned-museum and a recently discovered mikvah.

Non-Jewish villagers of Boskovice and Mikulov have taken it upon themselves to preserve the memory of their once-thriving Jewish cultures. These righteous guides provide tours of old synagogues, buildings and cemeteries. Boskovice, set in the Drahanska Highlands, features one of the largest cemeteries in the Czech Republic.

While the Renaissance town of Telc has a Jewish cemetery but little significant Jewish history, its main square — which is more of a triangle, some locals joke — has been preserved as a UNESCO site. Pastel-colored shops, packed together like crayons tips sticking out of a box, line the square's cobblestone roads.

Important for any Czech travel itinerary is Terezin, the former ghetto-like concentration camp and Holocaust memorial. The bricked fortress, dating back to the late 18th century, was built as a military prison. Within the compound, yellow walls, topped with barbed wire, skirt the smaller, more severe prison section of the ghetto.

A day trip to Terezin offers an important contrast to an otherwise colorful land whose people recognize the importance of commemorating Jews who lost their lives to Nazi oppression. Even as the country continues to find its footing after the fall of the former Soviet Union, the mood of the Czech Republic reflects an overall optimism as the reality of its own independence becomes more engrained.

Although cultural and religious restrictions are a thing of the past, the Czech Republic is still healing from the hard lessons experienced by previous generations. Britney Spears billboards, nightclub strobe lights and soccer regalia indicate that young Czechs believe in a future filled with opportunity. The graffiti on the walls speaks to a love of pop culture rather than a culture of hate.

The birthplace of the Golem and pilsner beer is a destination that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish culture in ways that exceed Western expectations of a gray, downtrodden nation. Rich in artistic, architectural and historical heritage, the country pays dividends with its vibrant Bohemian skylines and fertile Moravian countryside.

For more information, visit

UCLA and USC archaeologists hope preserving the Middle East’s shared past can pave way to protecting

Two unlikely peacemakers are proposing that if Israelis and Palestinians can agree on how to preserve and protect a common archaeological past, perhaps they can agree on a common future.

If that sounds like a pipedream, teams of scientists from the two antagonistic neighbors and the United States — with the unofficial but full knowledge of their governments — have invested three intensive years to show that it might just work.

For the first time, the would-be peacemakers publicly revealed the fruits of their negotiations and underlying research to approximately 200 Israeli archaeologists during a four-hour presentation on April 8 at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. The plan involves the return of artifacts and agreement over the protection of designated archeological sites.

Archaeologists Ran Boytner of UCLA and Lynn Swartz Dodd of USC acknowledge that their 39-point Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group Agreement, an outgrowth of their Shared Heritage Project, faces massive political and emotional roadblocks, especially on the Israeli side.

“In the Middle East, the archaeological links to the past represent more than scientific knowledge. They underpin each side’s claims to the land,” said Dodd, curator of USC’s Archaeological Research Collection and lecturer in religion.

Video from UCLA covers the agreement

Boytner and Dodd share a long-standing interest in the connection between politics and archaeology and, in the first two years of a five-year process begun in 2002, they put together an electronic database of more than 1,500 sites and tens of thousands of artifacts that would fall into a legal limbo if and when final boundaries are drawn between Israel and a Palestinian state. Also listed are the current locations of artifacts removed since 1967 by Israel from the West Bank and the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.

Compiling the database was tougher than expected. It required not only poring over scholarly papers about present and past excavations but also occasional “persuasion” through the Freedom of Information Act and legal action to extract data.

“Now, when it comes to official negotiators sitting down at the table, at least they’ll know what they’re talking about,” said Boytner, director for international research at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. He also designed the Discovery Center at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Next came the hard part, three years of discussions and negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli teams, each made up of three prominent archaeologists. The two Los Angeles professors, and even some professional facilitators, mediated when the discussions became too heated.

representing the Israeli side are archaeologists are Rafael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University and David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian team includes Ghattas Sayes and Nazmi al-Jubeh. One member of each of the teams declined to be identified for fear of political or professional reprisal or intimidation.

Under the proposed agreement, as well as under international law, Israel would have to make the major concessions, including returning a large number of sites and artifacts located in, or taken from, the territory of a future Palestinian state.

These may include such sites as Qumran, where the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have lived and worked; Samaria, capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel; and Mount Ibal, where Joshua built an altar to God.

Other provisions of the agreement include:<

  • Full protection of all sites and free access for scholars and the public, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
  • More than tripling the area of Jerusalem under special protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which now includes the Temple Mount, Western Wall and the walls of the Old City. The extended area would roughly equal Jerusalem’s boundaries during the 10th-century crusades.
  • Prohibiting the destruction of archaeological sites because of their religious or cultural affiliations.
  • Support for establishment of archaeological museums, laboratories and storehouses to assure proper handling of returned artifacts.

Dodd does not underestimate the wrenching emotional price required to fulfill these conditions.

“We’re talking about putting your precious archaeological heritage — things you believe your ancestors created — in the hands of people whom you now consider your enemy,” she said. “We’re asking enemies to become partners.”

If the archaeology agreement is ratified by both sides, it could become a model for settling other outstanding issues, at the same time removing a potential stumbling block to an overall peace treaty, Boytner believes.

While such issues as borders, water distribution, return of refugees and status of Jerusalem loom as keys to a permanent settlement, archaeological sites, because of their historical and religious significance, could well turn into an additional deal breaker.

Boytner, 45, was born in Mishmar Hashiva, a moshav east of Tel Aviv, and, following army service, backpacked in South America and developed a lifelong professional interest in the archaeology of the Andean region.

Dodd said that for her, the Near East has been “an iconic landscape” since attending a Christian Sunday school. Her doctoral thesis probed the uses of the past in modern politics, and she and Boytner have written a book about this interaction, titled, “Filtering the Past, Building the Future: Archaeology, Tradition and Politics in the Middle East.”

The two academics have raised more than $150,000 to underwrite their project. The initial seed money came from the U.S. Institute of Peace, established and funded by Congress, with subsequent support from USC, UCLA and private Los Angeles donors.

Boytner traces his motivation to contribute to the peace process to his Polish-born grandparents on both sides, the only ones in their families to survive the Holocaust.

“When I was growing up, the lesson we drew from the Holocaust was that we must be strong, that ‘Masada will not fall again,'” he said.

Eventually, though, Boytner moved in a different direction, became active in the Peace Now movement and replaced the Masada slogan with the Talmudic injunction, “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.”

“I believe we must try everything before taking up arms,” he said. “We are archaeologists, but we are peacemakers first.”

Lithuanian festival excludes Yiddish dancers

Next July 6, more than 1,000 Lithuanian folk dancers decked out in authentic woven costumes, representing close to 40 dance ensembles, will perform the windmill, the scarf dance and other traditional dances at the XIII Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival, hosted for the first time in Los Angeles.

But an innovative proposal to invite a group of Yiddish performers to participate as representatives of Jewish Lithuanian heritage was turned down by the folk dance organizing committee, resulting in the resignation of the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, the national nonprofit organization sponsoring the festival.

Local chapter president Darius Udrys (photo), 35, made his proposal on Nov. 12. He envisioned the inclusion of a Yiddish song and dance as “a touching and powerful moment,” and afterward, with the Yiddish troupe joined on the dance floor of USC’s Galen Center by hundreds of Lithuanian dancers, a dramatic gesture of “openness and inclusiveness” that would help counteract the strained relations, both historic and current, between ethnic and Jewish Lithuanians.

Frank Joga, co-chair of the 2008 Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival Committee, informed Udrys that the committee felt that seven months was not enough time to modify the program, explaining that the agenda for the festival, which has taken place approximately every four years since 1957, is set up to two years in advance.

The committee also felt that if they included a Yiddish group, they would have to invite other Lithuanian minorities, and the festival would lose its “Lithuanian character.” As a compromise, the committee suggested that Yiddish dancers participate by learning and performing one of the already designated ethnic Lithuanian dances.

“The way he presented his proposal was very unprofessional,” said Joga, objecting to Udrys distributing an e-mail to 15 people from related organizations without initially discussing the idea with the dance committee.

Udrys is currently serving his third year as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, a national organization with 60 chapters in 27 states that promotes Lithuanian culture, education and other activities. His resignation is effective Feb. 10, but he will continue as coordinator of the Los Angeles-Kaunas Sister Cities Program.

One of Udrys’ major goals has been to foster better relations between the ethnic and Jewish Lithuanian communities in Los Angeles, where he estimates there are 7,000 to 9,000 people of non-Jewish Lithuanian ancestry.

In October 2006, the chapter sponsored a visit by Dr. Egle Bendikaite, adjunct professor of Yiddish language and Lithuanian Jewish history at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, to speak to Jewish and Lithuanian groups. Bendikaite, who is not Jewish, spoke at St. Casimir’s Parish Hall in Los Angeles and at Temple Akiba in Culver City about the contributions of Lithuanian Jews to that country’s independence.

Additionally, this past November Udrys arranged for Holocaust survivor and Lithuanian resident Dr. Irene Veisaite to speak to students at St. Casimir’s Lithuanian School. And on Feb. 3, the chapter is sponsoring a concert by Lithuanian singer Marija Krupoves, who will present “Songs of Vilnius: Music of Lithuania’s Ethnic Minorities.”

Udrys also submitted a proposal and received a grant from the Lithuanian government’s Department of National Minority and Expatriate Affairs to organize a symposium on Lithuanian-Jewish relations, to be co-sponsored by the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, an independent, nonprofit educational foundation that supports the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and held at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. The symposium, however, has been postponed indefinitely.

“In many ways, feelings on both sides were too touchy to do this in exactly the right way,” said Dr. Richard Maullin, Santa Monica resident and president of the Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He explained that there are still many outstanding issues to be discussed and arbitrated between the Jewish community and the Lithuanian government, including property claims and restitution.

One major and ongoing controversy concerns the Lithuanian government’s approval to allow construction on land thought to cover the part of the historic Snipiskes Cemetery, where an estimated 10,000 Jews are buried.

Another issue involves what many consider an “outrageous” request from Lithuania’s chief prosecutor to question Dr. Yitzhak Arad, former director of Yad Vashem in Jersusalem, regarding the killing of Lithuanian civilians as a teenage partisan fighter in Lithuania during World War II.

The Jewish community is also upset that the Lithuanian government has yet to investigate or prosecute Vladas Zajanckauskas, a 91-year-old retired factory worker deported from the United States to his native Lithuania in August 2007, for participating in Nazi atrocities.

“Not a single Lithuanian Nazi war criminal sat one minute in jail in independent Lithuania [since 1991],” said Dr. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel.

But the issue regarding Lithuania and the Jews is much larger, according to Zuroff. Of the 220,000 Jews residing in Lithuania under Nazi occupation in June 1941, 210,000 were murdered. Of those killed, almost 97 percent were murdered in Lithuania with the help of extensive local collaboration. Yet Zuroff states that the Lithuanians have been unable or unwilling to re-examine their role in the mass murder.

Lithuanians living in the Diaspora are even less willing.

“The emigre Lithuanian communities are generally far more nationalistic and rightwing than their counterparts in the homeland,” Zuroff said, explaining that in many cases these are the descendants of Nazi war criminals.

Vytas Maciunas, president of the Lithuanian American Community, agrees that dialogue needs to take place between the ethnic and Jewish Lithuanian communities. And while he supported the proposed symposium, he opposed the inclusion of Yiddish dancers in the folk dance festival.

“There’s a tradition, and we need to follow that tradition,” he said.

Calls to Ambassador Jonas Paslauskas, who serves as Consul General of the Republic of Lithuania in New York, were not returned.

Still, Udrys does not believe that the current leaders of the Lithuanian American Community are themselves anti-Semitic.

“I think what is most lacking is leadership — setting a tone and policy of inclusiveness that indicates to all who identify with Lithuania that they are welcome in our community,” he said.

Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival

Lithuanian American Community

Los Angeles Lithuanian Community

Operation Last Chance,” a joint project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Targum Shlishi Foundation

Vilnius Yiddish Institute

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works

The Jewish Journal invited writers who will be featured at Sunday’s Festival of Books to answer the simple, essential question that every Jewish writer is often asked: “What Jewish sources — ideas, writings, traditions — inspire you, and how do they show up in your work?”

The following show that there is no easy answer to what defines a Jewish author, but there is no question that there’s much to draw upon within the faith.

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)

The Jewish sources that have most affected my work are stories of my father’s family leaving Germany in 1938, for the usual Jewish reasons that one would leave Germany in 1938. And the independence of suffering from redemption — in other words that you’re not rewarded for behaving well, and you shouldn’t behave well because of a possible reward.

These seem to me manifestly Jewish ideas, and it is pretty easy to find them in my work. I’ve written 13 books about terrible things that happen to children who do their best to behave well. This is arguably an encapsulation of Jewish history in its entirety.

Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Handler is perhaps best known for his 13-book children’s series collectively known as “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” penned under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. Under his own name, Handler has published three novels, “The Basic Eight,” “Watch Your Mouth” and “Adverbs.” An accomplished musician, Handler has played accordion on a number of recordings, including “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields.

Anita Diamant

Having written six books about Jewish practice — from weddings to birth, from conversion to mourning — it’s pretty clear that I have been inspired by the way Judaism gives expression and shape to the fluid and ineffable cycle of human life. As a journalist and adult Jewish learner, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to translate the wisdom and joy of our tradition into a contemporary idiom.

The other major inspiration I find in Jewish life and letters is our history of debate. The ongoing, sometimes sublime and sometimes silly, argument found in even our most sacred books (Talmud, et. al.) gives me, as a liberal Jew, a sense of belonging to a grand, ongoing and ever-changing wrestling match with the past, with the sacred, with one another.

Anita Diamant is the author of six handbooks of Jewish life and life-cycle events, including, “The New Jewish Wedding” and “Choosing a Jewish Life.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, “The Red Tent,” based on Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, but told from Dinah’s point of view. Her latest novel, “The Last Days of Dogtown,” is set in Massachusetts in the early 1800s and chronicles the lives of a group of society’s cast-offs in a poor, rural community. For more information, visit

Kirk Douglas

When I was writing my last book , “Let’s Face It,” Peter, one of my sons, said, “Dad, don’t make it too Jewish.” It’s hard for me to obey him, because being a Jew is, as Cole Porter would say, “Deep in the heart of me.”

The history of the Jews fascinates me. We are only about 13 million in number, way out of proportion to what we have accomplished in life and what we have contributed to the welfare of people in so many areas. I am proud of that. And yet, anti-Semitism grows.

Being a Jew is a challenge. It’s often said, “Schwer zu sein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). To me, it’s been a challenge that I try to accept gracefully, and it has given me many rewards.

Actor, producer, director and author, Kirk Douglas was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, N.Y. He was a wrestler at St. Lawrence University and worked as a bellhop to put himself through school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’ books include “Dance With the Devil” (1990); “The Secret” (1992); his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988), and “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning,” which will be published by Thorndike Press in March.

Gina Nahai

The sources that inspire me are the men and women whose lives I try to render in my stories. They’re the people I grew up with or that I grew up hearing about. I watch them now as I did then and describe what I see, hear them, and write what they say. I don’t invent so much as reveal, don’t comment so much as bear witness. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth as she sees it, and, having done that, be prepared to defend what she has said.

I’m an Iranian Jew, and most of the people I write about are Jews. I don’t pretend to capture an entire history or to portray an entire nation. I don’t believe that’s possible. But I do believe that by telling the truth of an individual’s life — a personal truth — one can arrive at a universal understanding, and this is what I aim for.

Gina Nahai’s novels include “Cry of the Peacock” (1991), “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith”(1999), “Sunday’s Silence”(2001) and her new novel, “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam/Cage, 2007). A lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at USC, her writings have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Magazine. Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

The most important Jewish inspiration that I have is the Torah, and especially great characters of the Bible. I am moved whenever I read of the kindness of Abraham, the struggles of Jacob, humility of Moses and the daring and commitment of King David and righteousness of Hebrew prophets.

Discovering these great men in the Bible fills my Jewish spirit with passion and inspiration. It is especially moving to learn of those who embody the patriarchs. In my life, a great inspiration was the Lubavitch Rebbe, who lived with the passion to serve my people and spread the word of Judaism to all corners of the world.

People of the Book Essay Contest

As part of the American Jewish University’s Celebration of Jewish Books Festival, students in first through 12th grade submitted essays answering the question: “Jews are the people of the book. What does that mean to you today?” The editorial staff of The Jewish Journal selected four winners — one from each age group — to receive a $250 Borders gift card, as well as a $1,000 donation to their school. We received hundreds of submissions in the form of stories, poems and artwork. It was a difficult decision, and the four winning essays below represent just a small sampling of the great work submitted.

Grades 1-2

Jews Are The People of the Book

by Flora Handler, Second Grade, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I think “Jews Are the People of the Book” means that we are not violent or mean. We are peaceful and loving. God had a book many years ago called the Torah. God was visiting all sorts of religions, asking them if they wanted the book. Every time God asked if they wanted the Torah, the religion asked what was in it and God said, “not to kill.” The religion said, “We kill all the time.” So God asked the next religion. They asked him, “What’s in the Torah?” “No Wars” said God. “Oh, we have wars all the time.” God went to the Jews next and asked them if they wanted it. They did not ask what was in it, but they answered “yes!” We are now under God and will always have a piece of God in our hearts!

Grades 3-5

People of the Book

by Ryan Croutch, Third Grade, Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School

When I go to the synagogue, and they take out the Torah, it makes me feel like I was alive thousands of years ago. It feels like I’m in the desert wandering for 40 years, singing the “Mi Ca Mocha” with Moses. I am grateful for Moses. I think he was the best leader the Jewish people ever had. He freed the slaves from Egypt, and gave the Jewish people the Ten Commandments, The Book. I am one of the “People of the Book,” because it came from my ancestors, and I know our stories, I do mitzvot, and I follow the Torah’s laws.

The Torah has the Five Books of Moses. The words of Torah are powerful. I would give up anything, for example, a baseball game, to chant the words of the Torah. I would be grateful if I had the chance to go up on the bimah, and read from the Torah. When I read the Book, I feel special. If it wasn’t for Moses, and for my ancestors we wouldn’t have the Torah, the Book of the Jewish people, today. Moses, like the many Jewish Leaders who followed, was a risk-taker. I hope to be one too, one day. I would love to be God’s messenger. I am related to all of the Jewish leaders and all of the people of the Torah. I am proud to be a Jew and a person of the Book.

Grades 6-8

Jews Are Known as “The People of the Book”

by Maya Ben-Shushan, Sixth Grade, Hillel Academy

Jews have always been known as the People of the Book. This is right in many ways — the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, and that Torah has been passed down from generation to generation. The commandment to study the Torah has always been a foundation of the Jewish people, and has been upheld for thousands of years. Continued study has taught us that we can never learn it all, and the fact that we are still trying to understand the Torah can explain the love of the written word, which every Jew feels.

The Book is not only the Torah, however, but every source of wisdom you can imagine. Over the generations, Jews have been prevented from working at many different trades and professions, and were forced to develop certain skills in order to survive in a world, which did not like them. These skills had to be skills of the brain and the mind, because the Jews could not be farmers or blacksmiths and so on. As the Jews had always been studying the Torah and the Scriptures in depth, they were well-equipped to develop professions, which required mental strength. They became doctors, scientist, musicians, authors and philosophers. It is a fact that many of the major prizewinners over the years — and even until this very day — are people who regularly study Gemarah and Torah, and these studies help to sharpen their brain all the time.

It is interesting to be in Israel and to see the amount of bookstores that are always full of people. They even have book fairs and most people buy many books regularly during the year. In America, most Jewish schools have their own book fair, and this also helps to keep the love of books awake and living in all Jewish kids.

“People of the Book” — not only is it about The Book, but it is about the love of learning, the search for knowledge, and the quest for creating a better world for future generations. In other words, tikkun olam. This will only come about through using wisdom, our soul, our spirit, and our brain, and these are certainly helped by permanent study.

Grades 9-12

L’dor va Dor: From Generation to Generation
by Tess Neumann,
12th Grade, New Community Jewish High School

Riga, Lithuania

Fry the latkes, try the gingerbread

In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished, Sarah announced, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights.”

Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn’t fool me. I’ve been there myself, plus I’m a therapist.

Therapists aim to place themselves in their client’s shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?

So let’s be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street.

Her parents, who normally won’t allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door.

For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects.

These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.

This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been “nice”).

He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.

Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.

What is your experience beyond your friend’s house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man’s visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks “The Question.” Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don’t live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, someone will ask, “What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?”

You aren’t sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn’t come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business, but because you don’t celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate “Harmonica.”

For a whole month your life is like the saying, “Don’t think about an elephant.” You can’t help it because the elephants are everywhere.

Now let’s go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil — a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.

As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don’t hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.

You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, “Why don’t we have this every week?” You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly doughnuts.

All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn’t have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you’re doing anyway — “Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” — and one about an old rock.

It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!…. We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!…. We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!

But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn’t looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, “You don’t really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do.”

It’s hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don’t have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.

Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson expected to set new charity donation record

Sheldon Adelson, frequently dubbed “the world’s richest Jew,” is about to claim the title of biggest Jewish philanthropist.The Las Vegas-based global casino and resort owner is slated to announce creation of a foundation that will allocate $200 million a year, according to a rising tide of media leaks and speculation.

Adelson himself, in a phone call to The Journal, would not confirm these figures, or that the money would be split between projects strengthening Jewish heritage and medicine. He labeled such media reports as exaggerated or erroneous.

“Everything I do promotes Jewish heritage, and I’ve given more than $200 million to medical research,” he said. “We’re now focusing on 10 different diseases.”

It is believed that half of the $200 million will go for projects to preserve the Jewish heritage and half for medical aid to the needy.

On the current Forbes 400 list of the 400 richest Americans, Adelson ranks third with $20.5 billion, up from a mere $1.4 billion in 2004. That year, Adelson took the Sands public, with his family as the majority stockholder. The shares have more than doubled since the initial public offering.

However, the 74-year-old entrepreneur has made no secret of his ambition to overtake Bill Gates, who leads the field with $53 billion, and Warren Buffett, second at $46 billion.

The expected new mega-donation tops Adelson’s other contributions this year, including $25 million to the Yad Vashem Martyrs Memorial in Jerusalem, between $2 million and $3 million to hospitals and residents of northern Israel hard hit by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

This week, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Adelson had pledged $5 million to Birthright Israel to send 2,000 additional young American adults on 10-day trips to Israel.

A close friend of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson came under scrutiny some years ago for alleged improper donations to the Likud election fund.

In this country, Adelson has been a generous supporter of Republican candidates and, in Las Vegas, he has underwritten a new Chabad center. He has also pledged $25 million for a state-of-the-art Jewish community high school in the gambling destination.

Much of Adelson’s interest in Israel has been spurred by his second wife, Miriam, an Israeli internist and authority on methadone treatments for drug addicts. She heads rehabilitation clinics in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv.

Adelson is the father of five children and his life and career is in the best immigrant’s-son-makes-good tradition. His father left Lithuania for Boston, where he made a modest living as a cab driver.

Young Sheldon started his business career at 12, when he borrowed $200 from his uncle to buy the “rights” to peddle newspapers at a favorable Boston street corner.

He attended City College of New York, but dropped out to work as a mortgage broker, investment adviser and financial consultant.

Adelson made his first big money by creating COMDEX, which became the world’s leading computer trade show, one of the first of 50 companies he has founded or developed during his lifetime.

In 1989, he joined the big league by buying the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for $128 million, gutting it and then erecting the 4,000-suite Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.

Legend has it that Miriam Adelson inspired the Venetian concept while the couple was on their honeymoon. Whoever deserves the credit, the super-luxurious Venetian resort complex helped to revolutionize the Las Vegas hotel industry and give a facelift to Sin City.

Not resting on his laurels, Adelson broke into the Asian market two years ago by opening the Sands Hotel in Macao, the former Portuguese enclave on China’s southeast coast.

Next year, he will open the Venetian Macao as part of a complex of 20,000 hotel rooms and 3 million square feet of retail space. In addition, Adelson has won the right to open the first casino in Singapore.

“We’re in an obsolescence-proof business,” Adelson told Bloomberg News. “We’re in the second-oldest business in history.”Recently, Adelson has been slowed by a nerve condition and needs to use a walker, but he is not about to step down as chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

“Why do I need succession planning?” he told Bloomberg. “I am very alert. I’m very vibrant. I have no intention to retire. But if I were to retire, I would keep my family interest in the company the same and say ‘don’t sell.'”

Appraising Adelson’s influence, Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, told Israeli reporters, “I predict that Adelson will change the nature of Jewish philanthropy by setting new standards in dollar terms for giving to Jewish causes and hopefully others will follow his lead.”

Trading in happy meals for real happiness

Living a life of dual identity is no simple task. On one hand, my peers and I are told to live up to the expectations of being Modern Orthodox teens, but on the other side of the spectrum we are tempted by the culture of the secular world on an everyday basis.

How then is it remotely possible to balance the blaring secular world with the scholarly teachings of our forefathers that have existed for thousands of generations? Easy.

Through the eyes of a child, the secular world clearly clashes with the classically Jewish one. From birth, I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and I attended a school that was comprised of non-Jewish children. I was exposed to the numerous differences between my sheltered Jewish world and the secular world around me.

In school, I was filled with envy knowing that my favorite battery-operated FisherPrice toys were put away during the Sabbath when all my secular friends used their electric-operated toys with abandon. I asked my mother with bewilderment why the other children were so “lucky”? They could eat McDonald’s Happy Meals while I was strictly forbidden to enjoy such delights.

What did not occur to me was that I was the lucky child.

To the norm of society, Judaism is looked upon as a religion that in essence deprives you of things associated with the secular world. For instance, observant Jews do not dine at certain restaurants, wear clothes that might be the latest trend or do even something as basic as eat bread during Passover.

However in reality, one must look at Judaism and realize what our spectacular religion has to offer. Our culture is enriched with crucial morals and ethics that, when integrated into a person’s life, have the capacity to elevate us to an entirely different level of consciousness. Numerous biblical characters that appear in our text serve as exemplary role models with angelic qualities.

One of the most crucial gifts I’ve received is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This moral concept appears throughout our daily routines, and without our Judaic teachings one can be horrifically mislead. In a way, these practices end up being like a GPS guiding us and protecting us.

In the book of Leviticus, we are called a “treasured nation,” proving how special we really are. Judaism has a full heritage of the most intellectual people known to mankind. We are so fortunate to be associated with such a religion.

To stress this point even further, we must look at all the prayers in our siddur. Every day we are given the opportunity to converse with God, the Master of the World. This is an opportunity that should not be taken lightly, for in essence we can open our heart to God and let our lips overflow with any prayer or desire we might posses.

Now that I understand what Judaism really has to offer, I can step back and appreciate all the special aspects of the secular world and see that there aren’t any contradictions — that the hand of God is in everything. For example, the advances of medicine are essentially God giving us a cure, not merely great ideas from some doctor. The first man to walk on the moon also came directly from our Creator — as did the moon itself!

Nine years later I still look back at my 6-year-old self and smile.

Maybe playing with electric toys on Shabbos and eating Happy Meals is great, but once I figured out what Judaism was about, I think I had it better.

Rocky Salomon is a 10th grader at YULA.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to

Skateboard Creator Builds Business on Performance

Don Tashman doesn’t look like a skater boy, not with his scraggly, brown hair and three-day-old unshaven stubble that’s yet to materialize into a beard.

This religious boy from Beverlywood doesn’t even look like a surfer boy — which he is, as these things usually go hand in hand, along with snowboarding. Tashman certainly doesn’t look like the creator and owner of Loaded Boards and Pigeons Inc., the hip skateboarding company that has brought performance boards back to the industry.

No, 31-year-old Tashman doesn’t look like a dude, not with his short-sleeved, button-down shirt, untucked over loose, brandless blue jeans, but that’s OK, because his co-workers do. The long, lean, sun-kissed blond boys stack skateboards according to styles (Fish, Hammerhead, Pintail, Vanguard) or sit on yoga stability balls at computers, looking like they’re playing video games or designing specs — something that makes them almost as happy as riding a board — any board: skate, surf, snow.

Tashman doesn’t need to look the part of the people he designs skateboards for, because he’s got the attitude, for sure — laid back, imperturbable, chill.
These are the qualities that have gotten Loaded a reputation for authenticity in a world clannishly obsessed with it. It’s been four years since he founded the company, and Tashman said he can’t keep up with demand (he declines to give actual figures) and will be forced to move offices soon from mid-Wilshire, where he shares space with his father and brothers, who work in real estate and futures exchange.

Skateboarding runs in the Tashman family, although not on the paternal side. His mother, who also grew up religious, skateboarded when she was a kid. She was sponsored by a local Velcro company. “She took her old roller skates and nailed them to a two-by-four for her first skateboards,” Tashman said. Since he was 3 years old, “she would attach me to my skateboard and pull me down hills and our neighbor’s empty swimming pool,” he said. “She always wanted me to be a cantor, though.”

Tashman didn’t become a cantor. He grew up Orthodox, attended Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YOLA) and then moved to New York to become an English major at Columbia University in 1994.

“I was short-boarding and couldn’t get around,” Tashman said, referring to the shorter boards in vogue then, which were hard to maneuver around the streets of Manhattan. He started developing his own boards for his own use. After he finished college in 1999, he went to study at a yeshiva in Israel. After a few months there, someone convinced him to work as a traveling salesman for an Israeli technology company. He spent a year at that, then, in his wise and quiet way, Tashman cashed out his stock options two weeks before the market crashed in April 2000.

With about $150,000, Tashman spent the next two years developing the boards he’d begun designing at Columbia. Performance was key but so was finding environmentally friendly materials, like bamboo instead of oak.

Tashman said that because he surfed here growing up, he became interested in making the environment better.

“Surfing in L.A. water is to feel the toxicity — people aren’t even aware of it,” he said. Although Tashman’s is a small company, he believes that if other small companies like his and big ones like GE are more environmentally conscious, “I think we can inspire people to be aware of what they consume, what they use and how they can live more sustainable lives.”

In the end, the company created longer, high-performance skateboards, tailored for hills or parks or streets or long distances. The skateboards were unlike the other black-topped, fancy logo boards.

“We had no graphics,” Tashman said. “It was the ride first and foremost. Most boards were driven by graphics, and we wanted to separate ourselves.”

Separate the company he has, with clean, bamboo long boards that appeal to 20- to 40-year-olds, as opposed to the “17-year-old male from the O.C.,” Tashman said. The boards sell for $215 to $300 and are sold in about 350 stores nationwide and have been featured in men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim. Loaded is looking into expanding into apparel as well as snowboards, and the prototypes are laying around the office. But the company will always focus on skateboards, Tashman said.

Now that he has established the company for performance-driven boards, Loaded is adding graphics in the form of a bird — a kite to be precise, a kind of a sparrow drawn sparingly in white and gold on the undercarriage of the Vanguard.
“We’re seeing what we can get away with, and where we can go with it,” Tashman said.

Imagine standing on a high wire, suspended midair and bouncing on it. That’s the experience of being on the Vanguard, a long and flexible skateboard designed for stability. There’s a sensation of coiled-up energy, as if the rider is a spring ready to be sprung, an arrow ready to be shot — loaded, like the company name.
For Tashman and his five full-time employees, the key to the business is having fun.

“Stoke ’em,” is part of the company motto, which, Tashman explains, means, “We’re here to get people excited about the underlying excitement, to promote the visceral experience of the flow.”

The flow.

Some people talk about finding meaning in life, and others talk about religion, but for adrenaline junkies, flow is the buzzword. “There is a spiritual thing [about skateboarding] — the flow, the pure exhilaration of the experience.”
Tashman also finds inspiration in Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

“It’s an exciting time to be Jewish in L.A. Jewish culture seems very vibrant — people are excited about their heritage; it’s starting to filter out from New York, and it’s like it never was when I was growing up.”

Tashman admitted it’s unusual to be a religious skateboarder, but he finds similarities between the two worlds.

“My religiosity has existed synergistically with my skateboarding. The visceral sense of flow, the intense personal engagement and the stoke it has generated and allowed me to pass on are enriching. Skateboarding culture has historically exhibited a strong sense of community. Like Judaism, I find that it promotes personal development and environmental awareness,” he said.

Aren’t they so different, these two separate worlds of Jewish life and skateboarding?

“They go hand in hand — a big part of skateboarding is how you present yourself,” he said. In the skateboarding industry there’s always the question of authenticity, whether you’re a “core” company — the rap equivalent of street cred — or an outsider trying to make a buck.

“I’ve always skirted the issue. If I can make people excited, great; if not, OK, I don’t need to classify myself in a group to achieve that,” Tashman said.
And that’s how he feels about religion. He said he’s “traditional, shomer Shabbat” but doesn’t define himself as Orthodox. “I do the things I find meaning in, and I don’t do things I don’t.”

“Both worlds can be alienating, in that myopic, or xenophobic tendencies, tend to miss the broader universalist picture,” he said. “In my opinion, the need to promote in-group behavior at the expense of creativity and exploration is sad. I can’t really be bothered by those approaches — there’s too much fun to be had.”

Irreverent Stories You Haven’t Heard

“All your stories are the same,” a British girl in an MFA creative writing program tells the Jewish students in one of the short stories in Elisa Albert’s new collection, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, $18). “I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but….”

The unspoken “but” is: Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?

Albert, for example calls herself a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit” in the above MFA story, which, incidentally, is a fictional letter penned to Roth offering him the chance to impregnate her. But Albert, like other sardonic Jewish short story writers, is probably closer to the next millennium’s version of Roth and Woody Allen. Instead of portraying an overwrought Jewish mother and other now-familiar Jewish stereotypes, Albert uses Judaism as a setting for mostly secular characters to air their grievances with each other, or themselves.

Judaism here is a Yom Kippur meal, where one sibling has had an abortion and another has an eating disorder. It’s a bris, where the mother doesn’t want to give up her baby to the mohel (whom the uncle calls “Shaky McSnips”). It’s a themed bat mitzvah, where the aunt gets stoned in the bathroom with her niece’s friends while pondering the state of her own shaky marriage.

In short, these are stories about the next generation of Jews — Jews well-versed enough in their culture to throw around references to Camp Ramah and the search for chametz and Ba’al Teshuvas, but they are so comfortable with it that they have no problem tearing it apart.

“What the f– is your neshama?” Miri asks her best friend Rachel, watching her prepare to cut her hair off before her religious wedding.

The neshama — the one Rachel is saving in the story “So Long” — is the Jewish soul. And the soul of these 10 stories is that Jewish characters find, perhaps, a sense of identity in their Jewishness, but not necessarily any particular spiritual meaning.

“How This Night Is Different,” and other in-your-face expressions of Jewish culture like the popular Heeb magazine, is this generation’s attempt to connect to their heritage, and connect even while they mock.

If sometimes they go too far, if at times they offend, they still expect to be part of the cultural dialogue. As Debra, the convert looking for a shul in Lisbon in the story “When You Say You’re a Jew,” muses: “A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?”

Elisa Albert will be giving reading Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; Tuesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; and Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 6510 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park. On Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m., she will be in Santa Monica as part of the ATID/Sinai Temple’s Shabbat at Home program for young professionals. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3244.

Farmar Trades Bruin Blue for Laker Purple

What could be better? Los Angeles’s own Jewish Jordan — Jordan Farmar — is here to stay.

The Los Angeles Lakers has drafted Farmar, who made headlines as a sophomore point guard at UCLA, in the first round and as the No. 26 overall pick. Thus, though the Bruin bear must wave his paw goodbye to Farmar, L.A. fans can rejoice in the up-and-comer’s continued presence here.

The 19-year-old Farmar is a native Angeleno; he grew up in Van Nuys and graduated from Taft High School, where, as a senior, he averaged 27 points per game and became a Valley superstar by leading the school to its first Los Angeles City title. As a freshman at UCLA, he averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 assists and earned the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honor. In his sophomore year Farmar averaged 13.5 points and 5.1 assists, led the Bruins to their NCAA championship game against the Florida Gators and was named a first-team All Pac-10 performer.

A self-described non-religious Jew, Farmar told The Journal’s Carin Davis in a prior interview that he is proud of his Jewish heritage. His mother and stepfather, Melinda and Yehuda Kolani, raised him in a Jewish home, and his upbringing was complemented by both a bar mitzvah at Temple Judea in Tarzana and trips to Israel. Farmar’s biological father, Damon Farmar, a former minor league baseball player, is not Jewish.

Farmar stands a natural leader at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds and has been extensively covered in the Daily Bruin since before his entrance into “>Farmar told The Journal in March. “To always have some people behind you is a great thing. It helps you out defensively, with intensity, and gives you that extra edge.”

Perfectly Imperfect

Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.


Nefesh Immigrants Cite Smoother Aliyah

When Fairfax resident Yasmine Noury boarded an El Al flight late last year, she joined the growing ranks of North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005.

“I really believe in living in Israel, and I felt the best time to make aliyah was when I’m young, before I have too many things tying me down,” said Noury, 20, a Modern Orthodox graduate of Yavneh and YULA, who is already enrolled at a seminary, Michlelet Orot in Elkana, and plans to study early childhood education at Bar-Ilan University. “I luckily have ties otherwise in terms of friends, family and a school life but even before that, the connection to Israel was already there. The Jewish heritage links us without having to make any effort.”

Noury’s departure from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Dec. 27, linked her with the 3,200 North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005, including 84 Californians, 30 of them L.A. residents. They came through joint efforts of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh. This nonprofit organization has helped settle approximately 7,000 U.S. and Canadian immigrants since its launch in 2002. Several thousand more are expected in coming years.

Making aliyah through Nefesh helps reduce bureaucratic red tape. Immigrants fly on complimentary, one-way tickets and when they land in Tel Aviv, they receive the new identity cards that entitle them to a “sal klita,” a basket of benefits meant to ease their absorption into Israeli society. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages, living stipends, Hebrew-language classes and more.

The help is often greatly needed. The greatest challenge to a successful klita, or absorption, is finding work, a support system and a sense of belonging. In fact, approximately 80 percent of North American immigrants arrive through Nefesh. Those who arrive through the traditional channels of the Israeli government seek out Nefesh B’Nefesh services after they arrive.

The formula seems to be working. As of January 2005, 99 percent of those immigrants who have received aid have remained in Israel, 94 percent of families have at least one employed spouse, 110 children have been born and 36 immigrants have married, including two couples who met on Nefesh flights.

The program’s success is largely the result of the vision of its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the United States. They have attracted several other American Jewish philanthropists to contribute to Nefesh B’Nefesh efforts. Despite rumors to the contrary, only a small portion of funding comes from Christian evangelists.

“We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, right or left, religious or not,” Gelbart said. “If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”

American Jews of all stripes are moving to Israel for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations, hopes for raising a family in a Jewish state, a sense of kinship and a growing affinity for the country.

“North American aliyah is very different from what is happening in many other countries,” Fass said. “Ours is an aliyah strictly of choice and idealism, not of escape or refuge. We believe that a large reservoir of American and Canadian Jews have dreamt or considered aliyah as a possibility for themselves, and we know many of the reasons or obstacles in their way that have prevented them from realizing that dream.”

Nefesh recognizes that money is a major obstacle for many potential applicants. The expense of making pilot trips, finding a new home, acquiring or shipping household appliances and furnishings and the income lost during the process often discourages North Americans from making the move. Nefesh estimates a family of six will require $21,920. Applicants are awarded a loan, at first, but it turns into a grant if recipients remain in Israel for more than three years. Singles receive approximately $5,000 to $7,000; families get between $15,000 and $22,000.

For the marjority of olim, or immigrants, the first few years are the most difficult, even with financial assistance as well as workshops and social events sponsored by Nefesh throughout the country.

Shlomo Katz, 25, earned a master’s degree in computer science before moving to Haifa from Fairfield, Conn., with his widowed father more than a year ago. Originally, he felt very supported by Nefesh. But a year later, a job still hasn’t come through. Katz recently enrolled in a yearlong software engineering course to enhance his qualifications for a “high-level job.”

“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Luckily, I have enough to live on with savings from the U.S. and by living with my dad.”

Israeli rents can be quite low by U.S. standards. A bargain studio apartment near Rehavia in Jerusalem can go for as little as $300, but living at an American standard, with many other costs comparable to the United States, is nearly impossible on a typical Israeli paycheck. Hourly minimum wage, for instance, is less than $4. As a result, many Israelis live beyond their means. For Shlomo Katz’s father, Eliezer Katz, higher wages in America make brief stays there at the home of friends worthwhile. While in the United States, the elder Katz supplements his income as an electrician. But for now, the family is remaining in Israel.

For Deena and Aaron Singer, both 33, the first 12 months after their aliyah from New York in July 2003 required them to each return individually to the States for short term visits to help care for ill family members.

“I was nervous about leaving family, finding jobs, all the typical aliyah fears,” Deena Singer said. These days, Aaron Singer works in publication sales at the Shalem Center, a post-Zionist think tank, and Deena Singer finds meaning in her job as a behavioral consultant with autistic children. After two years in an Orthodox absorption center, the Singers moved to a “mixed” moshav near Gush Etzion where they feel they are giving their own children, Naama Shira, 5, and Ahuva, 3, the benefit of living among a variety of Jews.

Daniel Rebuck, 36, didn’t have a job lined up in advance of his aliyah this winter, but he remains hopeful while he studies in an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew-language course. A former professional soccer player, Rebuck would like to find a position coaching at a soccer club, working as he did before Hurricane Katrina wiped out his job in New Orleans.

“I’ve been to Israel six times and I always feel very much at home,” he said. “With the hurricane, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.'”

Yasmine Noury says she already lives a very normal life in Israel as a student, and feels very fortunate “every day to be part of a Jewish nation.” She looks forward to getting married and having children in the Holy Land.

“That’s something that is crucial in my aliyah,” she said. “I feel strongly it’s very important to raise a family in Israel.”

She is optimistic that one day, her two younger siblings, a 16-year-old brother and a 12-year-old sister, will follow. And if they make aliyah, she says, then her parents might consider it.

“It’s a scary thing because you, of course, want your family to follow,” she said. “It’s the ultimate goal that you should have everyone with you. Part of building your own family and being part of Am Yisrael [the People of Israel] and Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] is that you will have family to be around. You never know what the future holds.”

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck

Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”


Hancock Park Infighting Escalates

Update September 25, 2007: City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul.

Smoldering tensions between the Orthodox community and other Hancock Park residents, many of them also Jewish, are heating up anew, as a battle over neighborhood architecture has divided along lines of religious affiliation.

Residents of the upscale neighborhood are weighing whether it should become a designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which would establish a process of scrutiny for any changes to the outside of homes. Opponents of the measure are mostly Orthodox Jews, who own an estimated 20 percent of Hancock Park’s 1,250 homes. A decision on this issue will be made by the City Council with neighborhood input, perhaps as early as this summer.

The latest battle comes nearly a year after Orthodox Jews and other residents faced off in an ugly election for control of the neighborhood council, when competing accusations of corruption and religious bias tore apart the community.

But even as halting peace efforts are under way to heal those wounds, the HPOZ fight is once again pitting Jew against Jew and neighbor against neighbor.

Proponents say the neighborhood needs to become an HPOZ to protect the 1920s and ’30s Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean revival mansions from aesthetically dubious remodels that tamper with the historic look of the neighborhood. They also say it would improve property values. Opponents say the measure would infringe on homeowners’ rights, make improvements too costly and cumbersome and thereby hurt property values.

The fight is playing out on the wide, winding streets of this urban oasis, where orange anti-HPOZ signs and green pro-HPOZ signs have sprouted on impeccably landscaped lawns.

In the middle of the night on April 2 and 3, about 200 pro-HPOZ signs were uprooted and carted off, according to Jolene Snett, who is heading up the preservationist effort. Opponents say many anti-HPOZ signs have also been stolen.

At a March public hearing before Los Angeles’s Department of Planning, about 300 people came to voice their support or opposition to the ordinance. Nearly all of the measure’s opponents, including all of the speakers for the opposition, were Orthodox.

On May 11, the city’s Planning Commission will meet to hear a report on the public hearing, take recommendations from staff and hear more public comments. The Planning Commission will then send a recommendation to a subcommittee of the City Council, and the full council will have the final vote on whether to adopt an HPOZ ordinance for Hancock Park. That vote is expected over the summer.

The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, The Los Angeles Conservancy and Councilman Tom LaBonge all have gone on record supporting a HPOZ for Hancock Park. The opposition is headed by the Hancock Park Residents Association, founded several years ago by Orthodox activists Michael Rosenberg and Stanley Treitel to fight against the HPOZ.

Preservationist Snett estimates that about 80 percent of Hancock Park residents support the HPOZ, while Treitel calls it a toss-up.

If established, control of the HPOZ board, which reviews proposed changes to property, would fall directly into the hands of local residents. The board would be made up of five members, three of whom live in the area, and some would have expertise in architecture or construction. Board members are appointed by the mayor, the area’s City Council member and the Cultural Heritage Commission, with the input of the local neighborhood council.

The grass-roots nature of the issue has made it tinder for the ongoing religious flare-ups in the neighborhood.

Some vocal Orthodox Jews say HPOZ is one in a long list of issues — from opposing synagogues to giving Jewish schools a hard time — whereas established neighbors have worked to keep the burgeoning Orthodox community at bay.

“The Orthodox typically have large families and want to be able to make these homes useful with expansion to accommodate the families, and they are concerned that that they will be stopped from doing this,” said Fred Gaines, an Encino lawyer who is representing a group of Orthodox residents opposed to HPOZ.

To David Rubin, chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, a 450-child day school in Hancock Park, the issue is trust.

“Although I support the concept of preservation, I don’t support the process of local empowerment on this issue in our community,” Rubin said. “We can’t have an HPOZ controlled by a small group that has developed a double standard.”

Rubin says neighbors are much tougher on Yavneh than they are on Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in the area.

Neighbors say Marlborough is a 120-year-old school that was grandfathered in, and that Yavneh is simply expected to adhere to conditions it accepted on moving to the neighborhood in 1999.

Those conditions were brought to a Zoning Board hearing in City Hall on April 6, at which Yavneh requested permission to erect an 8-foot perimeter fence for security, and to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Saturdays from only students and their families to include alumni, board members and others associated with the school.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association opposed both requests, which would change the school’s original conditional use permit. The zoning board is expected to hand down a decision by late April.

The us-versus-them atmosphere in Hancock Park has been festering over the past decade. Residents have been locked in a 10-year legal battle over a synagogue built on a residential lot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, which neighbors say violates local zoning laws. Congregants argue religious freedom allows them to pray in the new building, which they constructed after tearing down a home.

Snett, the preservationist, hopes that the city’s decision on the HPOZ can be separated from the religious disputes and seen for what it is: an effort to preserve the architecture of a beautiful and historically significant neighborhood. She is banking on the preservation plan, to be put together by the city, which allows residents to individualize the terms of an HPOZ.

But the preservation plan won’t be presented until after the city council approves the HPOZ, and opponents are skeptical.

“It is unfortunate that rather than sit down and compromise, there is an insistence to keep pushing forward and having a situation where neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and the city will end up in litigation,” said Gaines, the attorney for the opponents.

Huizar Proposal Would Close Razing Loophole

An order to investigate the demolition of a historic Jewish Community Center (JCC) building in Boyle Heights is now on the agenda of the Los Angeles City Council.

Under a motion introduced March 22 by Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, municipal departments would be ordered to explain why they greenlighted the razing of the structure without requiring a demolition permit notifying neighborhood organizations and officials.

The motion would also require the city’s Planning Department and the Department of Building and Safety to review current ordinances and close any loopholes to prevent a similar fate for other cultural and historical landmarks.

At an outdoor news conference Wednesday, adjoining the historic Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, Huizar said, “I am deeply concerned by the loss of the Jewish Community Center, and I am here today to call for action that will help ensure that this community — and this city — protect what remains of our cultural heritage.”

Huizar said he would instruct the appropriate departments to survey all of Los Angeles to identify similar sites that may not have been officially designated as historic landmarks. Currently, some 800 such landmarks are registered.

The new burst of activity was triggered by a report in The Journal that the former Soto-Michigan JCC building, later known as the Eastside JCC, had been razed by a developer without public notice or demolition permit.

The building was of architectural, as well as historical, significance. It was designed by Raphael Soriano, who helped pioneer the architectural style known as California Modernism.

Dedicated in 1939 to keep Jewish kids off the street and away from “potentially demoralizing influences,” the building became the All Nations’ Center in 1958, as the community became increasingly Latino.

After the structure was razed in late February by a private San Diego developer, The Journal learned that the developer would erect a new structure to be leased to the U.S. government for a Social Security office.

The federal government does not have to comply with city regulations, such as obtaining a demolition permit. However, one gray area Huizar intends to probe is whether the exemption rule applies when a private company takes over and then leases the property to a federal entity.

Huizar was joined at the news conference by Latino community leaders and by Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Stephen Sass, president of the regional Jewish Historical Society; and Ken Bernstein, director of preservation with the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The JCC and similar sites are “a reflection of what was, and what can be again, an opportunity for our diverse citizens to create a future that intersects in meaningful ways,” Schwart-Getzug said.

Sass, who was instrumental in preventing the destruction of the Breed Street Shul in 1988, said that efforts are under way to renovate the impressive shul’s structure as a multicultural community center.

Bernstein pointed out that only 15 percent of Los Angeles has been surveyed for possible cultural and historic landmarks.

“Some 85 percent of the city is a blank slate,” he said.

Also on hand was Rosalie Turrola, a high school counselor and lifelong Boyle Heights resident, who told The Journal that she recalled her former Jewish neighbors fondly.

“I remember everyone lighting candles on Friday nights, and I loved the potato pancakes,” she said. ” I had a nice neighbor who always called me a ‘shayne maidele’ [pretty girl].

“In those days, I used to be a Mexican-American, now I’ve turned into a Chicana.”


Boyle Heights JCC

Someone has demolished a part of Los Angeles Jewish history and at this point no one in the Jewish community or even the city’s building department seems to know who did it and why.

The architecturally significant Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center, the focal point of Jewish social and political community life in Boyle Heights from the early 1930s to the late 1950s, has disappeared under the wrecking ball.

The first to call attention to the loss — after discovering nothing but freshly turned dirt at the site — was Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources. He was leading a Jewish heritage tour of Boyle Heights earlier this month and said he could hardly believe his eyes when he found an empty bulldozed parcel of land in place of the two-story building at the corner of Soto and Michigan.

The JCC not only served Boyle Heights when it was the liveliest “shtetl” in Los Angeles, but was also an architectural landmark.

It was designed by Raphael Soriano, a Sephardic native of Rhodes, who defined the architectural style known as “California modernism,” characterized by the innovative use of prefabricated steel and aluminum.

Famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, a close friend of Soriano, raised considerable funds to get the project off the ground.

But Paley isn’t the only one surprised at the building’s disappearance.

David Lara of the L.A. Department of Building and Safety, which issues permits for demolitions, searched city records but found no trace of a demolition permit for the site.

A different kind of permit was issued for the location on Feb. 9 of this year, but only for electrical renovation work by Power Plus, a Sun Valley company.

An official at Power Plus confirmed the permit and named C&SO Construction Company as the main contractor. No one was available at the company office on Friday afternoon.

The JCC was not included on the historical landmark list of either the city or the Los Angeles Conservancy, a community organization.

Ken Bernstein of the Conservancy pointed out that many historic, cultural and architectural sites in Los Angeles remain unprotected from developers.

One problem is the sheer size of a city of 460 square miles. “We have in Los Angeles 800,000 legal parcels, but only 800 are designated as historic landmarks,” said Bernstein.

The Boyle Heights JCC had a gymnasium and meeting halls, but it was much more than that. The membership was well known for its “firebrand left politics,” as Paley put it.

One former member, Leo Frumkin, wrote that in his extended family in the 1940s, political ideology ranged from social democrats to communists.

The JCC pioneered the Jewish community’s outreach to other ethnic groups in the immediate post-war years. Its annual Friendship Festival brought together more than 12,000 “Mexican, Japanese, Negro and Jewish youths in a cooperative venture,” wrote historian George Sanchez.

After the vast migration of Boyle Heights Jews in the 1950s — to the Fairfax area, Beverly Hills, Westside and San Fernando Valley, the Soto-Michigan JCC became, for years, a general community center under the name All Nations’ Center.


The Ones Left Behind

The bus bounces its way along the road from Axum to Shire, generating a huge cloud of dust as it barrels through the brown, rocky highlands of Tigray.

Bombed-out tanks that were brought to a standstill 20 years ago by Tigrean rebels fighting Ethiopia’s communist government still sit near the road in the places they were stopped, as much a part of the landscape today as the thatched-roofed tukuls, barren fields and dry riverbeds that comprise the territory of northwestern Ethiopia in summer.

The bus comes to a sudden halt as the driver spots a funeral procession alongside the road, a sign of respect accorded to the dead here. The passengers fall silent while the mourning procession walks by — first men carrying flags and rifles, then wailing women carrying parasols and trailing the body.

A bit farther along, the bus slows again as it takes a hard, cliffside curve; the passengers crane their necks to see an overturned truck that appears to have tumbled off the road just minutes before, its load of plastic crates spilled all over the hill.

It takes about two hours to travel the 35 or so miles from Axum to Shire, and then another hour of driving over dirt roads and empty fields to reach Adigereb, a remote village populated exclusively by Jews until 1980, when they all left for Sudan.

There have been rumors of some Jews still left in Tigray, holdouts who opted not to join their co-religionists embarking on the arduous and dangerous journey to Zion in the early 1980s.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem because I was scared of the journey,” confessed Shirva Goyto’om, one of the lone Jews remaining in the province. Shirva lives in a small town about 30 miles west of the city of Shire, which itself has but one paved road.

“In recent years, we went to Addis — I was there — but because of the economic situation, people stay in Addis for three to five years and then come back,” Shirva said.

Like a few other Jews scattered about in this region, Shirva married an Ethiopian Christian and now has a sizeable family. He is a farmer, like his father was. His mother lives in Israel.

Shirva says he no longer keeps the Jewish traditions because they are impossible to maintain without the support of a community. Also, without the ability to immigrate to Israel — he tried but was unable to gain the ear of Israeli officials in Addis Ababa, he says — he has lost interest in practicing Judaism.

All over Tigray, the locals have the same response when asked about the Jews. The Beta Israel left years ago, they say, using the Ethiopian appellation for members of the Jewish caste. A few use the more pejorative term, Falasha, which means stranger.

But even when absent, the Jews are remembered. The houses they once occupied are still called by the names of the Jewish families who used to live in them.

The Tigrean Jews were the first large group of Ethiopians to immigrate to Israel, coming in secret Mossad operations in the early 1980s, before Operation Moses. They passed through Sudan on their way to Israel, sneaking with forged documents onto Athens-bound planes from Khartoum, moving through Port Sudan onto clandestine Israeli naval vessels, or getting airlifted from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.

Some Tigrean Jews had to wait for up to two years in Sudan before being taken to Israel, and many died along the way. By 1984, approximately 6,000 Tigrean Jews had come to Israel in small groups. Most of them went to live in Beersheba, where Israel’s Tigrean population is still concentrated.

Here and there, in bigger cities like Axum and small villages like Aduhala, a few Jews remain in Tigray.

When everyone else left, they, or their parents, remained. Some stayed behind because they were afraid to leave their homes for an unknown place. Others were fighters with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, the rebel army fighting the forces of Ethiopia’s central government, and they were too caught up in the war when the Jews left. (The rebels won in 1991, and rebel leader Meles Zenawi is now Ethiopia’s prime minister.) A few were married to Ethiopian Christians and didn’t want to leave their families behind.

A Tigrean community leader in Israel estimates that there are as many as 2,000 to 4,000 Jews left in this remote region. The governor of the region, who is from the historic city of Axum, where Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant resides, is Jewish.

But the Jews who remain here are no easier to distinguish from the local Christian population than the Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity from Judaism decades ago. Unlike the thousands of Beta Israel who lived here 25 years ago, the Jews that remain no longer maintain the Jewish practices that made them easily identifiable to outsiders as Jews.

As one official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put it, the Jews here are like the Jewish remnant in other countries whose Jewish populations experienced mass exodus: Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. There will always be a few who remain.

Before leaving for Israel, the Jews of Tigray were cut off from the outside world, known to a few Jewish scholars and advocates but largely ignored by and ignorant of the world beyond their fields, villages and marketplaces.

A lot has changed since they left.

Though camels, mules, cows and other livestock still roam the streets of Shire, they wander past the city’s Internet cafe and CD stores. Shire now has an airport, though the runway is unpaved, the terminal has no electricity, and an empty shipping container serves as the passenger waiting area.

Perhaps most significantly, Tigray’s isolation has been tempered by a close relationship with its most prominent expatriate community: Tigreans in Israel.

Israelis born in Tigray come back to visit, and the people of this region — even the farmers who live in places cars cannot reach and where electricity sheds no light — have grown used to seeing the occasional visitor from the outside world.

Zeudei Adem, an old Ethiopian woman of indeterminate age, lets out a yelp when she suddenly realizes that the foreign visitor in her stone-and-straw home is the son of her old friend and neighbor, Workunesh. Her niece looks on with a wide smile as Zeudei embraces the visitor.

“We knew you made it to Israel,” Zeudei says, rocking back and forth on the mud bench in her niece’s home. “Too bad you didn’t take us.”

The Israelis often come bearing gifts — clothing for former neighbors, cash, badly needed medicine.

One young Ethiopian man living near Adigereb said the area has suffered since the Jews left. The grasses in winter do not grow as tall as they used to, groves of trees have been cut down to make way for military installations, and the cows seem even thinner than before. Somehow, one Tigrean lamented, the Jews took their good fortune with them.

Ethiopian Israelis returning here for heritage visits are as amazed by the locals as the locals are by them. The Ethiopian villagers marvel at the Israelis’ attire, digital cameras, and money, and the Israelis marvel at how they ever lived in as primitive a country as this, where people live without running water or electricity and little prospects for a future different than that of their great-grandfather.

“As soon as we saw the way they live here, we said, ‘Thank God that we left this place,'” said Mazal Rada, who left Ethiopia with her family when she was 3. She now works in security in Kiryat Gat, Israel.

“I stayed at one ‘hotel’ in some town that was so bad it made me cry,” she said. “I want to go home.”

A Dying Language Comes to Life

“Gut morgn.”

Teacher Hannah Pollin greeted the group assembled in a large circle around her. Her nine high school students, armed with a page of interview questions and tape recorders, sat interspersed among 13 senior citizens at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. They formed groups of two or three, impatiently awaiting last-minute instructions.

“Ir volt redn nor af Yidish,” she reminded them.

But the admonition to speak only Yiddish was unnecessary as the students, from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, turned on their tape recorders and began firing off questions to their eager partners, native Yiddish speakers whom they were meeting for the first time.

“Vos makh stu?” they asked. “Fun vanen kumt ir?” “How are you?” and “Where are you from?”

Pollin’s class at New Community Jewish High School, an elective for 10th-, 11th- and 12th- graders, is possibly the only full-year, for-credit high school Yiddish language class currently being taught in the United States. Pollin, 23, also teaches Yiddish to the sixth-grade class at Shalhevet Middle School. Last fall she taught an elective Yiddish class to sixth- and seventh-graders at Sinai Akiba Academy, which she plans to continue in the spring.

The classes are part of a three-year pilot program funded by a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation. It was the idea of Aaron Paley, founder, and Dan Opatoshu, a board member, of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture.

To the students and seniors at the Jewish Home that Friday, those abstract goals had the immediate impact of building a bridge across generations.

The Yiddish words flew — sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly and occasionally “shreklich” or awful as the seniors reached for a word long forgotten or the students for a word they had not yet learned. They raised their voices, gesturing with their hands as they spoke.

“Vi heist ir?” asked senior Ami Kurzweil, 17.

He learned his partner’s name was Rose Levin. Now 100, she revealed that she spent the first 12 years of her life in Smargon, a shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, then after World War I immigrated to the United States via Japan.

Across the room, 12th-grader Ari Tuvia, 17, talked with Mildred Cadish, who admitted to being no older than 79. Born in New York City, Cadish told Tuvia how she grew up speaking Yiddish and how she used to read “Der Forverts,” the Yiddish newspaper.

“I understand 110 percent,” she said. “It is the most beautiful language in the world.”

Tuvia understood better than most first- semester language students — he was raised listening to his Romanian grandmother and father speaking the language.

But most of the students, who have been studying Yiddish for only one semester, are still confined to asking questions or describing events in the present tense. They want to learn the language their grandparents used to speak — the 1,000-year-old language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe — and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people.

“We should value this language for the adventure it takes us on,” said junior Zack Sher, 16, who hopes to spend a month this summer studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilna, Lithuania.

That morning, Sher learned the history of Sylvia Gottlieb, 89, originally named Shalamus, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up speaking Yiddish to her Ukrainian-born parents.

“You can go all over the world and find someone who speaks Yiddish,” she told him.

But today that’s less true. The 11 million Yiddish speakers that existed worldwide prior to World War II have diminished to only 1.85 million, according to sociolinguist Dr. Joshua A. Fishman, a visiting professor at Stanford University. Fishman categorizes them into two groups: elderly Jews, for whom Yiddish is the mother tongue, and members of ultra-Orthodox communities who use Yiddish as a daily language.

Pollin approaches Yiddish as a living language and brought her students, even as novice learners, to the Eisenberg campus of Jewish Home for the Aging to experience talking with native speakers.

“The most important goal is to form a relationship,” she said.

Pollin herself, who helped found the first undergraduate Yiddish major at Columbia University, significantly improved her speaking skills when she spent a year in Lithuania on a Fulbright scholarship, doing oral histories of Jews living there. And, in fact, her high school students will be writing histories of the people they interviewed, based on their tape-recorded conversations.

As the students began preparing to leave the Jewish Home, the seniors asked, “When are you coming back? Can we chip in for the bus to bring you here?” They exchanged phone numbers and “zayt gezunts,” hoping to meet again soon.

“It’s good to talk Yiddish,” observed Sara Litmanovich, 81, who was liberated from a concentration camp at age 16, the sole survivor of a large family. “It gives me varemkayt [warmth] and makes me feel again like I have mishpockhe [family].”


South African Judge Inspires Redemption

When he turned 6 in 1941, Albie Sachs received a birthday card from his father, Solly, a union leader in South Africa. The card read: “Many happy returns, and may you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”

It would be less a wish than a prophecy. The younger Sachs would grow up to become a leading civil rights lawyer and activist as South Africa successfully struggled to free itself of the taint of legally sanctioned racial segregation and the violence it took to deprive the nation’s black population of its basic human rights.

Today, Sachs is a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela and playing a leading role in writing the nation’s new constitution after the fall of apartheid. But like many soldiers, Sachs was injured in the fight. He was jailed without trial twice and spent months in solitary confinement. He lived in exile in Mozambique for decades. In 1988, he was almost killed when agents of South Africa’s security forces planted a bomb in his car. The attack left him without sight in one eye, tore off his arm and required a grueling rehabilitation, during which time Sachs had to learn to walk and write again.

This month, Sachs is in the U.S. sharing his experiences — and his message of how societies can rebuild in the aftermath of violence and injustice — during a series of community conversations sponsored by the educational organization, Facing History and Ourselves, supported by a grant from the Allstate Foundation. On Jan. 23, Sachs will arrive in Los Angeles for a talk at the SGI World Culture Center.

Sachs says his Jewish heritage has played a part in informing his activism. His parents — like most of South Africa’s Jews of that time — fled pogroms in Lithuania as small children with their families. The family’s experience of escaping violence and discrimination fostered Sachs’ parents’ political activism, which in turn ignited his own commitment to justice.

“They had a freedom-loving spirit that came through to me,” Sachs says of his parents.

He recalls that the only book he was allowed to have in solitary was the Bible.

“I was struck by the Old Testament,” he says. “Some parts are very punitive — smiting every man, woman and child, every cat and dog,” he says.

But then there is also the opposite: the words of hope in the Song of Songs, the Psalms and the prophets, Sachs says. Faced with the contrast between redemption and anger, Sachs chooses redemption.

Sachs recounts the time he met with the man who organized the car bombing that almost cost him his life. The man was about to go before South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I didn’t feel I was ‘forgiving’ him,” Sachs says. “I was trying to establish a human relationship. He won’t be my friend, but if he sat next to me on the bus, I’d say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?”

Of his assailants, Sachs says: “We’re sharing one country. That’s much more powerful than vengeance.”

Justice Albie Sachs will speak at the SGI World Culture Center, 525 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, on Monday, Jan. 23, 7-9 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call (626) 744-1177 ext. 22.

Laureen Lazarovici is a writer and social activist who lives in Los Angeles.

Food for Thought

The only thing worse than going to most luncheons is having to write about them — blow-by-blows of well-meaning, well-deserved appreciations and thank yous and speeches that go on too long.

So on my way over to the Luxe Summit Hotel in Bel-Air last month I decided I wasn’t going to write more than a brief about this year’s Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educators Awards luncheon.

But here’s the thing: This event really is one of the most inspiring afternoons on the local Jewish calendar.

Maybe it’s because teachers are so notoriously underappreciated. And the event, which focuses solely on teachers and principals in our day schools, makes everyone in the room want to pump their arms and let out a big “Woo-hoo!”

The luncheon is well produced, featuring videos of the surprised recipients learning of the honor during assemblies at their own schools. These films of celebrating, table-banging kids — and shocked and teary-eyed teachers, getting drawn out hugs from colleagues — are the centerpiece of the luncheon.

And then after lunch we got to hear from the five recipients themselves; each received a $10,000 prize. In their allotted two minutes they did what they do so well: teach.

Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, principal of Yeshiva Rav Isaacson-Torath Emeth Academy, told about the troublemaker kid who got called into the principal’s office for the 50 billionth time. But this time, after the same lecture, he came out, changed his ways and within months became a model student.

What did it?

During the principal’s ranting and raving, the secretary buzzed in with a phone call. And the principal told her, “Sorry, I’m meeting with somebody very important now. I’ll have to call back.”

Somebody important. That’s all the kid heard.

Next up was Vivian Levy, who has taught third grade at Sinai Akiba Academy for 30 years. She told of the bearded fellow who approached her recently and said, “Don’t you remember me?”

And then she did. He was the kid who couldn’t sit still, whose hyperactivity had made school unbearable for him.

“You believed in me,” he said to her. “And you helped me to believe in myself. I was a handful in third grade, and you encouraged me and told me I could do it.”

Today, he is an emergency-room physician.

“What a perfect match for his learning style,” Levy said.

Chaya Moldaver, the beloved second-grade teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy, analyzed the patriarch Jacob’s trait of wanting blessings for his descendants. That, she said, is what inspires teachers to pass the heritage from one generation to the next.

Robin Solomon is up to her second generation of students at Adat Ari El Day School — and she hopes to retire before the third starts arriving. She said her decades as a kindergarten teacher have taught her that teaching is not magic — it’s simply about loving children, and helping them love Judaism.

And then there’s the educator I will always think of as Dr. Powell. Twenty years ago, Bruce Powell was my principal at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, the first of three high schools he helped establish in Los Angeles. He also was founding principal of Milken Community High School, and four years ago founded The New Community Jewish High School, which has gone from 40 students to 270.

Back when Dr. Powell was my principal, he taught us that when you give a speech, you always grab the listeners with a good joke or a story. So I was a bit surprised when he opened with a potentially dry episode in which the sages of the Mishnah try to distill Judaism into pithy bullet points. But then came his own distillation: “It’s really all about lunch.”

Which was his way of saying so much more. How Judaism is about community (sharing lunch), tzedakah (providing lunch), nurturing others (making lunch) and standing up for your identity (matzah sandwiches for lunch) — and being willing to ask for a major donation (over lunch) for something other than yourself.

And this event — this lunch — lunch epitomized the common denominator of Jewish community through education.

Where else would you end up with a tableful of black hats right next to a table with a woman rabbi?

They eat the same food. They nod at the same words of Torah. They bentsch (say the blessing after meals) together.

Go find that anywhere else — and I mean anywhere.

And here’s a fitting postscript. One of last year’s recipients, Maimonides Academy Rabbi Mordechai Dubin, who teaches fourth graders and music, used his $10,000 award to produce a CD for kids. Its title is “I Made This World for You”; each of the 14 songs is based on a portion in the book of Genesis. This selection, along with the follow-up song, “I Believe,” based on Maimonides 13 principles of faith, have become hits in day schools across the city, and even the country. As a result, children as young as 3 are now quoting from Genesis and Maimonides.

So great teaching begat recognition, which begat more great teaching. And more recognition. And in the world of teaching, where recognition is not always easy to come by, that’s worth writing about.


The Treasures on Top of the Mountain

By many accounts, it ranks just below Jerusalem as one of Israel’s most beloved treasures. It holds United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) status as a World Heritage Site. Conde Nast Traveler magazine even named it the “World’s Best Monument.”

Masada, which represents a stronghold of Jewish courage and defiance, is among Israel’s most visited sites. Located in the Judean Desert, adjacent to the Dead Sea, King Herod the Great built Masada 2,100 years ago as both his winter palace and a place where he would retreat in times of crisis.

Thanks to monumental excavations begun in 1964 under the direction of Yigal Yadin, visitors regularly come to this lone mountain. At a sharp peak of 1,200 feet, Herod fashioned this marvelous palace with three floors of elegant halls. Its many other wonders included heated bath houses decorated with still-visible mosaics, a remarkable plumbing system to gather runoff from nearby flash floods and even chambers for storing ice in the desert heat. Masada, it seemed, was unconquerable.

But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, fate would eventually prove otherwise. Some 960 Jewish zealots took over the abandoned palace as the last independent Jewish holdout in the Land of Israel against conquering Roman armies. The refugees survived atop Masada for three years until a 36-month Roman siege, involving tens of thousands of Roman soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves, finally succeeded.

What the Romans found when they arrived was a community that had taken its own lives rather than become captive slaves. The Roman siege ramp on the western side of Masada that led to the end of the battle still offers easy walking access to the top of the fortress. From there, you can also see the outlines of several Roman camps below.

The World Heritage Committee recognized Masada under the auspices of UNESCO, describing it as “a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, an example of the opulence and luxury of the early Roman Empire and a symbol of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”

In advance of expected, heavy millennium year tourism, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the National Park Authority, completed a $40 million conservation and renovation project at the site. A 90-minute drive southeast of Jerusalem or about 20 minutes from Ein Gedi, Masada now includes a state-of-the-art visitors center, as well as high-speed, high-capacity cable cars, which start at the eastern entrance, one mile from the Dead Sea. But hundreds of visitors each day choose to hike up Masada’s Snake Path.

The weather is accommodating year-round, though high summer temperatures suggest an early morning visit. If you’re up for an early morning arrival, it’s a magnificent place to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Plan on spending about three hours to tour the site.

Masada is reachable via regularly scheduled bus service from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. Use the western entrance for the nighttime sound-and-light show (fee required). For more information, sound-and-light show schedule and admission fees, visit

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum

Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history, both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.

“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” said Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.

Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.

Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.

In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.

Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.

Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.

A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.

Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.

The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.

Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.

While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.

The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.

Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.

Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, said Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.

“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” said Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”

For more information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, visit

Q & A With Bruce Feiler

“Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, $26.95).

With daily reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear threat, it can be hard to imagine the Middle East as the birthplace of monotheism and all the ethics and piety that implies. But this heritage is exactly what Bruce Feiler explores in his new book.

In it, Feiler writes of his travels to Israel, Iraq and Iran — accompanied by various archeologists, theologians and historians. He tells the story against the backdrop of regional violence, interspersing observations on the Bible with descriptions of his bulletproof clothing. He shares his fear of being attacked and the very real danger of traveling on Iraqi highways. The book, in places, becomes an extreme travel memoir, depicting in lucid detail both risk and incredible cultural beauty.

Feiler spoke to The Journal by phone while taking a break from moving into his new Brooklyn home, which he shares with his wife and his 6-month-old identical twin girls.

Jewish Journal: Your new work follows on the heels of two that touched on consonant themes: “Walking the Bible, a Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses” (William Morrow, 2001) and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (William Morrow, 2002). What compelled you to write this new book?

Bruce Feiler: When I did “Walking the Bible,” it was a very personal journey. [I wanted to know] were these stories real? Could I find the places where they took place? But between then and now religion no longer has the luxury of being personal. It has really become much more urgent, and much more a matter of life and death, it seems. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and even in the United States, everything from the battle over the Ten Commandments to Terry Schiavo to gay marriage [all have to do with religion].

I recently read a Time magazine cover story from 1966 titled “Is God Dead?” that said religions was dead as an influence in world affairs, and would never return again. I wanted to figure out why religion was the dominant story in the world now. The idea was to go back to the roots of religion itself, and to ask: Is it tearing us apart or bringing us together?

JJ: How do you view the Bible — as history? As a God-written manuscript?

BF: I view it as a story of how God and humans tried to develop a relationship with one another, and I believe that it had to contain great truth, and I think that it contains great meaning for life. I also believe it contains a wide variety of rhetorical techniques — history, law, poetry, really boring filibusters, a kind of legislative tedium, legend, psalms….

One reason for the Bible’s enduring power is that it is not a complete history. If you were turn it in to a newspaper editor, he would say, ‘please go out and do more reporting.’ What is left out is as important as what is put in. It invites each of us to enter the story…. Every generation can reinterpret it.

The story of Abraham sacrificing his son, for example. If you read that story on Sept. 10, 2001, and on Sept. 12, 2001, you would get a totally different understanding of it.

JJ: How so?

BF: The idea of killing in the name of God is introduced with Abraham, and that is just one story that seems very relevant to the times we live in today.

JJ: Do you think that the current Middle East conflict is a religious one or a political one?

BF: I think that it is primarily a geopolitical conflict, but that all sides use religion when they want to and ignore it when they want to. I don’t believe that you can use the Bible to draw borders and solve political problems. It is not what it was intended for.

JJ: Do you think that the ancient cities you visited, such as Jericho in Israel, Nasiriyah in Iraq and Pasargardae and Persepolis in Iran, fostered ancient societies that were more religious than the current communities who live in them today?

BF: That is a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, religion infused ancient society. There had not been science and rationality, nor the enlightenment and modern technology, which have changed the way we experienced religion. And literacy was not as widespread.

When religion was being formed in the middle of the first millennium, great religions were being formed all over the world, and it is pretty clear that the great religions were in dialogue with one another and in dialogue with the cultures around them. And the idea that one religion had an exclusive claim to the truth, I don’t think was a very widespread notion. I think that something that Christianity and Islam introduced into the world was that there can be one universal faith and everyone in the world will follow it. That has been a very destructive idea in the world in the past 1,000 years.

JJ: The history that you give of the Jewish people in “Where God Was Born,” which comes from a literalist reading of the Bible, is one of a bellicose, combative nation of militants. Does it worry you that our ancient leaders, like King David, were so bloodthirsty? How do you reconcile these bloodthirsty heroes with their current canonization, which is something that is taught in most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools?

BF: I kind of understand why day school teachers want to teach David as a hero, because young Jews are looking for heroes who are strong and stick up for themselves. But I would say that one of things I have learned about the Bible is that we don’t have to accept the way we are taught. The stories are not black and white, and that is why they are interesting. One of the reasons that people don’t like the Bible is because they talk about it the same way that they did when they were 5. The fact that David was a failed leader gives me a lot to think about, and that is interesting.

JJ: Tell me about your own Judaism — how have the journeys taken in your last three books transformed your experience of faith?

BF: I have discovered a number of positive reasons to be Jewish, to balance off a lot of the negative reasons I heard when I was young — such as the Holocaust, discrimination, Israel is imperiled. The question [I am interested in] is can the religions get along, and Judaism has a very powerful, positive message to contribute to that conversation. We can teach the Christians and the Muslims that it is OK if everyone doesn’t agree with you, and it is OK not to impose your faith on others.

In the end, we all have to make our own relationship with God, that we can no longer accept what our politicians tell us, or our journalists tell us, or our parents tell us. We don’t have to just accept what our religious leaders tell us either. Each of us has to make our own relationship with God.

Meet Bruce Feiler Oct. 25, 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For information, call (626) 449-5320 or visit

Lack of Jewish Life in Greece Just Myth

When twilight descends on mountain villages and sun-kissed beaches, sociable Greeks make their way to tiny sidewalk cafes. They toast the end of the workday with anise-flavored ouzo, accompanied by plates of broiled octopus and green olives.

Dinner in the taverna is a long, lingering affair filled with an array of garlicky salads, fish, meat and maybe a slice of phylo-wrapped kasseri. As the night winds down, life moves to the cafeneion, where sweet and potent Greek coffee and perhaps a nibble of baklava serve as the perfect nightcap.

Poets have been known to wax lyrical about “the glory that was Greece.” Yet a visitor to Greece today quickly finds that the glory’s not only in the past tense. While those who built the shrines to Zeus and Apollo are long gone, the people who inhabit modern Greece are unquestionably alive.

The nation’s once-proud Jewish population, which dates back to Alexander the Great, was largely decimated during World War II. But from Rhodes to Athens, Greece’s rich Judaic history and culture are being preserved, and the seeds of the Jewish community are beginning to take root again.

Athens, a megalopolis whose population tops 3 million, has all the hallmarks of a major city: museums, theaters, office towers, the occasional Starbucks. Still, it remains quintessentially Greek.

Armed guards in short, pleated skirts; tasseled caps, and shoes with floppy pompoms keep watch in front of Parliament, across the street from Athens’ Syntagma (Constitution) Square. At regular intervals, they solemnly perform an oddly lopsided strut, complete with high kicks and sustained balletic poses. It’s a hint that the impulse to break out the dance moves is deeply rooted in the Greek soul.

Part of the thrill of Athens is that history is everywhere. A shady café in Plaka borders the delightful Tower of the Winds, dating from the time when Julius Caesar’s Romans ruled Greece. On a shopping expedition to the Athens Flea Market, tourists find themselves skirting the Ancient Agora, where Socrates and Plato once strolled. The city’s main bus lines terminate not far from the massive, horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. Built in the fourth century CE on the ruins of an earlier stadium, it was restored for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and played a dramatic role in the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad of 2004.

But what makes Athens most special is the large flat hill in its center — the fabled Acropolis. Visitors must wend their way on foot, past the charming restaurants and shops of the old Plaka district, to reach one of the world’s most dazzling sights. The Parthenon, along with the other ruined temples that gleam in the bright Greek sun, dates from the fifth century BCE. In ancient times this was the center of community worship, and it’s easy to imagine throngs of pilgrims bearing offerings for the goddess Athena here.

But not every ancient Greek worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the marketplace under the Acropolis are the remains of a fifth century BCE synagogue, which still feature carvings of lulavs and a menorah. Happily, Athens can also boast Jewish sites of much more recent vintage. The city is home to the handsome Jewish Museum of Greece, built in 1997, which gives eloquent testimony to the lost glories of Greek-style Judaism. Today Athens’ small but vibrant Jewish community — comprising more than 3,000 of Greece’s 5,000 Jews — supports a day school, a youth center and a functioning synagogue.

Beth Jacob, founded in the 1930s, occupies an austere neoclassical building on a quiet street that was once the heart of a bustling Jewish quarter. It is open for Sephardic services throughout the year. Directly across Melidoni Street, one can also spot the historic (and well-guarded) Ioannina Synagogue, dating from 1903. Once the headquarters for Athenian Jews who embraced Greece’s ancient and unique Romaniote tradition, it is used on the High Holidays, but can also be viewed by special arrangement with the Jewish Community of Athens organization, which shares its premises.

Further afield, the traveler can find traces of Jewish life both on the Greek mainland and on many of Greece’s most romantic islands. One prime destination is Thessaloniki, also known as Salonika, where Jews who had fled from Spain in the 15th century found a safe haven under Ottoman rule. As late as 1900, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish. Now the 1,300 Jews still remaining in the area enjoy a community center, a school, and a kosher butcher, as well as a daily minyan. It’s possible to visit several charming Thessaloniki synagogues, along with a newly enhanced Jewish history museum that stands in the heart of the picturesque Modiano Market.

Jews planning to cruise the Greek islands can explore their heritage when they tire of beachcombing. In Corfu, a 300-year-old synagogue displaying a collection of Torah crowns is open every Saturday and by appointment. Remnants of Jewish life dating back to antiquity are found on Delos, Naxos and Zakynthos, among others. Chalkis, on the island of Euboea, claims to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe: today a 19th-century synagogue is a reminder of past glories. In Hania, Crete, an international archaeological effort led to the recent restoration of a Romaniote synagogue built in the middle ages. And a similar venture, spearheaded by Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, has helped preserve the Jewish historic sites of Rhodes. (See accompanying story.) The island’s 16th century Kahal Shalom, Greek’s oldest-functioning synagogue, now also plays host to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. This informative museum makes an excellent jumping-off point for tours of the ancient Sephardic quarter known as “La Juderia.”

Most Hellenic vacations prove unforgettable because of the hospitality of the Greek populace, the beauty of the Greek landscape and the antiquity of the Greek culture. It’s no surprise that Jews lived contentedly on Greek soil for more than 2,000 years. Today’s visitor can revel in the splendors of Greece, while still pausing to remember the Jewish people who once made this land of sun and sea their home.