The legacy of 9/11 hero Danny Lewin

At the center of the 9/11 attacks against the United States by Islamofascist terror, an unlikely hero played a largely unknown role. He sacrificed his life in an attempt to stop the hijacking of one of the planes that later crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He was an Israeli-American and his role has remained largely ignored and unacknowledged.

Danny Lewin was an American-Israeli, a world-class Internet entrepreneur, and the very first person to be murdered by the al-Qaeda barbarians on Sept. 11, 2001. He was aboard the American Airlines Flight 11 plane out of Boston headed for Los Angeles when it was hijacked by the terrorists. A veteran of the special forces in the Israeli army, Lewin quickly understood what was going down. He spoke fluent Arabic and knew what the terrorists were saying. He single-handedly attempted to attack and subdue the terrorists. He was stabbed to death on the plane by terrorist Satam al-Suqami, a Saudi law student. Lewin was 31 years old when he was murdered.

A new biography of the hero of 9/11, written by Molly Knight Raskin, is now in book stores; it is titled “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet.” 

Lewin grew up in Denver and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1984, three years after I did the same. His parents were devoted Zionists and passionate about their Jewishness. While exempt from military service in Israel on grounds that he had recently immigrated, Danny insisted on serving anyhow, and in the country’s most challenging military unit at that. He served in the ultra-elite special forces combat unit called Sayeret Matkal. 

Lewin attended the Technion in Haifa, where in 1995 he was named the year’s Outstanding Student in Computer Engineering. He then worked for IBM in developing high-tech products, later doing graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he became the protégé of the legendary MIT professor F. Thomson Leighton. According to Raskin, “The more Lewin got to know Leighton, the more professionally enamored he became, routinely telling friends he’d met the ‘smartest man in the world.’ ” The two developed mathematical algorithms for optimizing Internet traffic. These became the basis for Akamai Technologies, which the two founded in 1998. Lewin served as the company’s chief technology officer and a board member. The company went public in 1999 and its stock market valuation rose rapidly to $345 billion. Lewin was posthumously named one of the most influential high-tech figures in the world. Much of Raskin’s book details his career in advanced high technology. He was not only the first victim of the 9/11 terror — he was also its wealthiest and most successful victim. Raskin writes:

“An executive summary mistakenly leaked by the Federal Aviation Administration to the press stated that terrorist Satam al-Suqami shot and killed Lewin with a single bullet around 9:20 a.m. (obviously a typo, as the plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.). But almost as soon as the memo was leaked, FAA officials claimed it was written in error, and that Lewin was more than likely stabbed, not shot. The 9/11 Commission concurred, offering a more detailed summary: based on dozens of interviews with those who spoke with flight attendants Madeline Sweeney and Betty Ong, the commission determined that al-Suqami most likely killed Lewin by slashing him in the throat from behind as he attempted to stop the hijacking. The time of his death was reported to be somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 a.m., which — if fact — would make Lewin the first victim of the 9/11 attacks.”

After his death, the intersection of Main and Vassar streets in Cambridge, Mass., was renamed Danny Lewin Square in his honor. He left behind a widow and two sons.

Lewin’s life captures everything positive about the American-Israeli collaboration in education, high technology and military strategy. He also epitomizes the world struggle against barbarism.

This column first appeared in FrontPage Magazine and is reprinted with the permission of Steven Plaut.

Steven Plaut is a native Philadelphian who teaches business finance and economics at the University of Haifa in Israel. He holds a doctorate in economics from Princeton. He is author of the David Horowitz Freedom Center booklets about Hamas and “Jewish Enablers of the War Against Israel.”

Chanukah models of courage

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

‘Forgotten Hero’ of the Shoah Peter Bergson gets his due times two

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, bowing to a high-profile petition campaign, agreed last week to include the story of the Peter Bergson Group in its permanent exhibit.

By coincidence, and at the same time, the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles presented the West Coast premiere of “The Accomplices,” a play by Bernard Weinraub about Bergson and his World War II exploits.

Peter who?

Bergson was born in Lithuania in 1915 as Hillel Kook, nephew of the revered Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, Avraham Isaac Kook. Ten years later, the family immigrated to Palestine, and in the 1930s young Hillel joined the underground military cadre of the right-wing Irgun, changing his name to Peter Bergson so as not to embarrass his family.

The Irgun battled both the British mandatory powers and the mainstream Jewish leadership, but in 1940 the Irgun dispatched Bergson to the United States, initially to agitate for the establishment of a Jewish army to fight against Hitler.

As word of the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews trickled out, Bergson threw his energies into arousing American Jewry and the U.S. government to rescue as many Jews as possible.

By all accounts, Bergson was a passionate, charismatic and persuasive advocate for his cause, who persisted in smashing his head against the wall of a timid Jewish leadership unwilling to make waves, an anti-Semitic State Department, and a President Roosevelt resenting any distraction from winning World War II.

Nevertheless, Bergson was able to persuade some influential allies in Congress and Hollywood, initiated massive pageants, a protest march and provocative full-page ads, all abhorred by the Jewish establishment. These combined efforts are largely credited with pushing the White House in early 1944 into creating the War Refugee Board, which helped save 200,000 Jews and 20,000 others.

The two-act play is a “dramatized” version of events, but the basic historical record is accurate, Weinraub said.

“Accomplices” has a couple of heroes — Bergson and writer Ben Hecht — and at least one villain — Breckinridge Long, a key State Department official who systematically obstructed all rescue efforts.

But most of the historical figures fall between these poles as well-meaning but flawed characters, whose timidity, political calculations and not unreasonable fear of an anti-Semitic backlash prevented resolute action when there was still time.

From Bergson’s view, the half-hearted men included Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom most Jews of the era worshipped as a semi-deity; his craven Jewish speechwriter Sam Rosenman; and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, American Jewry’s most influential figure as head of the American Jewish Congress and the American Zionist Emergency Council.

In the play, Wise is shown as a man anguished by the fate of his European brethren, but determined to stop public protests that might offend his non-Jewish countrymen, or worse, FDR himself.

There is little doubt that Wise’s caution was shared then by the majority of Jews during a time of pervasive American anti-Semitism, fear of foreigners and Depression-triggered agitation against immigrants.

Arguments about Wise’s role, and indeed the effectiveness of the entire Bergson enterprise, continued long after the war. In the early 1980s, such respected historians as Lucy Davidowicz and Marie Syrkin argued that militant Jewish agitation would have been counterproductive.

Just as Bergson found some of his strongest allies among Christians, so the non-Jewish David S. Wyman was the first to fully tell the Bergson story in his 1985 best seller, “The Abandonment of the Jews.”

That the old controversy can still spark emotions is shown by last month’s refusal by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Authority, to include the Bergson story in its museum.

Wyman, and the Institute for Holocaust Studies bearing his name, led the campaign to persuade the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to accept the Bergson exhibit, and believe that his story must be remembered.

“Telling the story of the Bergson Group is extremely important not only because of its historical importance, but also because it sends a powerful message to today’s younger generation that it really is possible to change history.”

Steven Schub portrays Peter Bergson in the Fountain Theatre production. He brings the requisite passion and coiled fury to the demanding role, but occasionally escalates into shrillness and transmits little of the man’s reputed charisma.

The strongest performances, in relatively minor roles, are by Dennis Gersten as Ben Hecht and James Harper as Roosevelt. Director Deborah LaVine adds immediacy to the production by inserting newsreel clips of refugees and of a Bergson-orchestrated march on the White House by 400 Orthodox rabbis.

Bronx-born Bernard Weinraub was a budding playwright in college, but put his ambitions aside during a 30-year career as a political, foreign and Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times.

While stationed in Washington in 1982, he covered the controversy over the documentary, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?” which dealt with America’s response to the Holocaust.

“I knew nothing about these happenings, but I was fascinated,” Weinraub said in a conversation after the play.

During the next few years, he interviewed survivors of the Bergson Group and read up on the subject.

In the late ’90s, when Weinraub was transferred to Los Angeles to report on the entertainment industry, he started taking evening classes on playwriting at UCLA. Out of this grew “The Accomplices,” which had its premiere last year in New York and earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for best new play.

Bergson returned to Israel after the war and died there in 2001, at the age of 86, but his legacy still remains controversial.

“There are some Jewish organizations in this country that are still too embarrassed to talk about their roles during the Holocaust years,” Weinraub


“The Accomplices” runs through Aug. 24 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave.Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$28, with discounts for seniors and students. For information and reservations, call (323) 663-1525 or visit

I’ve never had real heroes

If you grew up as I did, on more than one continent and surrounded by people of different faiths, you know what I mean when I say I’ve never had real heroes: For every truth in one place, I’ve encountered doubt in another; for every icon in one culture, I’ve met iconoclasts in another.

As I look back, I realize that the only public figures I have admired and perhaps trusted were authors — those authors, that is, who wrote about the time and place they lived in, whose purpose was to discover the truth, bear witness, unveil secrets, no matter what the cost to themselves or others. Most of these authors — Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Oriana Fallaci — lived through World War II. Most of them explored the mysteries of the human soul — how it’s at once capable of great kindness and unspeakable cruelty, how it tends to shy away from taking ownership of its sins.

Among them, of course, was Gunter Grass, Germany’s greatest author since World War II, who wrote “The Tin Drum” and a dozen other books; who has dedicated his career and his public life to exposing the dark corners of his nation’s psyche, making sure it doesn’t forget, doesn’t rationalize, minimize or move on from — the Holocaust.

Grass has been quick to denounce hypocrisy and deceit anywhere he has found it, and he has done so with a vigor — some would say brutally — that has not softened with his advancing age. He has pointed a finger at the mighty and the weak; deplored the lack of moral righteousness in Europe and the United States. Most of all, he has held his own people accountable for crimes against humanity. As recently as 2002, he wrote, in “Crabwalk”: “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”

Born in 1927 in the then-German city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), Grass had, until this year, always maintained that he was recruited by and served in the German army in the last days of the war, but that he was not a part of the SS. He made a point of this, in fact, when he spoke in Israel in 1967: “You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi but old enough to have been molded by [the Nazi] system. Innocent through no merit of my own, I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace.”

That he refused to take credit for not having joined what he calls the “Nazi system” is one reason he was admired the world over — enough to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s also one reason he has been denounced so vehemently in some circles by what he revealed this year in his memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” that he had, in fact, willfully joined and served in the Waffen SS during the war, that he did so in spite of opposition from his parents, that he had admired Hitler and never believed the stories about concentration camps until later, during the Nuremberg trials.

Suddenly, the man who has made a career out of digging for truth in other people’s lives turns out to be a liar himself.

In the memoir, he speaks movingly of the suffering of the German people during the war, while admitting that it paled in comparison with that of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. He talks, with not a trace of self-pity, about how he suffered from hunger and loss and fear, how he lived as a refugee for years after the war, how he learned later that his mother had been raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers.

Perhaps, understandably, he stands at a safe distance from the young man whose story he has set out to tell, reminding the reader often that he is not — doesn’t even recognize — the 15-year-old who joined the Hitler Youth. He says he was called up by the SS only when Germany had lost the war and never actually fired a shot. He says he kept silent about his past because he was ashamed. He says that his confession now, when he is 84 years old and near the end of his life, is impelled by a conscience that has weighed on him from the start.

Publicly, Grass has insisted that his books and his involvement in German politics for over half a century should serve as proof that he had learned the lessons he has tried to teach others; that he should be judged for all the good he has brought to the world through his work and not for his personal conduct.

No wonder he wrote in “The Tin Drum”: “I expected more from literature than from real, naked life.”

Do I believe him?

I’m not sure. But I don’t think it matters. Too old, perhaps too cynical myself to look for heroes anywhere, I think Grass has taught us, through his own life, a lesson that transcends his influence as an individual.

Asked to comment on the Grass controversy, Italian playwright Dario Fo, also a Nobel laureate, responded: “Pity the land that needs heroes.”

It is true that Grass has brought much good into the world by his writings. It is also true that his late-in-life revelation calls into question or, depending on your point of view, entirely invalidates his right to the high moral ground he has for so long occupied. But in doing so, he has proven to those of us who have followed his life and career what he says he learned as a POW after the war: That no truth is ever entirely true, that what we revere today may become indefensible tomorrow, that the wisest path through life is to distrust certainty and instead to walk, in Grass’ own words, “the long route, paved with doubts.”

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel, “Caspian Rain,” was published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Righteous Heroes

Many years ago, I reported on a conference at Princeton bringing a handful of Righteous Gentiles, who had risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Nazi era, together with a few dozen Holocaust scholars.

In essence, the scholars were trying to figure out what made the rescuers tick. Was there some common characteristic or background that impelled them to stretch out a hand to the hunted and despised, when most everyone else kept their hands in their pockets and looked the other way?

The search for answers proved frustrating. Among the rescuers, the professors concluded, were devout Christians and atheists, people with happy and unhappy childhoods, businessmen and peasants, idealists and cynics. Even some confirmed anti-Semites hid Jewish children.

It was even more difficult to pin down the motivations of the “altruistic personality.” Typical was the experience of one researcher, who arrived at the home of a farmer who had hidden dozens of Jews for years, and asked, pen poised to record an eloquent response, what made the farmer undertake such an extraordinary deed.

The man paused for a while and then slowly replied, “It wasn’t anything unusual. I saw somebody who needed help. So I helped.”

This response surfaced from the recesses of my mind last week, when I spent more than two hours at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, talking with the wife and son of Liviu Librescu. Marilena and Arye Librescu were accepting a Medal of Valor that evening on behalf of her husband and his father.

Professor Librescu, you recall, died while trying to protect his students at Virginia Tech from a lone gunman, who killed 32 people during an April 16 rampage. The 76-year-old aeronautical engineer was shot to death while trying to block a classroom door against the gunman, giving his students a chance to escape.

Librescu was an accomplished researcher and teacher, but “he was the most humble person I ever met,” said his son, Arye, who lives in Israel: “If my dad believed in doing something, he went ahead and did it, and he didn’t care what other people might say about it. What should be done had to be done, he felt. In that sense, he looked at life in black-and-white terms.”

Marilena Librescu, who like her husband spent some of the war years in the Ploesti ghetto in Romania, recalled how the then-12-year-old Liviu supported his mother by tutoring other children in math.

“He was a man who liked to help everybody,” she said. “I’ve had letters from his former students all over the world, and so many wrote, ‘I’ve lost my second father.'”

From the way Liviu Librescu lived and died, he reminded me instantly of the word-shy farmer — a quiet man who, as a matter of course, acted heroically. I use the word hero sparingly, for over the years, it has been cheapened by constant abuse and overuse.

For instance, I recently received a letter from a Jewish charity offering me the title of “hero” if I sent a check of $50 by return mail. But that’s only the most obscene example of the word’s corruption.

Most often, the term is applied to those serving in a country’s armed forces, particularly to (winning) generals who ply their trade in safe quarters well behind the frontlines.

Among favorite media clichés, besides “there are no atheists in foxholes,” is the reflexive labeling of anyone injured or killed during warfare as a “hero.”
I’ve served in three wars — as combat infantryman during World War II, as squad leader of an anti-tank unit in Israel’s War of Independence and in a cushy editor’s job during the Korean War — so trust me when I say that it’s all a crapshoot, and those who don’t come back in one piece or alive were simply unlucky or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I dare say that the same applies to the victims of mass persecutions, genocides and wars, from the Holocaust to Darfur. They suffer and continue to suffer terribly, but it was a passive fate imposed among them. No less an authority than Elie Wiesel told me, “It was pure chance who lived and who died in the camps.”

I propose abolishing the word “heroic” for all instances of purely physical courage and for most cases of moral courage. What I mean is that most everybody is capable, once in a lifetime, of taking a great physical risk or saying yes when everyone else is screaming no.

But to quietly risk your life day after day and, even more, to stand steadfastly against public opinion in wartime month after month, that alone deserves the appellation of heroism.

Surely, there are single individuals in every country and in every time who fit that description, but the only group of people who have fully lived up to that standard during my lifespan are the Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust era.

This in no way diminishes my admiration for the many thousands of brave Jews, from individuals in concentration camps to partisans who fought in the forests or the men and women of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.

What gives an extra measure of merit and gratitude to the non-Jews is that they were not bound to us by ties of kinship and common fate. They had a choice, and they chose to stand with us — and often to die with us.

At the Princeton conference, I met a Polish Catholic woman who worked as a maid in a house occupied by Nazi officers. In the basement of this house, she hid a small group of Jews. Day after day, she brought them scarce food, washed their clothes, removed their excrement, smuggled out their bodies when they died and buried them.

Would you be able to do the same? For myself and for 99.99 percent of the human race, the honest answer is a categorical no.

The tragic irony of a hero in Virginia

Irony. In a book or a movie, it’s the writer’s way of giving the observer a slap
in the face. People attempt to expect the unexpected, but when it actually happens no one is prepared.

When irony happens in real life it is usually so imaginative, not even the
greatest of writers could have come up with it. It is an event that comes as such a shock, it nearly knocks the wind out of you.

Irony can be cruel, sadistic, amazing or even beautiful. However, irony very rarely can be all of these things at once.

On April 16, 2007, 32 people were murdered and more than 20 others were left wounded in a shooting at a college in Virginia. Among the deceased was a 76-year-old professor named Liviu Librescu, who had survived both the Holocaust and the Romanian dictatorship that followed.

When the shooting broke out, professor Librescu barricaded the door in order to give his students a quick escape out a nearby window, away from the gunman. All of his students survived the attack, although he did not. Librescu died on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

When I first heard this man’s heroic story, I was instantly reminded of another. During Hebrew school in the seventh grade, I read a book called, “The Sunflower,” by Simon Wiesenthal. In his book, Wiesenthal talks to a former Nazi, who on his deathbed confessed countless atrocities against Jews during the war, seeking forgiveness.

One of the events the man told of was about a group of about 300 Jews who were forced into a building, which was then set on fire. When people attempted to jump out the windows, the Nazi soldiers were instructed to shoot.

The difference between these two events was that one of them had a hero. One of them had a single person who stepped up to save the lives of others. In one of these stories, the victims lived.

A hero died in one of these stories, and he died while a candle burned in the houses of millions of Jews all around the world, not yet knowing that it burned for him. A professor died protecting his students, never knowing that he would save their lives by sacrificing his own.

More than 12 million people died in the Holocaust, but Liviu Librescu lived. Why? Did he have some kind of skill that others did not? Did he possess the willpower when others gave up?

Or maybe there was something more planned for him. Maybe, instead of losing his life in a way that was out of his control, he lost his with heroic dignity.

What Liviu Librescu did made him a hero to more than just the students whose lives he saved. His death was cruel, sadistic and completely unfair, but it had a purpose. I never knew that tragic irony could be so beautiful.

Samantha Simons is a junior at El Camino Real High School and Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

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

Liviu Librescu z”l

Heroes and Villains

Brian Wilson penned the Beach Boys song “Heroes and Villains” during a turbulent, paranoia-filled time in his life, according to his biographers. Wilson had people
whom he trusted in the business, and others whom he felt were out to get him.

We all instinctively identify and label the heroes and villains in our lives, and Judaism supports the need for iconic heroes.

In Hollywood’s early days, the traditional villain was the hunched-over, mustachioed scofflaw sporting a black cape, while the hero was the pumped-up, 6-foot-3 blond hunk with gleaming-white teeth. And while today’s Hollywood has been mixing things by portraying schlubs as heroes (think “Shrek”), the Talmud states that a Torah scholar must be impeccably dressed. Furthermore, God will only allow prophecy to rest on someone who is “wise, strong, wealthy and tall.” In order for God to be well represented to his people, the messenger has to look like a mensch.

Moses didn’t appreciate this idea. When God first dispatched him to speak to the Jewish people, Moses tried to get out of it. He felt that no mortal could aptly represent God, and so God should represent Himself.

God disagreed. He taught Moses that the gap between man and God was too great at the outset of Jewish history. The people at the time were unsophisticated slaves who instead needed a heroic Moses as their icon of salvation.

God won the argument.

In last week’s portion, when Moses first spoke to the Jews about how God had sent him (the good guy) to defeat Pharaoh (the bad guy), they were very receptive and they believed him. But in Parshat Vaera, after Moses again complains about having to be the messenger, God teaches him a lesson.

“Therefore,” God says, “say to the Jewish people, ‘I am Y-H-V-H'” (Exodus 6:6).

God was saying: Moses, this time tell the Jews that the omnipotent and unknowable God will be taking them out of Egypt, and that it’s no longer about you, the hero, defeating Pharaoh, the villain.
And the second time out the Jews did not accept Moses’ words. “They did not listen to Moses from shortness of breath” (Exodus 6:9). They lacked the depth to appreciate a direct and ethereal encounter with God, sans the very tangible heroes and villains.

Therefore, it’s a bit surprising when the Talmud states that in the future, the Jewish Messiah will be a “poor man, riding on a donkey,” just as he is described in the book of Zachariah (9:9).
If it was so important during the Exodus that there be iconic heroes and villains, why is it now OK for the Messiah to look like such a nebbish?

Apparently, the Talmud feels that by the time the Messiah is ready to appear, the world will no longer be suckered in by external appearances. We will have evolved to a more mature appreciation of greatness, and our saviors will not have to look like Errol Flynn.

The Talmud also records a dialogue between the sage Shmuel and a powerful Persian ruler. The Persian asked Shmuel why the Jewish Messiah would be riding on a donkey.

“Allow me to provide him with a well-groomed Persian horse!” he mocked.

Shmuel responded, “Do you have a horse of a hundred colors?”

Shmuel says this because according to the Persian ruler’s superficial values, there is no horse in the world that would befit our leading man, the Messiah. So Shmuel’s doesn’t need the ruler’s horse or any other horse because when the Messiah comes we’ll be able to recognize him for what he is even without the clichéd symbols of heroism.

As human beings, we need icons to help us relate to God and the forces of good and evil. This, according to Moses Nachmanides, was why the Jews made the golden calf. Once they thought that their leader Moses was dead, they immediately had a need for a new intermediary icon to lead them through the desert.

Without black-and-white icons, life sometimes becomes too confusing and we lose our way. But, ultimately, we are meant to rise above the external images. We are to eventually become sophisticated enough to be able to recognize goodness and salvation even from the not-so-obvious sources.

So don’t be surprised when you meet the Messiah and discover “a poor man, riding on a donkey.” Or, maybe he’ll be short, bald and beardless, like Natan Sharansky. Who knows? I just hope I’m wise enough to recognize him when the time comes.

Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

In the ring, at the front, boxer Barney Ross packed a punch

“Barney Ross” by Douglas Century (Schocken and Nextbook, $19.95).

To many sports fans, Shawn Green remains the only recognizable Jewish professional athlete. Green follows a relatively short but impressive line of Jewish baseball stars, one every generation so it seems, kind of like the Jewish seat on the Supreme Court in the pre-Clinton era. For every Louis Brandeis, there was a Hank Greenberg. For every Felix Frankfurter, there was an Al Rosen.

But boxing, that most primal of all sports, was once rife with Jews. In “Barney Ross,” a biography of the eponymous 1930s boxing champion, author Douglas Century cites a stunning statistic — in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish. Given that Jews accounted then for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s population, that figure seems almost incomprehensible.

Yet it is true. What African Americans are to present-day basketball, Jews were to boxing in the period between the two World Wars.

Century, whose two previous books dealt with New York’s criminal underworld, is also Jewish. The 41-year-old, Canadian-born author said over the phone from New York that he grew up with “a pride in being Jewish” and heard stories from his uncles about the great Jewish boxers of the Depression era.

When Century was about 12, he said, he got his first pair of boxing gloves. He flailed them about as he watched Muhammad Ali’s classic fights with Leon Spinks in Ali’s waning days as heavyweight champion.

In “Barney Ross,” the third book in Schocken and Nextbook’s new Jewish Encounters Series — after Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” and Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland’s “Maimonides” — Century writes about classic fights from a much earlier era, the famous bouts pitting Ross against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Century devotes parts two and three of his slim, highly readable book to the legendary matches involving this troika of fighters, each representing his own immigrant community: one Jewish, one Italian and one Irish.

Century explained that he chose to write about Ross rather than, say, Benny Leonard, who is considered by most boxing scholars as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, because Ross transcended boxing and Jewishness.

Ross was not only a boxing champion. He was a Marine war hero at Guadalcanal, volunteering for the service at the relatively advanced age of 33 and winning a Silver Star for holding off a platoon of Japanese soldiers, while his fellow Marines lay dying or incapacitated. He ran guns to Israel and tried to set up a Jewish-American brigade to fight in the Middle East at the time of Israel’s War of Independence. He went public with a morphine addiction resulting from his war wounds and later, after overcoming his habit, became the poster boy for recovery from addiction. In short, he was both the most overtly Zionist and the most American of all Jewish athletes of that time.

Century has plumbed library archives and combed the Warren Commission report for fascinating testimony from Ross on the subject of childhood mate, Jack Ruby, who, before becoming infamous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, grew up with Ross in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, where they both ran errands for the mob. Century also spent much time interviewing Ross’ late brother, George, another prizefighter, who only recently died.

It is clear that Century loves his subject. That fact came through over the phone when he referred to the boxer almost intimately as “Barney,” as if the late fighter were a relative or long-lost friend. It also comes through in the text itself, which contains wonderfully lyrical passages.

When discussing Ross’ rope-jumping talents, Century writes that Ross was “doing skipping routines so intricate that the jump rope appeared to become a kind of hissing viper.”

He refers to Ross’ decision to join the Marines as “some jagged riddle resting in that smoke-filled interregnum between his championship reign and the return to America as a decorated war hero.”

Though the book features such lapidary strokes, it also seems to have been rushed to print. A good copy editor should have noticed a number of bad misspellings, including the last names of Clifford Odets and Martin Scorsese. Similarly, a good fact checker should have corrected such errors as Mushy Callahan, the junior welterweight champion, being referred to as a welterweight, or Jackie Fields, the welterweight champion, being hailed as champion of the lightweight division.

These mistakes aside, the book will restore the pride of many Jewish boys, who doubtless have no idea that Jews once presided over the lower weight classes of the sweet science.

On the phone, Century suggested that this might be a Zeitgeist moment for bringing back the Jewish fighters. He said this partly because of all the tough Israeli boxers coming to America. As part of his research for the book, Century trained with several Sephardic Israelis running a boxing gym in Hell’s Kitchen. The author, who said he has “delicate hands like a pianist,” could not throw a left hook. “They called me an uncoordinated Ashkenaz goof.”

In addition to the welcome infusion of Israeli immigrants, Century is comforted knowing that the Marines recently inducted Ross into their sports Hall of Fame and that there is talk of another movie based on Ross’ life (the first one, “Monkey on My Back,” was released in 1957). Even two recent books written about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights examine the prevalence of Jews as fighters, fight fans and fight managers in the Depression.

Jews may never again dominate a sport like they dominated boxing in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to note that that was the second great era of Jewish fighters, as Century nicely points out in his book. The first occurred in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Daniel Mendoza reigned. And before that, of course, there was Bar Kochba, Judah Maccabee, Samson and the greatest warrior of all, King David.

When it comes to fighting prowess, Jews may have a greater lineage than many of us ever realized.


For the Children

Emunah of America held a West Coast fundraiser recently to raise money for the residential homes and after-school programs to help Israel’s needy children .One of those children, Dvora, attended the elegant buffet dinner and silent art auction at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood.

Dvora, now a student of speech therapy at Tel Aviv University, grew up in Beit Elazraki in Netanya, a residential home for 180 children whose own parents couldn’t or didn’t want to care for them.

“I have broken the cycle of need,” Dvora told the crowd after a moving video that showed the children at the home and at Emunah’s other children’s programs. “I have managed to come out of this situation mature and successful, free of the terrible circle. My children will not have to suffer like me. They will not grow up in other people’s homes but in my own warm, loving home.”

Yehuda Kohn, director of Beit Elazraki, spoke of the baby brought in at 1 week old, with no name. He and his wife Ricky named him, and like they do with other children, will be surrogate parents, taking him to school, doctor appointments and birthday parties and tucking him in every night.

The Emunah benefit the first on the West Coast honored Celia Shire, who paid tribute to her late husband Harold.

The honorary chair of the event was Dr. Leila Bronner. Event chairs were: Dr. Gita Nagel, Marlene Einhorn, Sharon Katz, Rivki Mark, Mia Markoff, Fran Miller, Gittel Rubin and Elana Samuels. Emunah national president Heddy Klein attended.For more information or to volunteer, call (310) 837-1225 or visit

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Music to Our Ears: A True Hacham

Roughly 1,000 members of the local Iranian Jewish community crowded the main sanctuary at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills on June 11 for prayers marking the first anniversary of the passing of Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the late spiritual icon for Iranian Jews both in Iran and the United States. For nearly seven decades, Shofet, who died at 96, served both as a religious leader and as the liaison representing Iran’s Jewish community before the shah’s government in Iran. Shofet joined the thousands of Jews who left Iran following the 1979 Iranian revolution and in Southern California continued to serve as a religious leader for Iranian Jews living in America. Community leaders and close friends spoke of Shofet’s remarkable speaking ability and compassionate leadership style.

“Hacham Yedidia proved that he had the leadership ability to help maintain our sense of Judaism and the community warmly accepted him,” said Dr. H. Kermanshahchi, one of the founders of the Iranian American Jewish Federation.Last October, nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community formally recognized Shofet’s son, Rabbi David Shofet, as the community’s new spiritual leader.

Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Heroes Among Us

June 7 was a time to honor two community heroes as University Synagogue hosted its “Heroes Among Us” event honoring Susan Corwin with the inaugural Margaret Zaas Avodah Award for Community Service.

The award is named after Zaas, a local and beloved resident who dedicated her life to helping others and spent 16 years at New Directions, a residential rehabilitation program for homeless and addicted veterans.

Corwin initiated the Mitzvah Corps program at University Synagogue in 2002 and created programming that extends into the community, including a Shabbat shuttle and bikur cholim program. She has launched support groups for people with aging parents, a cancer survivors network, parents of special needs children and the gay and lesbian social outreach. Corwin is also the regional representative for the Los Angeles Area and Pacific Southwest Council of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The evening also honored Richard Weintraub as Educator of the Year for his long-standing history of working with and on behalf of youth at University Synagogue. Weintraub was the president of the California Council on Children and Youth and supervisor of the Dare Plus Program, an after-school program for at-risk youth.

The Sporting Life

One of the best things about the Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular event are the faces of the kids who attend the dinner. They can hardly contain their excitement at rubbing elbows with all their favorite athletes and more than 100 came to help.

Over the past 21 years, the event, which this year grossed more than $1.5 million, has raised more than $16 million in support of the Sports Spectacular Endowed Medical Genetics Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The VIP event before dinner allows the kids to meet their favorite sports heroes up close and personal and the goody bags, well they are indeed legendary. (Take it from someone who met Sandy Koufax there, I am still excited by the memory.)

This year’s honorees were Jerome Bettis of the Pittsburgh Steelers, tennis champion Jimmy Connors and professional surfer Kelly Slater. Al Michaels and John Salley were among the evening’s hosts. l

My Jewish King Kong

It’s a sunny winter day and a friend and I fear for our lives as my husband, Ron Magid, screeches our oversized Chrysler east down Sunset Boulevard. We’re speeding toward the ArcLight Cinemas and a press screening of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

The usually amiable Ron swears at traffic, and when we arrive an hour early, he leaves our pal, Freeman, and me in the dust.

“He’s running ahead, like a little kid,” Freeman muses as we breathlessly catch up, only to find the cinema’s massive glass doors locked.

It’s not surprising that my husband is the first in line at one of the earliest “Kong” press screenings. He’s loved the giant simian since he first watched the 1933 classic film on TV when he was 7. And not just because the giant ape kicked dinosaur a–, trashed Manhattan and chewed up both island natives and a native New Yorker.

“Kong in his own realm was king of the jungle, just like a little kid is king in his own imagination,” Ron recalls as we stand in the sunshine. But he was dethroned when he was captured, and tormented in the urban jungle of Manhattan. Ron relates because he was picked on in the urban jungle of school.

“I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” he says.

As a child, Ron didn’t understand that there also was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters and Kong.

Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes, such as murdering babies for their blood. Ron reminds me that while Bela Lugosi’s Dracula does kill for blood, the vampire considers this predilection (and his immortality) a curse. “To be dead, to be truly dead — that would be glorious,” he says in the 1931 film.

In the here and now, it’s a revenge of the nerds for 44-year-old Ron, as for so many other film geeks who grew up to help shape popular culture. He’s considered a top journalist on special effects and genre movies; Premiere hired him to write about why the original Kong is still king.

Not that Ron has anything against the new film or its director Peter Jackson. A few years ago, he personally bonded with the noted director, a fellow “Kong” enthusiast, after a Writers Guild screening of Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Jackson looked exhausted when viewers rushed him after the Q-and-A. But he brightened when my husband shook his hand, recalling how Ron and a friend had restored a 2 1/2-foot-long stegosaurus puppet from the original “Kong.” Jackson had later purchased the puppet for a rumored $250,000.

Back at the ArcLight for the press screening, we wait more than 20 minutes before the cinema’s doors finally swing open and we snag the best seats in the house. Before long, a regiment of movie journalists surround Ron, because he co-authored (with Phil Savenick) the documentaries that are included on Jackson’s restored DVD versions of 1933’s “Kong.”

“I just geeked out,” Chris Gore, the founder and former editor of Film Threat magazine, gushes about the documentary featurettes. “I thought I knew everything about ‘King Kong,’ because I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, but I was wrong.”

Clearly in his element, Ron promptly regales this mini-throng with tales about the original movie. He recounts how the 1933 film’s producer and director were themselves intrepid explorers who shot documentaries in distant lands. A fellow explorer inspired them to make the giant ape flick when he captured a Komodo dragon and brought it back, Kong-style, to New York, where it languished and died in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

The original Kong may appear to be an uberbeast, but he was in reality an 18-inch-tall stop-motion puppet — a fact the studio kept secret to ensure viewers were properly terrified.

Despite special effects that are crude by today’s standards, the original Kong arguably reigns supreme because of his “performance,” which renders him an iconic tragic hero. Animator Willis O’Brien was somehow able to channel his personal angst into the character. His unstable wife — who had attempted suicide twice in the 1920s — suffered from cancer and tuberculosis as well as ongoing mental illness during the production. (Soon after the release of “Kong,” she fatally shot the couple’s two children at her Westwood apartment.)

At this point, the ArcLight conversation turns to movie child murderers, such as Peter Lorre’s creepy character in 1930s “M,” as everyone munches oversized buckets of popcorn.

“Ron finds monsters like Kong comforting because the real-life ones are far worse,” says Freeman, offering some freelance psychotherapy between bites.

But he’s on to something. Ron was shaken, as a child, to learn of the pogroms endured by his Polish and Latvian grandmothers; one had witnessed her mother being pushed down the stairs. And he happened to learn about the Holocaust, at Sinai Temple’s religious school, around the time he first saw “Kong” at age 7.

“I had a bit of a persecution complex to begin with and then I found out that being Jewish would make me even more of a target,” he says. Just as Jewish artists created Superman during the Shoah, Ron wished for a Kong-like superhero to stomp out anti-Semites (as well as the schoolyard bullies).

Kong, like many classic monsters, was “unloved and misunderstood,” Ron adds. His blue eyes tear up as he describes Frankenstein’s monster as “an abused child.”

Frankenstein was the first model kit he built, at age 5; two years later came Kong, who was bigger, more intricate and expensive ($1.49 instead of $.99 at a hobby shop on Pico Boulevard). After completing the figure, he scoured the TV Guide for a screening of the film, which helped spur him to meticulously research monster movies and moviemaking. He’d pull a book from under his covers at bedtime, and read with the help of light filtering into his dark bedroom from the hall. At the same time he was parlaying his allowance into what would become a prodigious collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia.

His therapy was his obsession; his obsession became his outlet; his outlet became his professional art and craft. How Jewish is that?

Ron is happy that the new “Kong” is getting Oscar consideration. And he drinks up the good notices for the DVDs of the 1933 version.

Nothing, though, will change him from the boy who loved to collect monsters.

Freeman, a movie poster and prop dealer, wants to know how Ron got his “Kong” props: spears, drums and shields as well as fellow simians from “Planet of the Apes” (Zira and Cornelius figures stand in our bedroom).

Ron replies that he bought them for bupkis two decades ago from propmasters at Culver Studios, who were about to throw them in the trash. Ron will never part with them, nor the luridly colorful press-book cover of 1933’s Kong rampaging across Manhattan, which dominates our dining room.

Ron is sure he’ll like the Jackson film, but for him, nothing will dethrone the original.

“The hat trick of that movie is that the filmmakers don’t do the clichéd things to make the character beloved to the audience,” he says as the theater lights dim. “He rages, has no regard for humanity, and every character despises him, even Fay Wray. The only people who love the original Kong are the audience members.”

And Ron perhaps most of all.

The 1933 “King Kong Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD and the “Collector’s Edition” are available in stores.


War Hero’s Medal Wait Finally Ends

Next Friday, as Tibor Rubin enters the White House, generals will stand at rigid attention. The president of the United States also will rise and then drape the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for gallantry in combat, around the neck of the 76-year-old Holocaust survivor and Korean War veteran.

Rubin and a legion of supporters have waited almost 55 years for this triumph of camaraderie and persistence over both bureaucratic lethargy and the prejudice endured by so many old-time Jewish GIs.

Rubin still does not know precisely which of his wartime feats met the standard of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, in actual combat against an enemy armed force.”


He guesses it might have been the time he secured a route of retreat for his company by single-handedly defending a hill for 24 hours against waves of North Korean soldiers.

All told, his commanding officers and fellow soldiers recommended him for the Medal of Honor for his deeds performed on no less than four occasions. He also was recommended two times for the Distinguished Service Cross and twice for the Silver Star.

Had he received all these awards, he would have become the most decorated American veteran of the Korean War. What he actually got were two Purple Hearts for combat wounds and a 100 percent disability rating.

Rubin, known as “Tibi” to his Hungarian childhood friends and “Ted” to his Army buddies, was born in Paszto, a Hungarian shtetl of 120 Jewish families, the son of a shoemaker and one of six children. At age 13, he was transported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he was liberated two years later by American troops. His parents and two sisters perished in the Holocaust.

He came to the United States in 1948, settled in New York and worked first as a shoemaker and then as a butcher.

“I was a handsome dog in those days, and the ladies who worked with me always brought me lunch,” he recalled.

In 1949, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, both as a possible shortcut to American citizenship and, he hoped, to attend the Army's butcher school in Chicago. Knowing hardly any English, he flunked the language test, but tried again in 1950 and passed, with some help from two fellow test takers.

In July of that year, Pfc. Rubin found himself fighting on the front lines of Korea with I Company of the 8th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. There he encountered the terror of I Company: 1st Sgt. Artice V. Watson, who, from numerous descriptions, could have been modeled on the sadistic 1st Sgt. Rickett in Irwin Shaw's “The Young Lions.”

Watson was reputedly a vicious anti-Semite, who consistently “volunteered” Rubin for the most dangerous patrols and missions, according to lengthy affidavits submitted by nearly a dozen men — mostly self-described “country boys” from the South and Midwest.

The bravery displayed by Rubin during such missions so impressed two commanding officers that they recommended him three times for the Medal of Honor. Both officers were soon afterward killed in action, but not before telling Watson to initiate the necessary paperwork to secure the medals for Rubin. Some of the men in Rubin's company were present when Watson was ordered to put in for the medals, and all are convinced that he deliberately ignored the orders.

“I believe in my heart that 1st Sgt. Watson would have jeopardized his own safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the medal to a person of Jewish descent,” Cpl. Harold Speakman wrote in a notarized affidavit.

Toward the end of October 1950, massive Chinese troop concentrations crossed the border into North Korea and attacked the unprepared Americans. After most of his regiment had been wiped out, the severely wounded Rubin was captured and spent the next 30 months in a prisoner of war camp.

Faced with constant hunger, filth and disease, most of the GIs simply gave up.

“No one wanted to help anyone. Everybody was for himself,” wrote Sgt. Leo A. Cormier Jr., a fellow prisoner.

But not Rubin. Almost every evening, he would sneak out of the camp to steal food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots, understanding that he would be shot if caught.

“He shared the food evenly among the GIs,” Cormier wrote. “He also took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine…. He did many good deeds, which he told us were 'mitzvahs' in the Jewish tradition…. He was a very religious Jew, and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him.”

Survivors of the camp credited Rubin with keeping 35 to 40 of their number alive and recommended him for the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star.

Cpl. Leonard Hamm of Indiana wrote the Army that Rubin had saved his life, both on the battlefield and in the camp. He went on to upbraid the Pentagon for its “degrading and insulting treatment” of “one of the greatest men I have ever known, and definitely one of the greatest heroes in this nation's history.”

Sgt. Carl McClendon, another soldier saved by Rubin, wrote, “He [Rubin] had more courage, guts and fellowship than I ever knew anyone had. He is the most outstanding man I ever met, with a heart of gold. Tibor Rubin committed every day bravery that boggles the mind. How he ever came home alive is a mystery to me.”

For some 30 years after his discharge, Rubin lived quietly in a small house in Garden Grove, with his wife, Yvonne, a Dutch Holocaust survivor. The couple reared two children, Frank, an Air Force veteran, and a daughter, Rosalyn.

In 1953, Rubin finally got his American citizenship. He tried to resume his old job as a butcher, but a combination of crippling afflictions, traceable to his war wounds, forced him to quit.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Rubin's old Army buddies started protesting the Army's inaction in recognizing the man who had saved so many of their lives.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) introduced a special bill on Rubin's behalf in 1988. Former GOP Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Orange County also pleaded for recognition of his constituent. In addition, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) kept badgering the Pentagon.

“From his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp to his valor in Korea, Tibor Rubin never wavered in his fight against tyranny and injustice,”Wexler said. “It is unconscionable that the Pentagon overlooked his acts of heroism for more than 50 years.”

The Jewish War Veterans organization has championed Rubin's cause for many years, and at one point, collected 42,000 signatures on a petition presented to President Ronald Reagan.

But nothing appeared to penetrate the bureaucratic indifference.

Then in the mid-90s, the U.S. military, now a model equal-opportunity employer, finally responded to persistent criticism that it had consistently squelched recommendations for high medal awards to minority soldiers who served during World War II and the Korean War.

In 1996, the Pentagon belatedly awarded Medals of Honor to 21 Japanese American and other Asian American veterans, and eight to former African American servicemen, who were institutionally segregated during World War II.

In 2001, Congress passed a bill providing for a review of selected Jewish veterans, known as the Leonard Kravitz Jewish War Veterans Act. Kravitz, the uncle and namesake of rock musician Lenny Kravitz, was killed manning his lone machine gun against attacking Chinese troops during the Korean War, allowing the rest of his platoon to retreat in safety.

Years ago, Kravitz was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but the award was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest decoration.

Under the terms of the Kravitz Act, a list containing the names and wartime records of 138 Jewish veterans was sent to the Pentagon. All the men listed had received the Service Cross from one of the military branches. The exception was Rubin, though his file was the thickest of all.

There's still work to do in reviewing such records. Last week, following receipt of a request for information, U.S. Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins said that the Army had contracted with the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress for a three-year review of the records of the Jewish servicemen on the list, and for a similar review of Latino American veterans. Robbins said she expected a report on the results later this year.

Still, there was no doubt about Rubin or any need to make him wait any longer. He becomes the 15th Jewish recipient of the Medal of Honor since it was instituted during the Civil War by an act of Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, according to archivist Pamela Elbe of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

His first notice of the award came on July 27, when a White House aide called the house in Garden Grove early in the morning and asked for Rubin. His wife said that he was still asleep, but woke him at the caller's insistence.

“The man said that President Bush had just signed the order for my Medal of Honor,” Rubin recalled. “I was thinking, 'b——-' and went back to sleep.”

A little while later, the aide called again to ask what date would be convenient for Rubin to meet with the president. Gradually, Rubin started to believe.

“It would have been nice if they had given me the medal when I was a young, handsome man,” Rubin mused. “It would have opened a lot of doors.”

Nevertheless, ex-Cpl. Rubin is deeply impressed that high brass now must, according to military protocol, address him as “mister” or “sir,” and that he will have an escort of a major and a master sergeant on his way to Washington.

Furthermore, when he wears his medal, tradition requires that even five-star generals salute him and that the president of the United States stand when Rubin enters a room.

He is bound to get a lot of salutes at the White House, and later that day in a ceremony at the Pentagon, hosted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Rubin is allowed to invite 200 guests for the White House ceremony, and among them will be the survivors of his old company and their families. There will also be relatives, but Rubin doubts that his cousins in Israel will be able to make it.

Although he usually says what's on his mind, Rubin promises to be on his best behavior at the White House and Pentagon: “My wife told me to be very humble, very nice.”

When Rubin was interviewed three years ago, he told this reporter, “I want this recognition for my Jewish brothers and sisters. I want the goyim to know that there were Jews over there, that there was a little greenhorn, a little shmuck from Hungary, who fought for their beloved country.”

Times have changed.

“Now,” said Rubin with a self-deprecating laugh, “It's Mister Shmuck, the hero.”


African Shoah Lives in ‘Hotel Rwanda’


When British actress Sophie Okonedo portrayed the wife of a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 people during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, she worked with 10,000 extras — including Rwandan refugees living in Johannesburg. Some agreed to be in “Hotel Rwanda’s” harrowing scene showing Rwandan women naked, caged and cowering, waiting to be raped.

“Some of those women had been through that. You don’t quite think about your film in the same way,” said Okonedo, born in England to a Nigerian father and Jewish mother.

The two-hour, PG-13 film, which opened Wednesday in Los Angeles, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who, in April 1994, sheltered 1,268 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus marked for death by Hutu extremists. The extremists were responsible for the machete murders of almost 1 million Rwandans, a slaughter that world leaders ignored.

A British-Italian-South African co-production, “Hotel Rwanda” earned a People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, plus three Golden Globe nominations. It was screened earlier this fall at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Financing for the film’s $20 million production budget came partly from Israel’s Bank Leumi, and one-third of the funds came from government financing in South Africa, where most of the film was shot.

As Rwanda’s genocide progressed, the United Nations and the Clinton administration downplayed the genocide, dismissing news reports of mass slaughter and delaying the dispatch of troops to stop it. Unlike the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide was broadcast worldwide, and “Hotel Rwanda” has re-ignited decade-old feelings of shame among European and U.S. film patrons over how their nations refused to intervene.

“We have seen this film before. It could have easily been Poland in 1940 with Jews,” said Rachel Jagoda, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust director who saw an advance screening of the film. “The faces, the ethnicities, the landscape change, but the story is the same.”

“The biggest difference, of course, is the rate at which the genocide occurred,” Jagoda said. “It took 12 years to murder 6 million Jews in Europe. It took 100 days to murder almost 1 million people in Rwanda.”

Okonedo agreed, saying, “It wouldn’t have taken very much to stop the genocide. These people were slaughtered with machetes.”

Character actor Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu whose compassion turns the elegant, Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines into a rare Tutsi haven. His performance earned him a Golden Globe best actor nomination, alongside nominations for best dramatic picture and original song.

“Hotel Rwanda” executive producer Hal Sadoff, whose great-grandparents fled Ukrainian anti-Semitism, worked on the film’s financing with fellow executive producer Martin Katz, a Jewish Canadian.

“It’s a topic that has not really been publicized in the U.S.; people are ready today to look at it,” said Sadoff, who also handled financing for “House of Sand and Fog.” “There are a lot of Holocaust scripts around. But this script — it was so well written and so commercial and although it was set within this horrible tragedy — it was really about human relationships.”

Known to independent film audiences for her role in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things,” Okonedo’s prominent “Hotel Rwanda” part as Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, is key. Her simple desire to save her family gives filmgoers a way to comprehend the seemingly superhuman compassion of her otherwise ordinary husband.

“The biggest leap for me was to become a Rwandan housewife, because it was completely opposite my upbringing,” Okonedo told The Journal in a telephone interview.

The real Paul Rusesabagina fled Rwanda with his wife, three children and two nieces and resettled in Belgium, where he runs a trucking company and served as the film’s consultant.

Okonedo, who researched her role at the Berlin Holocaust Museum, said meeting the couple was “quite overwhelming at first, and it was quite frightening. He’s almost a kind of an accidental hero. These people were still living and getting on with their lives. It’s always extraordinary when you see survivors.”

Despite the horrific subject matter, the film’s singular focus is on Rusesabagina, an ordinary hotel manager, trying to protect his family and 1,200-plus people. Because of this emphasis, Okonedo finished the film with some hope.

“These people, Paul and Tatiana, they just kept going through all this mayhem, and they didn’t fall apart,” she said. “So many of the films at the moment are about superpeople, superlawyers, superdetectives and spies. I’m just quite interested in the ordinary Joe, and the ordinary often has extraordinary tales to tell.”


Herzl’s Heirs

Years ago I wrote a novel.

I don’t remember how many years ago, but I began it on a typewriter, so you do the math.

I was in my early 20s and living in Israel, and it’s barely an exaggeration to say I was touched by everything I saw and moved by everyone I met.

This was the plot of my novel: The great-great grandson of modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, travels to Israel to discover the reality of the land Herzl only dreamt of. (Not exactly John Grisham, but what it lacked in plot, character and language, it made up for in page length.)

In reality, Herzl did not have a great-great grandchild. He fantasized about founding a dynasty that would someday rule benevolently over a Jewish state. In 1895, when his child Hans was 4, he imagined that his son would be crowned like a Venetian doge as ruler of Jerusalem. But the Herzl line ended before Israel even became a state, proving perhaps that it easier to will a new nation than a happy family.

When I came across this set of facts, it struck me that the fall of the house of Herzl might be a heavy portent of what was in store for his other progeny, the State of Israel. It was clear that, as with many great leaders, Herzl was better at raising consciousness than children. "I married in 1889 and have three children, one boy and two girls," he wrote in a diary. "According to my opinion they are neither ugly nor stupid. But, of course, I may be mistaken."

While Herzl was otherwise engaged in becoming our national hero, his own family languished — victims of neglect, mental illness and the tragic Jewish history Herzl sought to change. After he died — 100 years ago this week on July 3, 1904 — the family Herzl really fell to pieces. His emotionally abandoned wife Julie turned to opium. Pauline, their firstborn, died young after a scandalous marriage. Hans, who had become Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian and then Quaker, shot himself in the head the day after his sister’s funeral. Trude, Herzl’s youngest, married an industrialist, Richard Neumann, and bore Herzl his only grandchild, Richard Neumann. After spending much of her adult life in a series of asylums, Trude’s life ended at Theresienstadt concentration camp, where, according to researcher Uriya Shavit, she told her captors, "I am Herzl’s daughter. I wish to establish special, personal contact with the highest Jewish authorities."

Trude’s son Stefan was educated in England. In September 1946, he visited Palestine, where he was indeed treated like royalty, but he rejected entreaties to remain there. He moved to Washington, D.C., to serve in the British diplomatic corps. Two months later, Herzl’s last heir jumped off a bridge to his death.

My novel conjectured that Stefan, through an illicit romance, kept the family line going, and the result was one last descendent, a dissolute, disaffected young man named Steven Newman.

In my book, Steven finds pleasure everywhere but satisfaction nowhere so, on a whim, he takes off for Israel. He meets up with a conniving, blustering Israeli who, against his wishes, publicizes Steven’s identity. Israelis of all political and religious stripes descend upon Steven, imploring him to support their vision as The One that Herzl intended. Steven takes off to find the real Israel but, following a series of misadventures, finds himself a pariah in the Jewish state.

The novel turns out to be Steven’s long letter to Herzl, written from an Israeli jail cell. Israeli authorities have arrested Steven for helping a middle-aged Palestinian American woman, Nadia Tannenbaum, return to the West Bank and claim her ancestral home. Steven, the disaffected descendent of an ardent nationalist, finally enters history as an ardent nationalist — on the other side. "It was obvious a person like Nadia would never stop striving for what she wanted," Steven writes to his long-dead ancestor, then throws one of Herzl’s own quotes back at him: "Every vassal thinks only of how to become independent."

OK, it’s not a great book. But I will take credit for imagining acts of widespread Palestinian rebellion several years before the first intifada broke out. The writing was on the wall even then, and it was Herzl’s. To a European newspaper editor who claimed Jews no longer even existed as a nation, Herzl famously answered, "La preuve c’est que j’en suis," — the proof of their existence is that I am one of them. In my novel, Jews and Palestinians both claim ownership over that line.

A couple of days ago I dug the novel out of a box in the bottom of a storage unit and reacquainted myself with Theodor Herzl and the great-great grandson he never had. Alas, there is not much to recommend my unpublished novel other than as an artifact of youthful moral indignation. The reality of Israel finally kicks the aloofness out of Steven. He is enraged both by those myopic Jews and those militant Palestinians who think the other side would forgo its own quest for independence. But unlike his ancestor he offers no solutions, he has no answers, he has no clue how the Zionist movement will play out in history. Will both sides, locked in constant battle, fight themselves into worthless exhaustion? Will the Arab population, even within Israel, eventually make a binational state inevitable? Will two sovereign nations live peacefully side by side? Steven has no clue, and 100 years after Herzl’s death, neither does anyone else.

But let Herzl have the last word on this. "Nothing happens as one fears," he wrote, "nor as one hopes."

Different Heroes

“Od lo avda tikvataynu.”

A poster of Moshe Dayan hung in my childhood bedroom. Growing up in the light of the Six-Day War, I adored this new Jewish hero — tough, cocky, a Jew without fear. A generation later, we venerated Yitzchak Rabin — the warrior peacemaker, the realistic visionary, the taciturn prophet. This year, I celebrate a different kind of hero and a different kind of courage.

Every Israeli child knows someone who has been killed. Every child has a cousin or a playmate, a teacher or a neighbor who has been killed or maimed during the onslaught of terror. For every fatality, there are dozens who are brutally wounded, and hundreds of traumatized family, friends and neighbors.

What happens to kids 9, 10, 11 years old who are attending funerals on a regular basis? Or who are regularly visiting friends in the hospital trauma center? What part of their childhood is lost? What part of their innocence is betrayed? What happens to parents who want to protect their children, but there’s nothing they can do? The teacher of my friend’s 12-year-old daughter was killed in one of the bombings. My friend went into her bedroom that night to console her.

She looked at him with eyes suddenly so much older and said, “Don’t worry, Abba. I understand.”

Such is life in Israel these days.

Purim in Israel was different this year. Usually, a Mardi Gras delirium takes hold of the country for a day or two. Streets fill with costumed Queen Esthers and righteous Mordecais, as well as species of Spider-Man and Superman. Shopkeepers offer each passerby a “L’chaim!” Everyone has a party to attend. This year, however, security officials requested that masks not be worn on the streets and in public places, and that costumes remain simple, for fear that terrorists might take the opportunity and turn a festival of joy into an eruption of destruction. Such is life in Israel these days.

But there were masks — gas masks. Fearing the poisonous intentions of Saddam, Israelis were once again issued gas masks — even small children — and ordered to prepare sealed rooms in their homes and businesses. So Holocaust survivors must watch their children and grandchildren prepare to meet poisonous gas attacks. Such is life in Israel these days.

We think of heroism in flashing images of courage and daring: A Queen Esther or Judah Maccabee who risks it all to save the people. There is another image of heroism. It is the heroism of sustained resilience. There is heroism in a tenacity of conviction facing a steady surge of evil, rising and falling like the tide, but — like the tide — never subsiding. Perhaps this is a more authentically Jewish form of heroism: the steadfast refusal to surrender to the darkness, to collapse into despair — the refusal to give up the dream.

This week’s Torah reading begins: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him” (Leviticus 21:1).

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, read the verse as a warning against the defilement of the soul. The soul is defiled, its essence violated, when it is infected with the bitterness and rage that comes with senseless suffering and tragedy. Ironically, only those who hold out faith that human existence is ultimately meaningful are susceptible to this bitterness. One who believes that life is absurd and meaningless is never disappointed, never shaken. Without expectations or dreams, he knows no tragedy. The Ishbitzer taught that those who — like the priests, sons of Aaron — would serve God, are commanded to find the resources to resist the defilements of despair and darkness. Despair is the ultimate denial of God; surrender to darkness, the ultimate blasphemy.

This week, we celebrate the heroes who have given us the miracle of the State of Israel. We also celebrate those whose names are not listed in books or commemorated on plaques — heroes of resilience and resolution who cling to our ancient dream despite the relentless tide of evil. Od lo avda tikvataynu. For their sake, we haven’t lost our hope.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

A Hero for Seder

I don’t remember how long ago it was that Michael visited Los Angeles. Fifteen years? Twenty? I do remember that I was driving him around the city when he said, “Could you stop the car for a moment? I would like to photograph this.”

I was puzzled. “Photograph what?” I asked.

There was nothing remarkable that I could see. Michael laughed.

“The street sign, of course. They named a street after me.”

Sure enough. There it was. Sherbourne Drive. I am certain that whoever named it had never heard of Michael Sherbourne. A pity. He deserves having a street named after him.

Later that day, he told me of another honor.

“I am probably the only Jew who was promoted to a member of the British nobility by a communist newspaper,” he said.

In the 1970s, Pravda, the major Soviet newspaper, ran a lengthy editorial about that “Zionist provocateur and a typical representative of the rotten British ruling class, Lord Sherbourne.” Michael never asked Pravda for a correction. The truth is that Michael’s father, who escaped from czarist Russia to England, was a sailor on a British merchant vessel in 1914, when England went to war with Germany. The other sailors gave him a hard time because they though he was German — his name was something like Ginsburg or Friedman. When the ship returned, Michael’s father got a copy of “Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage,” a listing of all the titled names, found a name he liked and had his name changed to the, oh-so-very British Sherbourne.

Michael and his wife went to a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s. He joined the navy when war broke out and later ended up teaching French and metal shop at a London high school. It was there that he accepted a challenge that changed his life. A colleague sneered at French as a language. It was too easy, he said.

“Now Russian is a tough language. I bet you couldn’t learn Russian,” he taunted.

Michael smiles when he tells the story.

“It was tougher than I thought,” he said. “I was in my 40s by then, and I almost gave up a few times. But I did it eventually.”

He did indeed. Last time I saw him was in London in 1999. My formerly Muscovite wife Ella, Michael and I were having a sandwich in a London deli, with Michael chatting away in pure and fluent Russian with Ella. She asked him if he liked Russian literature and what he thought about the great Russian poet Pushkin.

“Pushkin?” Michael said. “I love Pushkin. His poetry is like music. Just listen.”

And then he began reciting “Evgeny Onegin,” chapter after chapter, by heart, without a pause.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the Soviet Jewry movement in the West was born as a reaction to Soviet anti-Semitism, Michael became the voice of the Jews in the West to the refuseniks and activists in the USSR. He made hundreds, maybe thousands of phone calls in Russian to the Jews who didn’t know whether their voices were being heard in the West. He knew the phone numbers and names of all of them — all the activists who were harassed, arrested, tried and sentenced by the authorities who couldn’t understand what motivated the handful of Jews to fight the Soviet superpower. He was the indirect conduit and lifeline to thousands of others. The information he gathered helped us fight the Soviet Jewry battle in the West.

He used different names, but the authorities knew who he was. An operator in Moscow told him so when he pretended to be a Russian engineer calling from Dnepropetrovsk.

“We know who you are, Mr. Sherbourne,” she laughed.

Michael called me a few months ago to tell me that he was coming to spend the Passover with his granddaughter who lives in Washington, D.C.

“Why don’t you come and join us for a Russian seder in Los Angeles,” I asked.

Michael was surprised.

“A Russian seder?” he asked.

I explained that Los Angeles has been celebrating Passover with a community seder for the last 10 years. It started out as a joint project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres. We produced a Russian-language haggadah; invited Svetlana Portnyansky, a major international singing star to serve as our cantor, and I appointed myself to conduct the evening. The first year about 150 people showed up. They were senior citizens with vague childhood memories of Passover. As time went on, attendance grew and more younger people and children came. For the last three years, we had to have it on both nights to accommodate the more than 600 people. This year we held it at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on April 16 and 17.

There was a moment of silence on the line.

“A Russian seder? Really?” And then, “I would love to come.”

And so, on April 17, Michael had a chance to take a look at what the challenge by a colleague 35 years ago had wrought.

I wish I could add “Michael” to the Sherbourne Drive street sign so that there really would be a street here named after him. He deserves it. And he doesn’t need to be a real lord to be one of the noblest men I have ever known.

Our Eternal Light

In every generation, there is one special individual whose
life and deeds are a living, shining reflection of the Torah’s commandment to
“bring clear illuminating olive oil to keep the lamp constantly burning.” This
generation’s ner tamid (eternal light) is Col. Ilan Ramon, z”l. My personal
story will tell you why I characterize him as an eternal light.

It was Jan. 16, and all day long, my 6-year-old daughter,
Shira, went around school telling her friends that her “brother,” Ilan, had
gone up into space that morning. Shira came to school late that day, because
our family sat around the television watching Jewish history being made. What
was most exciting to Shira was the fact that the astronaut with the Israeli
patch on his shoulder had the same name as her own little brother, Ilan. For
the next two weeks, I would ask Shira, “Where’s Ilan?” and her answer was,
“Daddy, you know he’s up in space right now.”

Three years earlier, Shira met Ilan Ramon. Our family sat
together with him and his wife, Rona, at a brunch honoring Machal veterans from
Israel’s War of Independence. His wife sat with my wife, Peni. At the time,
Peni was pregnant with our son — whom we would eventually name Ilan. After I
introduced Col. Ramon to the gathering as a new hero of Israel, and as a
much-needed positive, inspirational role model for today’s youth, his opening
remarks were, “Rabbi Bouskila, the true heroes of Israel are those seated in
this room today, who came from all over the Diaspora to fight for Israel in
1948. They are the heroes that I only heard about growing up in Israel, and
today they serve as my inspirational role models. I consider my standing in
their presence, as an Israeli pilot and Israel’s first astronaut, to be a
greater miracle than space travel itself.”

Words of humility spoken by a true ambassador of the Jewish
people. He then approached my wheelchair-bound father, also a veteran of the
1948 war, grasped his hand and said, “Thank you very much for helping to
provide a homeland for me. I will be proud to represent you in space.”

Words of respect spoken by a true mensch. His kindness
brought tears to my father’s eyes. On Feb 1, Ramon’s tragic death did the same.

Today, I struggle with my grief for Ramon as the
“international hero” and for Ramon as the man who my family and I were
privileged to meet, break bread with and get to know personally.

But beyond the grief, I see light. I look up into the vast
heavens, and in a world that so often hovers with darkness and evil, I see the
eternal flame of Ramon’s positive message of goodwill, for Israel and for all
of humanity, shining brightly as an inspiration for all of us. I look at
Ramon’s photograph, and I see a living ner tamid.

Why is olive oil the oil of choice to kindle the ner tamid?
Because of its clarity and purity. That is why Ramon was Israel’s pilot of
choice to represent us in space. Every pilot has 20/20 vision, but Ramon’s
clarity and vision went far beyond that which the naked eye can see. He had a
“spiritual 20/20 vision,” which is what made him so different and so unique.
Purity? The personal humility and respect for elders that he demonstrated the
morning I met him are the ultimate expressions of purity — purity of character
and purity of the heart.

Rashi explains that a true ner tamid is created by “kindling
a flame, until the flame rises by itself.” Ramon kindled a flame in every
Jewish heart that will continue to rise by itself every day, year after year,
within the hearts, minds and consciousness of the Jewish people everywhere. A
ner tamid is an eternal symbol of light and inspiration. That is Ilan Ramon.

For my daughter, Shira, the name Ilan had special meaning
because it is the name of her brother. For all of us, the name Ilan — Ilan
Ramon — will always have special meaning, because he is our collective brother.

On Jan. 16, our brother, Ilan, went up into space. Two weeks
later — and forever — his spirit will remain there, as a true ner tamid shining
brightly for all of us to see.

God bless you, Ilan, our brother in space. 

Light From Sorrow

As an aerospace writer, I have watched 87 crews slip the
bonds of Earth’s gravity and rocket away into space.

The tension is tangible each time the laws of physics are
put to the test. On Saturday, out of the blue, we all learned a cruel lesson
about the speed, heat and friction that can prove fatal upon return to the
planet, as well. Being Jewish and having parents in Israel brought this crew
closer to me.

Jews have flown in space before, of course. David Wolf lived
on the Russian Mir space station; Jeff Hoffman took a menorah to space during
one of his shuttle missions; Judy Resnik died aboard the Challenger. But none
of these people flew with the Star of David on their arm patch. None spoke
Hebrew, asked for kosher food or chatted with the prime minister of Israel from

Ilan Ramon’s inclusion on the Columbia crew electrified
Jews, secular and religious alike. His death, mercifully not at the hands of
terrorists, snatched a hero away before he could be welcomed home.

During his blissful 16 days in space, Ramon commented about
how beautiful, how thin and how fragile the atmosphere appears from orbit. How
it needs to be cared for.

How ironic that what he spent his time in space studying was
ultimately responsible for his death.

I feel sadness for all the crew members, but thinking of
Ramon brings tears to my eyes.

I can relate to that star on his patch; I know why NASA
managers broke their self-imposed pledge not to discuss crew remains when an
Israeli journalist, intent and focused, pointedly asked about how Ramon’s
remains would be handled.

Jews have different laws, traditions and customs for
handling the deceased. NASA said these would be honored and they were working
with the Israeli government to ensure that.

Saturday was a day without hours, just one continuum that
ended with my 11-year-old son in my arms in my bed.

I forced myself not to think about Rona Ramon and her
fatherless children, ages 14, 12, 9 and 5. I tell my son that the astronauts
died doing what they wanted to do, what made them feel most alive.

“You mean they wanted to die?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “They wanted to live and they knew that what
they were doing was more dangerous than some jobs. More people die every day in
car crashes than flying in space,” I added.

We cannot control how and when we die. We can try to
postpone the inevitable with healthy diet, exercise, cancer screenings, seat
belts and motorcycle helmets, but largely our time on Earth is beyond our

What we can choose is how we live.

When I first started covering space in 1987, I had no idea
it would become a passion. The ideals, people and practices of space flight are
valuable lessons and examples for any endeavor and it speaks volumes of Ramon
that he found a home at NASA.

His being Jewish didn’t matter. His being Israeli didn’t
matter. What mattered was his ability to work as a member of a team. In return,
he was given the opportunity to look physically at the world as a global being.
The fact that he did not make it home does nothing to diminish what he
accomplished personally and on behalf of Israel.

My son said his “Shema” that night, then we pulled out a
prayer book and read the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” It didn’t feel complete, so I
read the translation in English. That, too, fell short. Then I found this by
Morris Adler:

“Out of love may come sorrow; but out of sorrow can come
light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others
will come light for ourselves — the light of solace, of strength, of transfiguring.”

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Â

Irene Brown is a Florida-based freelance writer, specializing in space, science and technology.

We Soared With Ilan

Yuval Rotem, Israeli consul general for the Western United
States, delivered these remarks at a Feb. 1 dinner for Pressman Academy,
honoring him and his wife, Miri, at the Airport Westin Hotel.

A verse in the Bible reads, “I am ready to stop, and my pain
is continually before me.”

Ladies and gentleman, it truly has become too hard for us
–for our people. This was supposed to have been an escape from the pain. An
escape from the fear and the anguish. An escape into space.

This was supposed to have been the dream of our entire
nation. A dream imagined 60 years ago by a young Jewish boy named Peter Ginz.
Trapped in Europe by the horrors of the Holocaust, Peter drew a picture that he
titled “Moon Landscape.” It was his vision of escape to another world.

Peter was not able to escape. He was killed at Auschwitz at
the age of 14. But his picture of the moon was found after the war. It did
escape. It went into space. It was carried there on Jan. 16, 2003, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia by Col. Ilan Ramon, z”l.

My friends, Ilan Ramon was the true embodiment of the Jewish
people’s journey during the past century. His mother and grandmother survived
the Auschwitz death camp and made their way to Israel as immigrants.

His father, himself a refugee from Germany, became a soldier
in the Haganah, who fought for the independence of the newborn State of Israel.
Ilan himself was born in Israel. He was the ultimate representation of what an
Israeli is able to be: free and proud, strong, secure, confident and Jewish.

From fleeing persecution in Europe, to fighting for the
right to an independent homeland, to soaring into space: This was the story of
Ilan’s family. This is the story of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish

As Ilan himself once remarked:

“I’m kind of the proof for my parents and their generation
that whatever we’ve been fighting for in the last century is coming true. I
feel I’m representing the whole Jewish people.”

Ilan said that serving as Israel’s first astronaut was part
of a “miracle” that stretched back 50 years. Ilan Ramon was an important symbol
for Israel, but he was also far more. He was a brave defender of our skies, our
land and our people.

He displayed courage and fortitude in defending Israel in
his fighter plane during that moment of grave danger: the Yom Kippur War of
1973. He defended our nation against Syrian fighters in 1982.

And he also took part in another action of enormous
significance. An action that may have saved the people of Israel from untold
disaster, a feat that may have prevented the loss of hundreds of thousands of
lives, maybe millions, and not just Israeli lives.

In 1981, Ilan Ramon, piloting his F-16 fighter, took part in
the mission to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. At that
point in time, the reactor was preparing to develop enough enriched uranium to
build four or five Hiroshima-size bombs.

Imagine the debt of gratitude we all owe Ilan Ramon and his
fellow pilots for their successful mission…. Imagine where the world would be
today were Saddam Hussein to possess nuclear capability.

In the Book of Psalms, we perhaps can find a reference to
Ilan Ramon. It says: “His excellence is over Israel, and His strength is in the

Ilan is a hero of Israel. A tribute to the Jewish people. He
was among the most talented fighter pilots in the world. He was Israel’s first
astronaut. Most importantly, he was a loving husband and father — his dear
wife, Rona, and their four young children. We cannot comfort them. We can only
hope that they find comfort in each other as time goes on, and that they can
find a measure of peace and pride in the sacrifice of this noble soul.

We also extend our prayers to the families of the other
astronauts: commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission specialists
Dave Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chala; and payload commander Mike
Anderson. May each of their memories be a blessing.

In his final mission aboard the space shuttle, Col. Ilan
Ramon lifted the spirits of our entire nation. We were moved to tears when Ilan
broadcast to our nation:

“I want to say that from here, in space, Israel looks like
it appears on the map — small, but beautiful. “

As Ilan soared, we soared with him. As he died, a part of
each of us died with him.

May he and his fellow astronauts now rest in peace. And may
Ilan, who protected us for so many years in this world, continue to protect us
from above.  

Moments of Silence

There were a lot of moments of silence this week.

There was the one early Saturday morning when you firstheard the news of the space shuttle Columbia’s disappearance. Whoever told you,whomever you told, there was that instant of disbelief, that moment when wordsfailed you.

As the reality hit, the white noise of wall-to-wall newscoverage filled our cars and living rooms. But off the air, the rest of us hadfew words to say.

The tragedy, which would have been awful under anycircumstances, stung Jews especially deeply. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli inspace, was also the first Israeli to die in space.

As rabbis and their congregants filtered into synagogues forShabbat services Saturday morning, they entered shaking their heads, ready tocry, unable to express the sadness and loss. Synagogue turned out to be aperfect place to be.

A full-to-bursting schedule of planned events this pastweekend brought Jews together, where they could, among other things, be silenttogether.

Saturday night, just hours after the tragedy, Israeli ConsulGeneral Yuval Rotem and his wife, Miri, were honored by Pressman Academy Jewishday school at a ballroom dinner dance. It was a celebration singed with sorrow.

Organizers, said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, debated whether tocancel the music and dancing. They decided that, in the end, strength came fromboth mourning and celebrating. Rotem delivered a powerful eulogy for Ramon (seepage 9), whose picture stood propped up on the stage above a row of yahrtzeitcandles. There was a moment of silence, then, as the dancing began, PiniCohen’s band shared the stage with the smiling image of the astronaut.

Wherever Jews gathered this week, the rituals were similar.Sorrow, then business. Sorrow, then celebration. The image of Ramon — hispromise, his courage, his achievement — orbited each gathering.

At the annual meeting of the Jewish Historical Society ofSouthern California, held Sunday at the Japanese American National Museum, thehundred or so people gathered to honor Jerry Freedman-Habush began theirprogram with a moment of silence.

At a dinner Sunday evening for the University of Judaismhonoring Ruth Zeigler, UJ President Robert Wexler called for a moment silence.

Some 500 people attended the memorial service for theastronauts on Sunday at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles. “It wouldhave been a tragedy even if Ilan Ramon wasn’t on board,” Rabbi Michael Resnicksaid. “We would have done something anyway. At difficult times we cometogether, we reach out for strength, for optimism.”

Resnick reminded the gathering of Ramon’s view from theColumbia. “There are no lines, there is just the world,” he said. “It becomesso clear that from space that we are one.”

At the home of Jean and Jerry Friedman, an elegant dinnerreception Sunday evening for some 200 major donors to Jewish education fromaround the country began with a moment of silence. And at a high-spiritedMitzvah Day organized by The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, 500 peoplestopped to remember the astronauts.

One simple reason Ramon’s death provoked such deep reactionis that many people here knew him, and even more people felt as if they did.

Ramon’s death broke the hearts of students at ShalhevetSchool, who had sent Ramon a letter on Jan. 13, while he was still in orbit,thanking him for his achievement. “May you reach a clearer understanding of theuniverse through your unique vantage point on God’s creation,” they wrote.

Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita was aclose friend who celebrated this past Thanksgiving with the astronaut and hisfamily. At the end of the meal, Blazer had wished Ramon, “Nesiya tova,” Hebrewfor bon voyage. “I realized this was the first time I had ever said these wordsto someone going up into space,” Blazer wrote in The Daily News.

“It’s just terrible,” said William Elperin of the “1939”Club. “I couldn’t get him out of my mind all weekend. We were at his home inHouston and spent time with his wife and four children. He was such a wonderfulman.”

The “1939” Club honored Ramon in October 2000, presentinghim with a barbed-wire mezuzah symbolizing the Holocaust. The son and grandsonof Holocaust survivors took the mezuzah into space with him. 

Ramon’s picture adorned the walls of many Jewish schoolclassrooms. At Pressman Academy, educators added a prayer for peace and otherreadings in memorial of the astronauts, and students of all ages wrote e-mailsto the Ramon family to express their concern and thoughts. 

It was exactly a year ago that Kol Tikvah religious schoolstarted a letter-writing campaign to Ramon, sending him letters of support,following his progress and awaiting his visit after landing. Instead, studentswrote condolence cards.

At Universal Studios theme park, where Ramon went with hisfamily as a guest of honor during the park’s 2002 Chanukah celebration,employees remembered how Ramon had been scheduled to sign autographs for ahalf-hour. As the line grew, he refused to leave or even accept lunch untileveryone had a signed poster, nearly three and a half hours later. Ramon vowedto return after his flight so he could experience the park with his children.

Sarit Finkelstein-Boim had just seen Ramon when he served asone of the Executive Honorary Committee members for her installation aspresident of B’nai B’rith Shalom Unit. Her husband, Nahum, an aeronauticalengineer, was a friend of Ramon from the air force.

Carol Koransky remembered seeing Ramon at the GeneralAssembly of Jewish federations in Philadelphia this past December. Ramon satgood-naturedly through a program that ran on until midnight. When finallyintroduced to a much-dwindled audience, he came to the podium and said, “Goodmorning.” Then, Koransky said, he proceeded to astonish the audience with aheartfelt explanation of what his trip would mean to him as an astronaut and asa Jew.

For so many, Ramon was the poster boy for the ideal Jewishidentity. Two recently released surveys of American Jewish opinion found that66 percent of Jews believe anti-Semitism is the “greatest threat” to Jewishlife, 73 percent of Jews said caring about Israel was important. Half saidbeing Jewish is “very important” to them, while 41 percent said “being part ofthe Jewish people” defined their identity.

Here was Ilan Ramon to fill all those roles at once — awarrior, an Israeli, a proudly self-identified Jew who took a Torah and kiddushcup into space, a real-life mensch and a textbook hero.

The imagery of the catastrophe and its aftermath could havebeen a chapter from mythology. The heroes soaring through the heavens, theirfirey deaths as they sought to bring the secrets of the cosmos back to those ofus on Earth, the few sacrificing themselves for the many.

Not surprisingly, the memorials held in their honorthroughout the week, like President Bush’s initial announcement of thedisaster, shuttled effortlessly between the sacred and the mundane.

Ramon’s death was marked and mourned with such intensitybecause of how he lived his life, and because of how we dream of living ours.He asserted the importance of his Jewishness to his life’s mission,understanding that in serving his faith and his people, he was serving all ofhumanity; and in serving all humanity, he served his people.  

One Mean Heeb

At one point in Jonathan Kesselman’s "Jewish exploitation" comedy, "The Hebrew Hammer," Mordechai Jefferson Carver strides into a seedy skinhead bar wearing a long leather coat, a black fedora, pais, a tallit and an oversized gold chai. A chalkboard advertises beer on tap such as Old Adolf, but the titular superhero orders "Manischewitz, straight up." Then he crashes a bottle over the bartender’s head, whips out two sawed-off shotguns and shouts, "Shabbat Shalom, Motherf——s!"

In this outrageous world of the Hammer (Adam Goldberg), the Orthodox Jewish hero must battle the evil son of Santa (Andy Dick) to save Chanukah.

Call it the Jewish "Shaft." The farce is Kesselman’s homage to 1970s "blaxploitation" films such as "Superfly," "Foxy Brown" and "Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song."

"It’s the world’s first ‘Jewsploitation’ movie," says the 28-year-old director, whose film premieres at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 16-26). &’9;

The Hammer, dubbed the "baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv," drives a low-riding baby blue Cadillac with white fur interior (which resembles an Israeli flag on wheels). His favorite expletive is "G-dash-D damn it!" &’9;

But don’t tell Kesselman his superhero is distasteful. "The movie is a love letter to being Jewish," said the writer-director, a self-professed "nice Jewish boy from the Valley." &’9;

He says the farce is his response to Hollywood’s nebbishy and neurotic depiction of Jews. "Just as blaxploitation films exaggerated the hell out of black stereotypes to take away their power, the Hammer exaggerates every Jewish stereotype," he said. "He’s both ultracool and ultraneurotic."

While Superfly in the 1972 film snorts cocaine off a crucifix, the allergy-plagued Hammer sniffs antihistamines off his chai. When Santa pushes bootleg copies of "It’s a Wonderful Life" on Jewish kids, Carver arranges for videotapes of "Yentl" to hit the streets. The Hammer’s idea of talking dirty to his lady, Esther Bloomenbergansteinthal: "I want to have lots of children by you." &’9;

The film — which also features an organization called The Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy — is part of a new trend of in-your-face ethnicity touted by hip Jewish artists (think Heeb magazine and New York’s "Jewsapalooza" music festival). Canada’s Globe and Mail hailed the "Hammer" as "perhaps the zaniest, brainiest example of [this] new wave," although its director is more clean-cut than in-your-face.

On this Friday morning, Kesselman is dressed neatly in immaculate blue jeans and a linen shirt. Polite, funny and good-natured, he admits he does share one unfortunate trait with The Hammer: "I’m the most neurotic Jew you’ll ever meet," he said. "I whined on the ‘Hammer’ set. I’ve whined incessantly to every girl I’ve dated. It’s not that I’m unhappy; it just makes me feel better." He paused, then said, "Can you mention [in the article] that I’m single?"

Nevertheless, Kesselman, who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, had enough chutzpah to quit his "soul-sucking" computer job and apply to USC’s film school in 1998. When the rejection letter came, he said he submitted the exact same application again "out of spite" and, as a catharsis, began writing a screenplay about "two idiot film students, one of whom is making a Jewsploitation movie."

"Although the notion of a Jewsploitation film initially was a joke, it dawned on me that a badass Chasidic Jew is the ultimate comedic discrepancy," said Kesselman, who was accepted to USC in 1999. "So I rented a whole bunch of blaxploitation films to figure out how the genre worked. I learned that what I needed was some twist on the source of oppression. I asked myself, ‘What as a Jew really pisses me off?’ It hit me when I was walking around a mall in December: I hate Christmastime. There are always all these Christmas decorations and a pathetic little menorah tucked away in a corner."

Kesselman’s USC "Hebrew Hammer" short went on to the semifinals at the 2000 Austin Film Festival and interested producers at Universal. "But they wanted to turn it into a black-Jewish buddy film — they were thinking Chris Rock and Ben Stiller — which was going to ruin it," he said. &’9;

Ignoring the advice of his career advisers (and his mother), Kesselman passed on the deal. He was rewarded when ContentFilm offered to finance the movie with himself as the director in October 2001. "Jon’s script was hysterical and unlike anything we’d ever seen," said Sofia Sondervan, Content’s head of East Coast production. "It makes fun of everyone without being offensive."

Nevertheless, the filmmakers worried that angry observant Jews might shut down the production when the Brooklyn shoot began in spring 2002.

Sondervan recalled how Chasidim had crashed the Boro Park set of the provocative Chasidic saga "A Price Above Rubies" while she was working at Miramax in 1997. "I warned everyone," she said. "But that didn’t end up happening with ‘The Hammer.’ Instead, all these Chasidic girls stood around asking Adam Goldberg for his autograph."

Kesselman, for his part, was relieved when his Orthodox relatives loved the movie, including his cousin, who lives in the West Bank. "The Hammer celebrates being Jewish," he said. "It’s a badass Jew kicking ass for the tribe."

Remembering Noam

Staff Sgt. Noam Apter, age 23, died Friday night Dec. 27 as a hero in an attack on the Jewish settlement of Otniel. His picture was on the front page of every Israeli daily newspaper. His bravery reported on every newscast in Israel. His family’s mourning and loss have been a subject of conversation at dinner tables, office coolers, essentially all over Israel for the past week.

Yet, the story of Noam did not appear in the Los Angeles Times, or in most papers abroad. Not even his name appeared. Nor his age. Nor the names or ages of the other three victims brutally murdered in the Sabbath eve massacre at Otniel. He was just another one of "four Israelis killed in the West Bank."

To illustrate how one-sided the coverage of Israel has been, one needs to go no further than the Los Angeles Times. During the four days after Noam’s death, the Los Angeles Times reported extensively on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Seven major articles were published with a total of more than 7,000 words. Yet, no room could be found for Noam’s name or for the story of his bravery, nor for the story of his family’s loss. Is this because Noam was not a Palestinian?

It turns out that Palestinian stories, names and ages filled all of these seven Los Angeles Times articles over those four days. While not a single name of an Israeli victim was listed, nor the age of a single Israeli victim, the Los Angeles Times did find the room to list — by name — 17 Palestinians "victims" (some of whom were terrorists killed in gun battles with Israeli troops). The Times also found it appropriate to list the ages of a total of 20 different Palestinian "victims," while not a single Israeli receives the honor of being attributed with an age in this extensive reporting.

Lack of ages and names are only the beginning. Each Palestinian "victim" has a story — heart-rending, full of context, detail, local color and moving quotes. The Israeli victims are just statistics, without quotes, without a context, essentially without a story. This lack of balance might be explained if the numbers were unbalanced — so many more Palestinians dying than Israelis. Yet, in the Times reporting on Dec. 29, they noted that in the month of October more Israeli civilians were killed (45) than Palestinians (41). So why no names, no ages, no stories for the Israeli victims? Why don’t the Israeli unarmed civilians who are deliberately targeted by terrorists get at least the same journalistic treatment as the Palestinian civilians who are tragically and mistakenly killed in a tough war against terror that Israel must fight in populated areas?

One is left with the unmistakable conclusion that for the Los Angeles Times, Palestinian suffering deserves color and details, Jewish suffering is simply a set of statistics, faceless soldiers conducting "aggressive" anti-terrorist campaigns, and government officials rolling out routine condemnation of terror.

Yet our victims do have names, ages and stories. The story of Noam Apter will be told by Israelis for generations. Since you probably missed it, here it is:

On erev Shabbat, Dec. 27, more than 100 Israeli teenagers and young adults sat down for the Sabbath meal at the yeshiva Jewish school of Otniel. These kids are not "ultra-Orthodox," as erroneously reported in the Los Angeles Times, but modern Orthodox kids who study in yeshiva before and sometimes during their army service. Four of the students whose turn it was to be the evening’s waiters went to serve the main course in the kitchen adjoining the dining room. Noam Apter was among them. The other three waiters were: Yehuda Bamberger, 20; Zvi Ziman 18; and Gabriel Hoter, 17.

Suddenly, two terrorists dressed in Israeli army uniforms burst into the kitchen and sprayed the four waiters with fire from their M-16s. Hit by the bullets and mortally wounded, Noam used his last strength to run to the door connecting the kitchen and the dining room and close it. He locked it and threw the key into a corner. He then collapsed and died, lying against the door. The terrorists tried to open the door. Seeing it locked, they tried to spray fire through a small glass window into the dining room. After realizing that this fire was inaccurate and wild (it only wounded six more students) and having already killed the four student waiters, the terrorists fled the kitchen, later to be hunted down and killed by the Israeli army.

According to 18-year-old Yaacov Ohana, a wounded survivor of the attack who was quoted in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, "Our great luck was that Noam succeeded in locking the door to the dining room and throwing the key into a dark corner, otherwise the terrorists would have massacred dozens."

Noam Apter was just another of the many heroes of the current war Israel is waging against terror. They all have names. They all have ages. And they all have stories. It’s about time they were told.

Jonathan Medved is a venture capitalist living in Jerusalem.

A Hero

A Hero

As The Journal went to press last week, word came that terrorist kidnappers in Pakistan had brutally murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The news broke upon us with a special sting. Even as I write this, almost a week later, the sadness is acute, intransigent.

I didn’t know Pearl. But contributing editor Tom Tugend, who reports on his death inside, has long been an acquaintance of Pearl’s parents. The world lost a much-respected journalist, his family lost a loving son and brother, his wife Marianne lost a husband and father-to-be.

Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, as Pearl did, and having attended Birmingham High School in the class three years before him, I do know that it is no stretch to see Pearl as a product of this community.

The L.A. Jewish community has produced many men and women like him: successful, passionate, committed not to an ideal lifestyle, but to ideals.

In Los Angeles, Pearl experienced a world enriched by the differences of its inhabitants. The particular community Pearl arose from, the Jewish one, was a part of that mosaic. Pearl dedicated his life to closing the distances between peoples by increasing their understanding of one another. Ultimately, he gave his life for this.

Since Pearl’s death, most of the media commentary has rightly praised his courage as a foreign correspondent. Indeed, his determination to shed light on a culture different from our own led to his capture.

But what led to his murder was something else.

We may never know what part his being Jewish played in his death. The war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of eight journalists, Jewish and not. And the cowards who killed Pearl have vowed to kill any and all Americans.

But the fact is that according to a recently released videotape, Pearl looked into his captors’ camera and said, “My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am a Jew.” Then they killed him.

That makes Pearl more than just a journalistic hero. He died not just in seeking the truth, but in telling the truth about who he was and what he believed in. What Pearl’s killers took as an admission of his guilt was really an affirmation of his faith.

Daniel Pearl was an astonishingly brave and good man. His memory will be a light not only to his family, but to us all.

A Way to Help

The 200,000-strong Argentine Jewish community is weak to the point of collapse. As reported in these pages last week, the currency devaluation that followed an economic meltdown in that country this winter has left a thriving, mostly middle-class community destitute.

Hit particularly hard are the banks and small businesses that formed the core of the Jewish community’s prosperity. Now, with the poverty rate approaching 25 percent, food and shelter are no longer certainties. Around 20,000 Argentine Jewish families are on welfare and need assistance.

The Dec. 20 riots that led to the downfall of President Fernando de la Rua and the increase in post-collapse crime have added a sense of physical peril to the community’s economic woes.

For some Argentine Jews, the answer is immigration, either to Israel, which expects an influx of between 5,000-20,000 Argentines, or to other countries, especially the United States. For those who choose to remain in Argentina, the answer is economic assistance now, and for the foreseeable future.

How can we help? The Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee have turned to the North American Jewish communities to raise approximately $42.5 million to support aliyah and relief efforts that could eventually total more than three times that. Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community, has been asked for $2.125 million of that sum.

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has been through troubled and often controversial times over this past year. But, as it demonstrated in its emergency fundraising for the victims of Sept. 11, The Federation is an ideal vehicle through which we can help Jews and others facing immediate danger. The Federation board has committed to provide Argentine Jewry with Los Angeles’ fair share — $2.12 million.

This Sunday, Federation phone volunteers will call seeking donations as part of the annual Super Sunday phone-a-thon. You can direct your donations toward Argentine relief, or give toward the overall campaign, which serves dozens of agencies and needs here, in Israel and elsewhere — including Argentina.

Unmasking Purim’s Heroes — and Ourselves

Who needs Halloween or Mardi Gras? On Purim, themasquerade of characters is lively and intriguing: Spangled Vashtis,bearded Mordechais, snarling Hamans, bejeweled Esthers, silk-robedAhasueruses.

The secret of Purim, however, is to see beyond themasks. Purim’s noise and noshing is great fun, but the holiday alsounveils the story of character and courage. For us, too, Purim can bea time to strip away external masks in order to find the strengthsthat lie within us. The heroes and villains of Purim can lead theway:

Vashti: Once the stereotype of a vixen, Vashti isno longer perceived as the siren of the Purim story. Instead, she’sbecome a feminist hero who refuses to flaunt her beauty for theking’s entourage. One in a long line of women, from the Talmudicscholar Beruriah to Rosa Parks, Vashti stands up for her convictionsin order to preserve her integrity.

Esther: Esther might seem like a meek andmalleable young thing who does her Uncle Mordechai’s bidding, but shediscovers a strong sense of identity along the way. Beauty contestsaside, without a mature understanding of herself and the meaning ofher Judaism, she could not have taken the risks she did. It wasn’teasy being Jewish in Persia, but Esther proudly announced herJewishness to save her people.

Take a bold step this Purim. Reveal your Jewishself. Take on a ritual you may be afraid of or embarrassed ofbeginning. Take one step toward keeping kosher. Recite “Kiddush” onShabbat. Enroll in a Hebrew class or an Israeli dance course. Learnhow to lift or dress the Torah.

Mordechai: Mordechai’s combination of fearlessnessand faith in God enables him to rise above the Persian politicianswho indulge themselves and lose sight of the larger good. Mordechainever puts his ego above his convictions or forgets the suffering ofhis people. No matter what the consequences are, he holds steadfastto his beliefs, refusing to bow down to Haman, putting on sackclothto mourn the decree of destruction for the Jews of Persia, andremaining humble even when paraded through the streets ofShushan.

We, too, need to help uproot suffering. Because ofthe comforts our own lives may offer, it takes courage to stand upand call attention to the suffering of others. But communities aroundthe world still suffer — whether they are Jews in Argentina orneighbors in our own cities. Infused with the spirit of Mordechai, wecan stop standing by in silence.

Ahasuerus: From Ahasuerus and Haman, we learn hownot to behave. The king of Persia is a roly-poly, wishy-washy partyanimal who relegates power to unsuitable advisers. He surroundshimself with luxuries and vices that mask the real priorities: theneeds of his family and subjects.

Purim can be a time for us to re-evaluate ourpriorities in order to find the cherished jewels in our own kingdoms.Let’s reinterpret the name of the holiday as a true “feast of lots”– not in the gambling sense but in terms of how much we have. Fromthe uniqueness of our children to the sweet simplicity ofhamantaschen, we have “lots” to celebrate.

Haman: As for Haman, he hangs on to his prejudicesuntil they catch up with him and make headline — excuse the Purimpun — noose. We can all do something to stop bigotry or hatred. Takea friend to visit a Holocaust museum. Tell a non-Jewish neighbor thestory of Purim, and explain how much it means to live in a world offriendship and forgiveness.

Happy Purim!

Rahel Musleah is a free-lance journalist andthe co-author, along with Rabbi Michael Klayman, of “SharingBlessings: Children’s Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the JewishHolidays” (Jewish Lights).

The Almanac

Purim 5758: The Jewish Journal’s User-Friendly Guide


As told in the biblical Book of Esther, the Purimstory recounts how Haman, the chief minister to King Ahasuerus,plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia. In Shushan, capital of Persia,Haman cast lots (purim) that fixed the date of the Jews’ doom to 13 Adar. Esther,the King’s Jewish wife, was spurred on by her cousin Mordechai tointercede on the Jews’ behalf. The Jews were saved, Haman hanged, andPurim became a festival for rejoicing.


Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes I, whoruled Persia from 486 to 465. The first observance of Purim datesfrom the Hasmonean period, but scholars have long debated thehistorical basis for the Purim story.


* Attend synagogue services on Purim eve (March11) for the raucous reading of the Book of Esther from a handwrittenscroll, or megillah.

* Enjoy one of the numerous Purim carnivals aroundtown (see the accompanying listing). Eat a festive meal.

* Give mishloahmanot. According to Jewish law, we give agift consisting of food items to at least one friend, and at leasttwo gifts of charity to the poor.


* Groggers: Noisemakers used to drown out the nameof Haman during the reading of the megillah.

* Costumes: Children from 2 to 92 traditionallydress up as characters from the Purim spiel or in other outlandishget-ups. Groggers, masks and costumes areavailable at Jewish gift stores.


Hamantaschen:Triangular fruit-filled pastries, called “Haman’s Ears” in Hebrew.Make your own or stop by any Jewish bakery.

* Liquor: It’s customary for Jews to drink onPurim until we can’t tell the difference between evil Haman and goodMordechai. Enjoy in moderation, and don’t even think of drivingafterward.


Purim celebrates Jewish survival, but it alsovenerates Jewish laughter (see page 49).


Nowhere in the Book of Esther is God mentioned.Some scholars believe the book itself is a kind of Purim joke.


“The Harlot by the Side of the Road” by JonathanKirsch is an exploration of Esther’s racier side.

“The Jewish Way” by Irving Greenberg

“Purim: Its Observance and Significance” by AvieGold

News Flash!

Beyond Baby GAP…Way Beyond

Where do you gowhen you want a really warm cardigan in subtle earth tones? Or theperfect housedress in a bold floral print? From now on, you’ll go toBubby GAP. Joining its cousins Baby GAP and GAP Kids, the first BubbyGAP stores opened simultan-eously last week in Miami, Palm Beach andon Fairfax Avenue.

Designed to appeal to the over-60s set, BubbyGAP’s clothes come with their own ad campaign (see photo), featuringreal-life bubbies and zaydies. “Let’s face it, the boomers are aging,” said a GAPspokesman, “but as long as their checks clear, we’ll have clothes forthem.”

Bubby GAP will go other company outlets one stepfurther, carrying gourmet rugelach (in sun-dried tomatoand jalapeño flavors), crocheted trivets and prepaidlong-distance phone cards to send to GAP children and GAPgrandchildren — if they should ever think to call.


There’s a new letter in town. Dreamworks SKG, thewunder-studio headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg andDavid Geffen, has just announced it will add Jewish JournalContributing Editor Tom Tugend to its partnership. The new companywill be called Dreamworks SKGT. At a press conference last week,Spielberg and Tugend (above) celebrated their partnership. “Tom knowseverything that’s happening two days before it happens,” said thedirector, “and he can write about it faster and better than anyone Iknow.” Tugend said now that he is a full partner at SKGT, he plans tospend most of his time playing doubles tennis, hanging out with hisgrandchildren and reading good novels.

Hard Work

At Temple Nerot, they’re washing dishes. AtCongregation Chaim, they’re dusting furniture. At Temple Beth Ohr,they’re mopping floors. Just who’s doing the dirty work? Parents.It’s all part of an innovative new program called “Scrub 4 School,”initiated last month by the Bureau of Jewish Education. The programenables parents to work off part of the cost of their children’sday-school tuition by doing a variety of menial chores in areasynagogues.

“It’s saving us a bundle,” said Cindy Simons. Afilm editor by day, she and husband Jim, a lawyer, don dungarees atnight to mop wine spills and challah crumbs at Temple Beth Ohr’ssocial hall. With two children in Jewish day schools at $7,000 perchild, the Simons found themselves in financial straits — untilScrub 4 School. Twenty parents are involved with the program, which,said one organizer, “finally makes Jewish day schoolaffordable.”

Said Jim Simons, “We’ll do anything for our kids.”Anything? “Well,” he corrected himself, “we don’t do windows.”

Bay Cities Jewish CommunityCenter, (310) 828-3433: street carnival,Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 21st St., south of Olympic Blvd.,between Michigan and Pennsylvania.

  • Beth Shir Shalom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
  • B’nai Ami Synagogue, (818) 700-4732: parade and megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • B’nai Tikvah Congregation, 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester. (310) 645-6262: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m., and Thurs., March 12, 9:30 a.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, noon.
  • Chabad of the Conejo, (818) 991-0991: megillah reading and presentation with hypnotist Mark Prines, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m., Agoura High School, 28545 W. Driver Ave.; services, Thurs., March 12, 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., 30345 Canwood St., Agoura Hills.
  • Chabad of the Marina, 2929 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. (310) 578-6000: party and megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Congregation Am Hayam, (805) 656-6634: service geared for children, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m., Oxnard Monday Club, 1401 W. Gonzales Rd., Oxnard; traditional service, Thurs., March 12, private home.
  • Congregation Shaarei Tefila, 7269 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-7147: Purim seudah, Thurs., March 12, 5 p.m.
  • Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia. (626) 445-0810: pageant and brunch, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, noon.
  • Etz Jacob Congregation, 7659 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2619: megillah reading, followed by magician Allen Oshiro, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • Hollywood Los Feliz Jewish Community Center, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 663-2255: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Kabbalah Learning Center, 1062 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 657-5404: children’s show and carnival, Sun., March 8, 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; costume ball and megillah reading, Wed., Feb. 11, 7 p.m.
  • Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.; carnival, Thurs., March 12, 4-8 p.m., Santa Monica Pier.
  • Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Noah’s New York Bagels, 21917 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 999-9577: “Shmooze and Shmear,” Sun., March 8, 8-11 a.m.; festival, noon-5 p.m. Percentage of sales donated to Temple Kol Tikvah.
  • North Valley Jewish Community Center, 16601 Rinaldi St., Granada Hills. (818) 360-2211: carnival, Sun., March 15, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Ohel David, 7967 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2619: seudah with Grand Rabbi Eliezer, Thurs., March 12, 6 p.m. RSVP.
  • Ohr HaTorah, (310) 278-9049: megillah reading and party, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m., Redeemer Baptist Church, 10792 National Blvd., Los Angeles.
  • Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 475-7311: megillah reading, party and carnival, Wed., March 11, 6 p.m.
  • Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. (310) 474-1518: “Purim Mania ’98,” carnival games, costumes, petting zoo, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4636: “Purim Pandemonium” grogger making workshop, Sun., March 8, 2 p.m. Advanced reservations suggested.
  • Temple Akiba, 5429 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 398-5783: megillah reading and festival, Sun., March 15, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
  • Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 346-3545: carnival, Sun., March 8, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; megillah reading and costume parade, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m. (early childhood service), 7:30 p.m. (congregational service).
  • Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353: Purim carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; megillah reading and costume parade, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Beth Emet, 1770 W. Cerritos Ave., Anaheim. (714) 772-4720: megillah reading, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; services, Thurs., March 12, 7 a.m.; Purim party, Sun., March 15, 4 p.m.
  • Temple Beth Haverim, (818) 991-7111: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Willow Elementary School, 29026 Laro Drive, Agoura Hills.
  • Temple Beth Ohr, 15721 Rosecrans Ave., La Mirada. (714) 521-6765: megillah reading and festivities, Su
    n., March 15, 10:30 a.m.

  • Temple Emanuel Community Day School, 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 Janss Rd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891: carnival, Sun., March 8, noon-3 p.m.; services, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 277-2772: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 876-8330: Purim family service, “Purim Under Water,” Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800: Purim family picnic, Wed., March 11, 6:30 p.m.; service, 7:15 p.m.
  • Temple Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main St., Venice. (310) 392-3029: megillah reading and celebration, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Temple Ner Maarav, 17730 Magnolia Blvd., Encino. (818) 345-7833: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Temple Ner Tamid, 10629 Lakewood Blvd., Downey. (562) 861-9276: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.; service, Wed., March 11, 7:30 p.m.
  • Temple Ramat Zion, 17655 Devonshire St., Northridge. (818) 360-1881: “mini megillah reading” for pre-school children, Wed., March 11, 6 p.m.; reading for everyone else, 7 p.m.
  • University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 472-1255: carnival, Sun., March 15, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • University Synagogue, 4915 Alton Pkwy., Irvine. (714) 654-2720: services, Wed., March 11, 7 p.m.
  • Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 786-6310: masquerade ball, Sat., March 7, 8 p.m.; carnival, Sun., March 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • West Valley Jewish Community Center, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 587-3300: carnival, Sun., March 15, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 938-2531: carnival, Sun., March 8, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Westwood Village Synagogue, 900 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. (310) 470-0080: “The History of Purim,” following services, Sat., March 7.
  • Yeshiva of Los Angeles, 9760 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-4478: lectures on Purim with Rabbi Sholom Tendler, Sun., March 8, 9:30 a.m.; and Rabbi Yonatan Peisach, 10:45 a.m.
  • Young Israel of Beverly Hills, 8701 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 470-3644: performance with comedian and “Tonight Show” writer Marvin Silvermintz, Wed., March 11, 8:30 p.m.