Family History at the Holiday Table


Reconnecting long-lost family often begins with a relative’s random comment during a holiday gathering as generations gather around a dinner table. The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions, and to begin a family history project, adding lasting links to the chain of Jewish identity and continuity.

At a family gathering in Israel, Ingrid Rockberger heard a relative say that an American cousin had visited family in Sweden. Something clicked, as she vaguely recalled meeting some Swedish cousins in London, as a young child, some 50 years ago. This was the catalyst for a family reunion reuniting the Israeli, British and Swedish branches.

Decades ago, my aunt in Florida said, quite offhandedly, that her grandfather repeatedly claimed that “Talalay was our name when we left Spain.” She added that no one believed it, and most laughed at the idea of our Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family having such origins.

Decades went by before I began to search, but I never forgot her comment.

Mogilev, Belarus, has been the focus of my search — from there we immigrated to America and elsewhere. I’ve located far-flung branches in several countries.

However, my quest for a Sephardi connection continued, and I discovered a number of Sephardi-named families in the city, adding to the possibility.

In 2004, a Spanish researcher discovered a 1353 archival document, signed by a kosher winemaker with our rare name. In October, I’ll return to Barcelona to continue the search in several archives.

While memories fade and older generations pass, writings and images survive, preserving family lore. Make sure to share these with extended family, and include copies as gifts for new babies, bar/bat mitzvah and weddings.

In June 2005, genealogy sites received 11 million hits, and that marketing survey didn’t even include JewishGen.

According to www.ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogy Web site, a recent poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans are interested in their roots. Susan King, head of www.jewishgen.org, the largest Jewish genealogical Web site, recently announced the Web site, which receives millions of hits, counts some 160,000 subscribers from around the world, and is joined by some 5,000 new people monthly.

A proliferation of specialized books, online Jewish genealogy classes and special projects have inspired and assisted researchers in preserving family history.

Even without spending a lot of time on the Web, there’s a lot you can do during the holiday season to pique interest in genealogy during the High Holidays:

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Go Ahead — Read That Book in Shul


The sounds of the Days of Awe in synagogue: the cry of the shofar, the cantor chanting age-old melodies that go right to the heart and congregants alternatively whispering and shushing each other. Then there’s the gentle click of pages turning to their own rhythm, not in unison with the congregation.

The latter refers to a not-so-secret habit that’s growing in popularity, as an increasing number of people bring outside reading material with them to services. Some do this openly, even encouraged by rabbis, and some tuck a volume into a tallit bag for transport and then slide it into an open machzor, much like the high school tradition of folding comic books into math texts.

These independent readers — who might pull out a book during a particular part of the service in which they lose interest — are likely to be reading serious books, trying to deepen their experience of the holidays. From my experience, it’s not as though congregants are thumbing through airport novels or diet books; these special days require special books.

I’ve spotted interesting titles, from pocket editions of the Talmud to novels by Philip Roth. The book I’ve seen most often (and bring to shul myself) is the classic “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon (Schocken, 1995). First published in 1937 and in English in 1948, this is a companion to the prayer book, an anthology of texts, teachings, midrash and customs following the order of the service. Agnon, a modern writer who was well-versed in Jewish texts, writes with love of the tradition, seriousness, a sense of humor and joy, and engagement. In his section on tashlich, he tells of how the Jews of Kurdistan would go to a river and jump in, rather than simply shaking the crumbs off of their clothing, so that the water would wash away all of their sins.

Rabbi Arthur Green, in a foreword to the latest edition, suggests that readers open the book and “think of Agnon as an old Jew from a world now vanished who happens to sit down next to you.”

Most of the entries are less than a page long, some run onto a few pages, but the format makes for easy reading when there’s much else going on, like during services. Even returning to this book every year, readers will find something new.

Another anthology of note is “Days of Awe, Days of Joy: Chasidic Insights Into the Festivals of the Month of Tishrei,” compiled and adapted from the talks and writings of the rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch (Kehot Publication Society, 1998).

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has compiled a number of anthologies for the holidays, drawing on a wide range of classic and contemporary sources. His “Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation” (Jewish Lights, 2005) is published this season, featuring section introductions drawing on Arthur Green’s “These Are the Words.” Those readers who prefer meditation to prayer, or find that meditation enhances their prayer, will enjoy one of his earlier volumes, “Meditations for the Days of Awe” (Growth Associates, 1999).

Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy’s “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Ties of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002) isn’t directed toward the holidays, but readers will find comfort and inspiration in her original, personal prayers that touch on a wide range of human experience. Its compact size makes this an inconspicuous choice. She offers a prayer for daily insight:

“Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don’t have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And you are near.”

“Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004) by Rabbi David Wolpe is a first collection of his brief essays that touch upon topics like God, spiritual growth, forming families and life and death. Wolpe proves himself a master of this format: His essays are tightly woven gems based in deep learning and drawing on a huge breadth of sources.

“Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Riemer and Judith A. Kates (Touchstone, 1997) anthologizes original essays by distinguished women scholars, authors and educators, interpreting the Torah readings of the holidays. Each contributor draws deep meaning from the text, and generously shares her wisdom.

For a more straightforward introduction to the themes of the holiday, “Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and their Themes” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer (Jewish Publication Society, 2005) demonstrates how the themes of the holiday play out in the service.

Just as you don’t have to be a Conservative Jew to appreciate Hammer’s style — in fact, it’s intended for all Jews — you don’t have to be female to enjoy “Beginning Anew” nor Chasidic to find “Days of Awe, Days of Joy” of great interest.

Another category of shul books is spiritual self-help, books that help readers with their process of teshuvah. “Improve yourself, then improve others,” the sages say in the Talmud (Bava Metzia).

“60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson (Kiyum Press, 2003) is a workbook and a reading book, with kabbalistic, biblical and psychological insights, covering the period from the beginning of the month of Elul to the end of the month of Tishrei. Jacobson urges sincere preparation for all of the holidays and his approach is hands-on, with articles of daily inspiration, meditative quotes and practical exercises.

Each year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage to visit the grave of the Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in Uman, Ukraine, especially on Rosh Hashanah, and many study the teachings of this charismatic great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, born in 1772. “Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practical Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings” by Chaim Kramer (Breslov Research Institute, 1990) is an introduction to his life work and thought, organized thematically. The author emphasizes the rebbe’s teaching about seeing the good in others, judging all people favorably. Several editions of Nachman’s work are available for those who might prefer to directly encounter his words, in translation.

Not so much a self-help book but more of an analytic work, Aaron Lazare’s “On Apology” (Oxford, 2004) has much to offer related to teshuvah. For Lazare, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the process of apology is both simple and entangled, potentially powerful and transformative.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: “I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind.”

“On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourse of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik” edited by Pinchas H. Peli (Jason Aronson, 1996) is a compilation of lectures given by the late preeminent Orthodox philosopher, laying out his philosophical and theological premises for teshuvah. For the Rav, as he is still known, teshuvah is not only repentance but purification

On a more mystical note, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Thirteen-Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief” (Basic, 1985) is a remarkable synthesis of Jewish thought, and “Honey From the Rock” by Lawrence Kushner (Jewish Lights, 1999) is a first-rate introduction to the Jewish mystical tradition.

Those interested in adding a modern historical context to the holidays might particularly enjoy two fine new works of Jewish history, “American Judaism” by Jonathan Sarna (Yale, 2004) and “A History of the Jews in the Modern World” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, 2005).

And some people just prefer a good novel. Many works of fiction touch on the ideas of the holidays. Elie Wiesel’s latest work, “The Time of the Uprooted” (Knopf, 2005) is a beautifully written work that addresses, among other themes, survival, memory and new beginnings. This season, when so many people have lost their homes, the novel is particularly timely.

Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel, “Days of Awe” (Sourcebooks, 2005) is tied to these days not only by its title but by the author’s exploration, both sensitive and powerful, of God, mortality and love, set in the context of Sept. 11. At the novel’s center is a New York City family, unusually close and facing difficult times. The author creates an unconventional artful narrative, combining elements of mythology, poetry, e-mail, various points of view, descriptions of the mundane details of daily life and spiritual yearnings. This is a novel with great heart.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana likes to recommend “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman (Warner Books, 1994), an imaginative short novel about time and memory, unfolded in vignettes.

And then there’s the Book of Life. May we all be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, blessed with peace.

The Best of Passover Reading


 

“Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold” by Rabbi Nathan Laufer (Jewish Lights, $24.95).

Rabbi Nathan Laufer tells a story of his grandfather: Before his family was sent to a concentration camp, he buried the family’s silver. The grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz, and when the family returned to their town, they found that their silver had been ransacked, but an Elijah’s cup, used at the seder, remained. The grandmother gave the cup to her son who later gave it to his son, Rabbi Laufer, who has used it throughout his life.

At Laufer’s family seders, true stories of survival and liberation from the concentration camps were woven seamlessly into the text of the haggadah. A senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and president emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, he has distilled more than 20 years of thinking about and studying the haggadah into his new book, “Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder’s Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah’s Story Retold.”

The book is different from other books in that it points to underlying meaning in the seder. By taking the reader through the different steps of the seder, offering his original interpretations, he shows a kind of inner choreography; in fact, he demonstrates how the different pieces of the haggadah fit together to form a coherent and powerful whole. In his reading, the text follows the chronological story of the Book of Exodus, and every item in the seder mirrors the order of the journey from slavery to redemption.

He draws parallels, for example, between the ceremony of yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, and the story of Moses, as told in the second chapter of Exodus. The broken piece, which becomes the afikomen and is retrieved during tzafun, the hidden one, is like the baby Moses, who is wrapped in secrecy and hidden out of sight. Later on, Moses reappears and redeems the people from bondage. The Torah uses the root z-f-n to denote the child’s hiddenness; this is the only place where the root with that meaning is also used in the haggadah. Laufer believes is it no coincidence.

Moses is hidden not only symbolically in a napkin but also in the haggadah text. Laufer explains that the haggadah is intent on telling the story of the Exodus as “a tale of the unmitigated love between God and the Jewish people. The authors of the haggadah did not want to hinge that relationship based on the presence — or absence — of a human leader, not even one as great as Moses.”

Laufer, a resident of New Jersey who has spent the last few years in Israel, was back in New York recently. He said that the point of the haggadah is “not to read, but to tell. You bring your own imagination and experience to the story.”

“I always considered the haggadah to be the people’s Torah, the core story of the Torah told by the people, for the people,” he continued.

“If you get so much into the story that you lose yourself, then you have achieved what the haggadah and seder try to achieve, to get you to feel, for at least moments, that you were a slave.”

He describes the ideal state as one in which participants enter what psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi calls the state of “flow.”

“To engage in the Passover seder,” he writes, “is to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage through time. What Pesach gives us is the gift of our identities. It tells us where we came from, where we’re going, our mission, our goal. Our vision is about redemption, not a one-way vision but a vision that goes through cycles.”

“If we find ourselves in a narrow place, then we have to draw on who we are, pull ourselves up and out of it, resurrect our lives and find meaning,” he writes. “If we can do that, then we have lived the Passover story.”

This book is not a haggadah — although much of the text is included here, in English and Hebrew — but a book to be read before the seder, and then used to inspire discussion. Laufer’s approach is both learned and accessible, and he points out many intriguing connections — drawing on history, midrash, biblical text, visual imagery, language, gematria — that many readers will find new.

Also of Passover Interest

“Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu’ot” by Rabbi David Shapiro (Urim) includes the rav’s analysis of some of the mitzvot of the seder, along with insights into aspects of the counting of the omer and Shavuot. Shapiro explains that the Hebrew title, a phrase from the haggadah, mei-afeilah le-or gadol, reflects the national development of the Jewish people over the course of the seven weeks from the period of afeilah (physical and spiritual darkness) to that of or gadol, (of the ‘light’ afforded by the teachings of the Torah). Shapiro who is on the faculty of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., and was its principal for 11 years, is also a staff member of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute.

“The Book of Passover” by Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Citadel Press) includes brief and informative explanations of holiday rituals, but this is a book that invites readers to become co-authors, to record their own favorite teachings and holiday memories. Blech, a best-selling author and professor at Yeshiva University, describes the book as a family album — not of photos but of words.

For Children:

“Had Gadya: A Passover Song” paintings by Seymour Chwast, afterword by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (Roaring Brook Press) is a delightful evocation of the cumulative folk song, chanted at the end of the Passover story. Chwast’s paintings are at once whimsical and powerful, depicting life in a village as members of the community are preparing for the seder when a goat is eaten by a cat, and then the cat bitten by a dog, until finally God destroys the Angel of Death.

In an afterword, Strassfeld explains that “Had Gadya” was added to the text of the Haggadah sometime around the 15th century, and shows how the story of the song expresses the theme of the haggadah. In Chwast’s retelling, the goat and father return, as though “to suggest that there will come a times when the cycle will end not in death but in the death of death,” Strassfeld writes. “God represents the hope that someday this story and every story will end with the words: and they all lived happily ever after.”

“The Secret Seder” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Hyperion) referred to in the title of this moving story is held in a mountaintop shack, outside of a small village in France, where a number of Jews are posing as Catholics during World War II. The seder is described from the point of view of a young boy named Jacques — the only child there — who closes his eyes and recalls his grandmother’s seder table, set with a lace cloth and traditional foods, as they face an empty table. Many sob as they pour the cups of wine; they have no bitter herbs to dip but agree that their lives are bitter. As Jacques recites the four questions, one man interrupts to say that the night is different because Jews are being murdered across Europe. But this group is glad to be together, marking the holiday as they can. Rappaport has written several award-winning books for children, and drew on true stories of Jews in hiding in creating this tale. McCully’s soft watercolors convey a mood of fear and hope.

“Shlemiel Crooks” by Anna Olswanger, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug Books) is an unusual take on the Passover story. Set in 1919 St. Louis, this is a tale of some thieves — “worms should hold a wedding in their belly,” as the author suggests, in a series of Yiddish-inspired curses — who try to steal a shipment of Passover wine imported from Israel from Reb Elias. He ran the kind of saloon where housewives and grandmothers felt comfortable buying kosher wine and brandy. Pharaoh, the prophet Elijah, a tailor named Perlmutter and a talking horse make cameo appearances. The author’s creative retelling is based on a true story she uncovered about her great-grandfather. Koz’s colorful illustrations reflect Olswanger’s humor. Olswanger teaches writing and helps Holocaust survivors to write about their experiences.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed orfaxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least threeweeks in advance to: calendar@jewishjournal.com.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

NOVEMBER 27/Saturday

SHABBAT

Hebrew Discovery Center: Nov. 26-28. Family Shabbaton with special guest speaker Rabbi Isaac Balaness. $195, $375 (couples). Ventura Beach Marriott, 2055 Harbor Blvd., Ventura Beach. R.S.V.P., (818) 348-4432.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Padua Playwrights: 4:30 p.m. Padua Playwrights presents a workshop production of “Tirade for Three” and “Gary’s Walk,” parts one and two of a trilogy by Murray Mednick. $10. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. (310) 823-0710, ext. 4.

28/Sunday

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC: Noon-5 p.m. “Diversity of Life: A Photographic Exhibit” by Zion Ozeri. Free. David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla. (858) 362-1348.

EVENTS

Yiddish Alive: 4-7 p.m. A new conversation group in Orange County. All ages and experience levels welcome. Temple Beth Tikvah Fullerton, 1600 N. Acacla, Fullerton. (714) 671-0707.

29/Monday

LECTURES

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel: 7 p.m. Discussion on “‘In God’s Image’ or ‘The Image of God’: a Spiritual Look at Your Brain.” $15 (includes dinner). 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 475-7311.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Workmen’s Circle: 3-5 p.m. Stanley Schwartz presents his “The Peaceable Kingdom” sculpture. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Academy for the Performing Arts at Huntington Beach High School: 7:30 p.m. “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” the story of one boy’s journey through the Terezin ghetto on the way to the Auschwitz death camp. $6. Huntington Beach Library Theatre, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 536-2514, ext. 4305.

MET Theatre Company: 8 p.m. Opening of “The Merchant of Venice,” the classic play reset in early 20th-century New York. $15, $12 (students and seniors). 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. (323) 957-1152.

EVENTS

Beth Jacob (teens): 9 a.m. “NFL” Non-stop Fun and Learning, featuring four big-screen NFL games playing simultaneously. Free. 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911, ext. 120.

OASIS (seniors): 1:30-3 p.m. Yiddish conversation group. All levels welcome. $5 (per trimester). Jewish Family Service, 8838 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 446-8053.

City of Hope Singers: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Vocal group for singers of all skill levels from all over Los Angeles. Hope Village, Comedy Theatre, 1500 E. Duarte Road, Duarte. (714) 562-0860.

30/Tuesday

LECTURES

Caravan for Democracy: 5 p.m. Natan Sharansky, Israeli minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs addresses students and faculty at UCLA. Free. www.caravanfordemocracy.org. For more information, see page 16.

The Menachem Institute: 7:30 p.m. Rabbi Laibl Wolf discusses “The Art of Jewish Meditation.” ($5 in advance), $7 (at the door). 18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 758-1818.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hammer Museum: 7 p.m. Hammer conversation with screenwriter Bill Condon and author T.C. Boyle. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7056.

EVENTS

Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valley Jewish Book Festival: 7:30 p.m. Author Kate Wenner discusses “Dancing With Einstein.” La Canada residence. R.S.V.P., (626) 967-3656.

1/Wednesday

LECTURES

Adat Ari El: 12:30-1:30 p.m. Erika Jacoby a Holocaust survivor discusses her new book, “I Held the Sun in My Hands – a Memoir.” $3. 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

StandWithUs: 7 p.m. Lecture by Khaled Abu Toameh, award-winning Palestinian journalist. $10 (in advance), $15 (at the door). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jewish Book Month: 7:30 p.m. Author Ruth Ellen Gruber speaks about her latest book, “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” Alpert JCC, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 985-7585.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hammer Museum: 7 p.m. Some Favorite Writers presents Jonathan Franzen. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: 7 p.m. (beginners), 8 p.m. (regular class), 9:15 p.m. -midnight (open dancing). David Dassa leads Israeli dancing. $7. Irmas Campus, 2112 S. Barrington Ave., Los Angeles. ddassa@att.net.

OPEN HOUSES

Valley Beth Shalom Day School: 9:15 a.m. Kindergarten Live. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 530-4072.

EVENTS

Temple Isaiah: 4-7 p.m. Chanukah Bazaar. 332 W. Alejo Rd., Palm Springs. (760) 325-2281.

PROGRAMS

Northridge Hospital Medical Center: 6:30 p.m. The Healing Arts program offers its monthly topic, “Balanced Nutrition for Holiday Eating.” Roscoe Campus, Penthouse Auditorium, 18400 Roscoe Blvd., Northridge. (818) 885-5488.

2/Thursday

LECTURES

Israel Cancer Research Fund: 7 p.m. Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, associate clinical professor, UCLA department of neurology, discusses “Using Molecular Biology to Individualize Brain Cancer Care.” Free. Loews Beverly Hills Hotel. 1224 Beverwil Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 651-1200.

California Museum of Ancient Art: 7:30 p.m. “Warrior Women of the Bible” with speaker Dr. David Noel Freedman. First in a two-part series, “Women of the Ancient Near East.” $15 (adults), $12 (seniors), free (members). Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Piness Auditorium, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 762-5500.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

L.A. Film School: 8 p.m. Larry Hankin’s “10 Funny Fables Plus 1” with cameos by Janeane Garofolo, Larry Hankin, Jeff Garlin, Jerry Stiller and others. Free. 6363 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (877) 952-3456.

3/Friday

SHABBAT

B’nai Tikvah Congregation: 6:30-7:30 p.m. A musical family shabbat. Services and potluck dinner. Free. 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 645-6262.

Nashuva: 6:45 p.m. Nashuva community service-oriented Kabbalat Shabbat.

Westwood Hills Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd, Westwood. www.nashuva.com.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

CSUN Arts Council: 7-9 p.m. Eighth annual high school art invitational opening reception. Thirty-nine Valley high schools and more than 200 students are participating in the show. Main Gallery, N. University Drive, Northridge. (818) 677-2226.

Camelot Artists Productions: 8 p.m. David Steen’s “A Gift From Heaven” is the story of an Appalachian family’s demise. $28 (general), $20 (students). Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 358-9936.

Vanguard Theatre Ensemble: 8 p.m. Opening night gala of the holiday play “Greetings.” Champagne reception immediately follows the show. $23. 120-A W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton. (714) 526-8007.

Imaginary Friends Music Partners: 9 p.m.-midnight. Jazz pianist George Kahn and the George Kahn Quartet play songs from their newest release “Compared to What?” Featuring Andy Suzuki, Karl Vincent and Paul Kreibech. $10 cover, plus minimum. Lunaria Jazz Club, 10352 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City. (310) 282-8870.

EVENTS

Chai Center: Dec. 3-5. Desert Hot Springs Retreat. Hot springs mineral baths, women speakers and teachers, gourmet healthy food, stress reduction, massage and informal classes. R.S.V.P., (310) 391-6691.

UPCOMING

Sat., Dec. 11

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

MnR Dance Factory: Creative drama workshops for children with Chicago actress/writer Lisa Diana Shapiro. Free. 11606 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 826-4554.

Sun., Dec. 12

PROGRAMS

ATID (21-39): Dec. 12, 4 p.m. “Adventures in Judaism II” for young professionals ages 21-39, an afternoon of workshops, latkes, cocktails, “ultimate dreidel” and a Middle Eastern buffet. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3244.

Dec. 30-Jan. 2

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: Winter Rikud in Malibu. Israeli dancing weekend. From $175. www.rikud.com.

Feb. 17-21.

PROGRAMS

Jewish Student Union: Applications now available online for the annual JSU New York experience trip. www.jsu.org.

SINGLES

27/Saturday

Conversations at Leon’s: 7:30 p.m. Post-Thanksgiving mixer. $15-$20. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 393-4616.

Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s and 40s): 8 p.m. “Not-So-Speedy Meeting” and game night in conjunction with Temple Ner Maarav. $9. 17730 Magnolia Blvd, Encino. R.S.V.P. by Nov. 26, (818) 750-0095.

28/Sunday

Jewish Singles Volleyball: 3 p.m. Volleyball and post-game no-host dinner. Free. Playa del Rey Beach court No. 11 at the end of Culver Boulevard, Playa del Rey. (310) 278-9812.

JDate: 7 p.m. (reception), 7:30 p.m. (concert). Performance by Israeli recording artist Noa. $45 (online only). Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. www.jdate.com.

New Age Singles (55+): 7 p.m. “Starlight Ballroom Dance” with music by Johnny Vana Trio. $10-$12. University Synagogue 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 473-1391.

29/Monday

Nexus (20s and 30s): 7:30 p.m. (beginners), 8:15 p.m. (intermediate), 9-10 p.m. (open dance). Israeli dancing lessons and open dance. $5 (members), $6 (nonmembers). Alpert Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. www.jewishnexus.org.

Project Next Step: 8 p.m. “Coffee Talk” with coffee and pastries. $7. 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 284-3638.

30/Tuesday

L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: 6-9 p.m. Dinner at Marmalade Cafe. The Grove, Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

Westwood Jewish Singles (45+): 7:30 p.m. Therapist Maxine Gellar leads a discussion about “My Most Embarrassing Moment.” $10. R.S.V.P., (310) 444-8986.

The New JCC at Milken: 8-11 p.m. James Zimmer leads Israeli folk dancing. $5-$6. Salsa, swing and tango lessons for an additional $3 (7-8 p.m.). 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (310) 284-3638.

1/Wednesday

Nexus (20s-40s): 6 p.m. Volleyball followed by no-host dinner. End of Culver Boulevard, near court No. 15, Playa del Rey. www.jewishnexus.org.

2/Thursday

Conversations at Leon’s: 7 p.m. “Date or Mate, What Are You Looking For?” $15-$17. 639 226th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P. (310) 393-4616.

J Networking: 7:30 p.m. The new Jewish networking group meets in the West San Fernando Valley. R.S.V.P. by Nov. 26, (818) 342-2898.

Mosaic: Dec. 2-5. Trip to Kartchner Caverns, Ariz. info@mosaicla.org.

3/Friday

Brandeis-Bardin/Makor Jewish Learning Circle: Dec. 3-5. Partnership weekend with the theme “The Search for Roots and Wings: Commitment and Creativity” with Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin. $130 (singles), $240 (couples). Simi Valley. (805) 582-4450.

New Age Singles: 6 p.m. No-host dinner at Nibbler’s in Beverly Hills followed by Creative Arts Shabbat Service at Temple Beth Am. 1039 La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 838-7459.

Singles Toward Marriage (30-39): 6:30 p.m. Monthly Shabbat dinner with group discussions led by Rabbi Shlomo and Tovi Bistritzky. 5998 Conifer St., Oak Park. R.S.V.P., (818) 993-0441.

upcoming

Sat., Dec. 11

Sephardic Singles Havurah (40s-60s): 7 p.m. Chanukah celebration and potluck dinner with candlelighting, prayers, songs and dancing. $5. R.S.V.P., (323) 294-6084.

Jan. 21-23

J-Ski (20s-40s): Mammoth Ski Trip. $185. Also, March 2-6, Whistler Ski Trip. $759. JskiLa@aol.com.

Keren’s Corner

Le Nouvel Anti-Semitism

What’s new in French anti-Semitism? Head downtown Thursday, Dec. 2 to find out as ALOUD at Central Library presents Michael Curtis, who will discuss “Anti-Semitism in France: Past and Present.” The author of numerous books on the history of France and anti-Semitism will discuss the relationship between historic traditional anti-Semitism in France and its current manifestations, including new factors like the extreme political left and Muslim

L.A. Leaders Offer Words of Wisdom


The Los Angeles Jewish community is blessed with many spirited, talented and prolific leaders. This High Holiday season promises to bring books by five such leaders — four rabbis and a composer/performer — that tackle many different aspects of Jewish life and philosophy. Barring one exception, the books do not take any of the High Holiday themes — repentance, renewal, eating too much — as central subjects. But each of the books does tackle a range of life’s concerns from a distinctly Jewish perspective. The authors that are reviewed below attempt to bring knowledge of Jewish thought and tradition to bear on the lessons each intend to teach.

This plethora of new material offers us a possibility we may not have considered before: instead of just sitting in synagogue this holiday season obsessively counting the number of pages until services will finally be finished, we can also pick up one of these books for a slightly different way of renewing our appreciation for all that Judaism, and its 4,000-year tradition of questioning, has to offer. Below are some brief thoughts, in no particular order, about five very different books by local writers:

No one would call Rabbi Mark Borovitz a typical rabbi. Not one to affect a sacred facade, Borovitz’s language and interpersonal approach tend more toward the salty and profane. It’s the perfect approach to take for his work as the spiritual leader at Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish rehabilitation center in West Los Angeles. Now that he’s written an autobiography — with the help of Alan Eisenstock — "The Holy Thief: A Con Man’s Journey from Darkness to Light" (William Morrow, $23), it’s clear that he comes by that attitude honestly.

His has been an amazing, and highly unusual journey. By his own account, Borovitz started out as the son of a respectable Jewish family in Cleveland, but he got into trouble young, and stayed in it until his awakening to honesty and Judaism while serving his second stint in a California state prison.

Although the term "12-step" is never mentioned, Borovitz does state up front that "this book is my T’Shuvah." He seems to have used the steps to organize his narrative, from presenting an inventory of his former behavior to publicly making amends to those he has harmed to finding God. The book even includes excerpts from various people whose paths have crossed his own — those he harmed and those who helped him find his way. "The Holy Thief" is his very public way of passing along the lessons he’s learned.

Borovitz has the unfortunate tendency to drop subjects from his sentences, tough-guy style (as in his first impression of his wife and the founder of Beit T’Shuvah: "Harriet her name was. Called me a smart ass."). But he’s an engaging storyteller, who brings the underworld of his youth, as well as his own fecklessness to life. It’s a colorful tale for a colorful character who has, indeed, turned his life around.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, is also the author of the "Dear Rabbi" column, which has answered questions posed by people from all around the world about Judaism. In his book, "Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions" (Alef Design Group, $14.95), Artson collects just over 100 of the questions posed of him along with his replies.

Ranging from more light-hearted questions, such as "Do dogs have souls?" to serious issues of Jewish identity, Artson answers each question seriously and respectfully. He unfailingly assumes that every person who contacted him asked his or her question in good faith, and he responded in kind.

There should be something for everyone here: from a person struggling to find a spiritual home in the world ("Am I a Jew?" or its variant "Am I Jewish?") to Jews knowledgeable about source texts and traditions ("What did Hillel and Shammai say about divorce?"). Many of the questions posed are asked by Christians, curious to know about Jewish ideas and practices, but the vast majority are by Jews trying to reconcile the ancient beliefs they’ve inherited with the modern lives they lead.

Artson repeats a few pat phrases over and over, especially "consult a rabbi in your area." After a while, these seem to be a stand-in for more in-depth consideration of the complexities that he could delve into while addressing people’s concerns. But considering how brief the columns actually are, he always manages to convey the thoughtfulness that Judaism applies to the answers to life’s dilemmas.

A good sermon provokes thought by adhering to a few hard-and-fast rules: repeating the main point, using interesting analogies or stories, and not running too long. As anyone who has sat through an interminable sermon on a Friday night or Saturday morning knows, that last rule is crucial. And while it may be hard to believe, a sermon can be too short, too. That’s the impression given by many of the pieces in Rabbi David Wolpe’s new book, "Floating Takes Faith" (Behrman House, $18), a collection of columns Sinai Temple’s spiritual leader has written for The Jewish Week over the last five years.

Running only 200 or so words — each — the columns have time to address one issue only and no time to develop any thematic concerns. Wolpe is wonderfully well-read, quoting Yeats, Buber and Isaac Asimov at different points, and the topics that he tackles — from biblical issues to the importance of supporting Israel — are worthy of his erudite consideration, but the brevity of the form limit how effective many of these pieces can ultimately be. They often leave one feeling that there is a real-world situation to which Wolpe was responding, but that are never mentioned in the pieces themselves. The reader is thus left trying to reconstruct the social, political or historical moment out of which the columns ideas spring.

Despite those reservations, Wolpe is a strong writer, with the ability to convey complex ideas in an accessible manner. Unfortunately, and through no fault his own, the experience of reading his book is made less enjoyable by a few irritating editing errors.

Another fine book is the reprint of Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ 1990 book, "In God’s Mirror: Reflections and Essays" (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., $22.95).

By far the densest of those reviewed here, "In God’s Mirror" collects various speeches and articles delivered or written in the late 1990s.

Much has happened since then, of course, and the current volume opens with a new introduction that points explicitly to the great rupture of our own time: Sept. 11. As Valley Beth Shalom’s Schulweis points out, the general situation in which we live and our political sensibilities have been altered, but the questions we ask of God have not. Why did God allow terrorists to plow airplanes into the World Trade Center? Which is not that different a question as one we have been asking for more than half a century: Where was God while 6 million perished? Those are the dilemmas at the heart of this book, and Schulweis faces them head on.

Some of the entries are already outdated: his vision of the nuclear family, for example, bears little resemblance to the harried, overworked, double-income families most of us know, and the threat of cults to Jewish youth is hardly front-page news anymore. For all that, Schulweis shines a clear light on some enduring issues, from the meaning of various rituals to the Jewish response to death. Most importantly, he comments upon the continues danger of internal Jewish squabbling, arguing eloquently and logically for the need of all Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or anything else, to lay aside our differences in the name of a greater unity.

In the only book of those to be reviewed here that includes all the other writers already mentioned, "The World is A Narrow Bridge: Stories that Celebrate Hope and Healing," (Sweet Louise Productions, $30). is also the only one not written by a rabbi. Edited by Diane Arieff, former contributing editor to The Jewish Journal, the collection of brief essays acts as a companion piece to a CD put together by Craig Taubman, a musician and performer best known to many in the Los Angeles Jewish community for leading prayers during Friday Night live at Sinai Temple.

Beautifully packaged, this book and CD set attempt to offer spiritual consolation for hard times by allowing people to tell their own stories and relay the many ways in which they have coped with sadness and difficulty. Most of the contributors to the book share of themselves readily in their essays, opening the most intimate and painful moments of their lives for the reader.

Although occasionally humorous — Journal singles columnist Carin Davis’s turn to ice cream and self-pity in the face of the relatively easy losses of a job and a boyfriend stands out — and often touching, the collection is also a bit morbid. All those tales of sickness, grief and brushes with death can’t be anything but. Each writer does find a way to salvage his or her life and vitality, and that may help someone going through a hard time. But the sheer volume of all that tragedy — its discovered blessings notwithstanding — is bound to have an effect on even the reader most in need.

The Circuit


ADL Rock and Rawls

About 900 supporters of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
filled a Century Plaza Hotel ballroom on Dec. 7 for its 90th-year bash, an
anniversary evening capped off with a masterful performance by crooner Lou
Rawls.

“We stand for the civilized human beings of the world,” said
ADL Pacific Southwest Region Chair Bruce Einhorn, a federal immigration judge.

His half-hour opening speech stirred the ballroom crowd as
he said the ADL will fight for an Israel, “with Jerusalem as its capital, and
we will not retreat from that goal.”

The ADL gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Billy and
Tootsie Veprin, who in their 62.5 years of marriage have remained strong ADL
funders.

“I’m almost speechless, almost,” said retired real estate
executive Billy Veprin. “Tootsie and I love you all.” 

The event’s keynote speaker was Canadian writer Irshad
Manji, the Muslim author of “The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty
and Change,” which is coming to U.S. bookstores in January.

Manji gave a provocative speech in which she outlined
Islam’s historic anti-Semitism, especially in the Middle Ages during the
Islam’s golden age. While she noted that, “the Quran reminds us that the Jews
are an exalted nation,” Manji said that independent Islamic thought now is
nonexistent, aided by what she said were non-Muslim, “Islamo-facists — those
who romanticize Islam.”

“Our version of independent thinking died on our watch,”
said Manji, adding that Muslims today are practicing not an abundance of
tolerance but “just enough tolerance.”

After the speech Rawls covered “They Can’t Take That Away
From Me,” the tune made famous by Rawls’ old friend and staunch Israel ally,
Frank Sinatra.  

“We like to be around groovy people,” Rawls told the crowd,
before giving his trademark, low-voice “Hi baby” greeting to a woman at a table
near the stage. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Slick YICC

Young Israel of Century City’s (YICC) Dec. 6 Night of Comedy
& Soul fundraiser brought about 300 admirers to West Hollywood’s Pacific Design
Center for music, slick sushi, elegant chocolate and clean, sophisticated
humor.

“I’m much more ambitious when I’m setting the alarm clock
than when it’s going off,” comedian Gary Gulman said.

Fellow clean comic Wayne Fetterman’s “guy” adaptation of
Janis Ian’s weepy 1975 high school girls anthem, “At Seventeen,” had the
lyrics: “And those of us who chose debate, would sit at home and … meditate.”

Jewish hipster musician Peter Himmelman performed
customized, impromptu songs and asked the audience if they wanted to hear a song
about his love for his wife or one about his father’s death, saying, “Both
songs are equally valid; they both serve Hashem.”

Among the synagogue members enjoying the laughs and
chocolate were the Museum of Tolerance’s own Rabbi Abraham Cooper and his wife,
Roz.

“Jews are best when they can laugh at themselves,” he said.
“A good place to start is the shul.” — D.F.

Happening at Hakim’s

Persian Jews in their early 20s to late 30s bought bags of
food and toys to the house of prominent general surgeon Dr. Saeed Hakim on Dec.
7 for a fundraiser for Persian Jews United (PJU) and One Degree of Separation,
a Persian student and young professional organization. The food and toys were
collected to distribute to needy children through Jewish Family Service of Los
Angeles (JFS) and the SOVA Food Pantry program.

Hakim’s daughter, Melinda, organized the event — which
featured a delicious buffet and a jazz band in the living room — after being
inspired by a friend in Baltimore who holds annual Chanukah fundraising parties
for needy children.

“I wanted it to be a Chanukah holiday party that was
something fruitful,” said Melinda Hakim, who is a medical resident at the
Doheny Eye Institute.

Mastaneh Moghadam, the Farsi liaison for JFS, briefed the
crowd about social services for the Iranian Jewish community.

“Through the family violence project and programs dealing
with violence against women, we have been able to provide programs in Farsi for
the victims of domestic violence,” Moghadam said.

She also noted that JFS provides referral services and case
management and therapy for the Iranian community. — Mojdeh Sionit, Contributing
Writer

Read Around the
World

Although J.K. Rowling has managed to lure kids away from the
television screens with her “Harry Potter” books, all around the world it seems
that getting kids to read is still a battle for educators and parents. On Dec.
5, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy decided to fight that battle with a vengeance
by joining thousands of schoolchildren in a special reading project sponsored
by Scholastic (the publishers of the “Potter” series) called “Read for 2004,”
in which students read aloud for 2004 seconds (approximately 33 minutes).

The school invited guest readers such as grandparents,
aunts, uncles and other adult family members or relatives to join in the fun by
reading their favorite books aloud to the class and then speaking to the
students about why reading is so important. The classes involved had their
names added to a Scholastic interactive world map.

“This is part of an ongoing plan to increase reading and its
integration into the daily lives of the students at the school,” said Rabbi
Boruch Sufrin, the school’s new principal. “Reading is such an integral vehicle
educating our students.”

For more information about Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy or
a personal tour, call (310) 276-6135.

Sonia’s Story

On Nov. 18 at the University of Judaism, award-wining writer
Sonia Levitin spoke to the University Women of the University of Judaism.
Levitin was born in Berlin during the Nazi era, and her family escaped when she
was 3 years old. She has written more than 40 books, many of which reflect the
Jewish experience throughout history. At the event, Levitin spoke about her
latest book, “Room in the Heart,” a story of Danish resistance to the Nazis
told through the voices of two teenagers.

Humanitarian
Hostesses

When hostesses are united wonderful things happen. On Nov. 1
United Hostesses Charities (UHC) held its 61st annual dinner dance at the
Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Marilyn McCoo and Billy David Jr. were the
high-octane performers. The event honored the 10 past recipients of its
Humanitarian Award and recognized their outstanding contributions to
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the community. The group supports the
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center division of cardiology and the groundbreaking
research of director Dr. P.K Shah, as well as the Didi Hirsch Community Mental
Health Center. The organization’s newest project is its UHC Cardiac/Stroke
Emergency Care at Cedars-Sinai .

Minds over Milken

While the community was all in a tizzy about the recent
Milken video scandal, at Milken Community High School, students were just doing
their thing — learning, studying and creating excellent science projects.

On Nov. 12, the American Society for Technion-Israel
Institute of Technology in collaboration with Milken Community High School held
its third annual Excellence in Science Awards Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel,
where students Noam Firestone, Judy Reynolds, Sara Meimin, Raquel Cedar, and
Bobby Kanter received awards for their exceptional perseverance and innovation
in researching the science topic of their choice.

At the event, Technion professor Wayne Kaplan spoke about
how the Technion was a critical partner in Israel’s security, life sciences and
high technology.

Bright Bregman

Milken is not the only school whose students are being
recognized for their fabulous academic achievements. On Dec. 3 Valley Torah
High School senior Josh Bregman was nominated to compete in the national
Principal’s Leadership Award (PLA) scholarship program, sponsored by the
National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and Herff Jones,
Inc. If Bregman is one of the 150 national PJA winners this spring, he will
receive a $1,000 college scholarship.

Bregman is an all-rounder at Valley Torah. He has been the
Student council secretary, varsity basketball manager, yearbook editor and an
active Boy Scout. This fall, he plans to travel to Israel for a year abroad and
then return to study business at Yeshiva University.

“Bregman has demonstrated excellence in the classroom and in
his community,” said Gerald A. Tirozzi, the executive director of the NASSP.
“NASSP is proud to recognize such an impressive young person.”

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