Marking Tisha b’Av during a long, hot summer


As the fast day of Tisha b’Av approaches, the summer heat and humidity is rising.

That got me thinking: Does the solemn day have the stuff to raise our consciousness as well?

Tisha b’Av — this year it begins on the evening of Saturday, August 13 — marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples, as well as other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Traditionally, it’s a time to remember and mourn those events, and that Jews have been a historically oppressed people.

But this summer — perhaps more than any other in recent memory — I wondered if there was room to remember the struggles of others on this mournful occasion. On this sad day — when we are not supposed to eat, drink or have sex — it’s hard to ignore those in our own time who are experiencing tragedies as a people, or whose lives are being destroyed, some more than others.

Tisha b’Av is a day to reflect on the lasting damage of violence — both of police officers slain and the too many black men who have fallen victim to police violence. Do we pass over them on this day, and focus solely on our own grief? Or do we take a more universal view of Tisha b’Av, and use the day when we are already grieving to find a way to respond to the tragedies around us?

The day’s liturgy pushes us toward our own present-day cities and communities. The Book of Eicha, or Lamentations, which is traditionally read on this day, calls to us from across the millennia, shifting our attention to the now. When he hear the opening line about Jerusalem — “Alas! Lonely sits the city” — we could just as easily be talking about Dallas, or Baton Rouge. The next verse, “Bitterly she weeps in the night,” reminds us of the tears shed over the shootings of black, unarmed men.

Some have already heard that call. At an evening vigil in New York last month, organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice — a group which says it is “inspired by Jewish tradition to fight for a sustainable world with an equitable distribution of economic and cultural resources and political power” —  Shoshana Brown, a Jew of color and a JFREJ leader said, “As we enter the weeks leading to Tisha b’Av, this is a sacred time for Jews to take a stand against atrocities happening right now, as we also remember those that have happened to us in the past.”

To me, Brown is suggesting Tisha b’Av can be a remembrance that recalls both the ancient as well as the “right now.” But what would that look like?

There is a tradition, after he final meal and before the Tisha v’Av fast begins, of partaking in a Seudah HaMafseket, a spare “separating meal” consisting of water and a hardboiled egg and bread dipped in ashes, which is eaten in solitude, creating a space for contemplation.

Why these foods? The humble egg reminds us of how hard life can become — and I think, how hardened we, too, can get to the conditions and injustices that surround us, to the point where we live in a shell. (Do we really understand just how dangerous it is for law enforcement to go out on the streets in our armed society? In a world where eyes have been culturally trained to surveil any person of color, do we really understand what it’s like to be constantly under suspicion?)

Tasting the bitter ash, itself a product of destruction, allows us to consider the consequences of living a life based solely on Hillel’s maxim, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” that then ignores the remainder of the famous phrase,“But if I am only for myself, who am I?” and “If not now, when?”

Fasting on Tisha b’Av, too, takes us out of our comfort zone, allowing us to clear more than our stomachs. Traditionally, we fast to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and the conditions of baseless hatred which led up to those terrible acts. But on this very long day of going without food or water, waiting for the sun to set, who does not have the time to reflect upon the baseless hatreds, both racial and ethnic, that roil our own times, in our own cities? At a moment when I am contemplating the loss of the Temple, will an image form as well of police battling protestors of recent shootings ?

Fortunately, however, Tisha b’Av isn’t just about sitting around and being sad. It’s also traditional to give tzedakah and spread a little hope. On this day of remembering tragedy, we can also use our funds to respond to crises in our midst.

Tisha b’Av and our history teach us to recover from destruction, to mend the broken. For example, after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, Congregation Ohev Shalom there raised over $2,000 to help one of the families of the officers slain. JFREJ has worked for police accountability and reform.

In Eicha, too, hope can be found. Though our national text of pain is filled with death, anger and “harsh oppression,” by its end, we see that our days can be renewed “as of old!”

But that doesn’t happen automatically. Eicha says we can “search and examine our ways” — meaning, with some introspection combined with some action, we can all return to the guiding Jewish principle to love and respect our neighbors as ourselves.

On Tu b’Shvat, seeds of growth and change


For the last three years, I’ve celebrated Tu b’Shvat — the Jewish New Year of the Trees — by organizing a participatory seder in a nearby canyon-top park.

The seder usually includes about 10 to 15 people from my group, the Movable Minyan — a small, lay-led, independent congregation that needs every member’s active participation in order to thrive. We meet in the parking lot, and from there, bags of seder supplies in hand, we take a short hike up past oak trees to a chaparral-covered hill with a panoramic view of the San Fernando Valley.

This is no ordinary picnic. For the seder, in addition to plates, cups and Haggadahs to explain everything (what Jewish event would be complete without a book?), you need two different colors of wine or juice — the change in color representing the changes in season.

We also bring specific fruits, each representing of one of the four levels of existence that the kabbalists of Safed, who created the seder, taught that we live on simultaneously: “assiyah,” doing; “yetzirah,” formation; “briyah,” creation, and “atzilut,” nobility. (Assiyah, for example, includes actions like repairing the world. It’s represented by foods with a tough outer shell and a soft inside, like walnuts or pomegranates, which symbolize our physical exteriors and our inner spiritual lives.)

My part, aside from bringing a bag of kumquats from a tree in our yard — representing creation, which calls for fruit that can be eaten whole —has been to lead the seder. It’s not too hard, considering we have an easy-to-use Haggadah called “Branching Out,” published by the Jewish National Fund. But with the New Year of the Trees fast approaching — this year it’s celebrated on Jan. 25 — the Haggadah was becoming the same old fruit salad.

Inspired by the trees, I thought it was time show a little growth in my Tu b’Shvat celebration. Even though there’s been so little rain in Southern California, the trees continued to grow — I wanted to see growth in our minyan as well. Yes, a few more people would be nice. But, more significantly, I wanted to find a way to better appreciate what each member brought to the table both at the seder itself and, more broadly, to our year-round community.

While attending the Federations of North America’s General Assembly last November, I was handed a book called the “Tu B’Shvat Companion” at a booth sponsored by Livnot U’Lehibanot. The Israel-based organization (which means “to build and to be built”) seeks to inspire young Jews — and, apparently, older people like me — to “explore their heritage and spirituality.” I had slipped the softcover in my bag, and there it remained until I started thinking about the Tu b’Shvat approach.

“Today, we start our feast with seven species [shivat haminin], which are the fruits that the Land of Israel is famous for,” the chapter about the seder began. My Haggadah also mentioned them: barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and wheat. A woman who comes to my seder every year bakes her signature “seven species muffins,” which are surprisingly good considering that the list of ingredients sounds like something from a TV cooking competition.

Still, I thought the seven species could provide a rich metaphor for our indie group, and I hoped find another, non-gastronomical way to relate to them.

Reading the “Companion” (available free online), I learned the date, for example, demonstrated that the Jewish value of “inclusiveness” can be “extracted from the palm tree.”

“The palm tree has nothing wasted from it,” the Haggadah notes. The dates are eaten; young, unopened branches are used at Sukkot for the lulav; the trunk fibers are “used to make rope.” Similar to the palm tree, concluded this “mini-drash” on trees and people, “the people of Israel have no person wasted.”

As I read, the myriad personal and communal connections to Tu b’Shvat began to flower.

Each of the seven species was presented with “spiritual insights,” something our congregation strives for in our Torah discussions. There were also open-ended questions like, “What in your opinion is the best way to be connected to the continuity of our people’s heritage without losing our personal uniqueness?”

The more I read, the more the Haggadah seemed to be talking to my minyan. Each of the species was presented in the context of a physical and spiritual connection: The olive tree, for example, has multiple trunks, like a family.

After all, at nearly 30 years old, our minyan was a kind of family, with each member keenly aware of others’ growth and setbacks over the years. With our backgrounds varying from secular to Orthodox, our diversity was our strength — though sometimes it resulted in intense debate over the group’s course.

Moved by this reverie of connectedness — and awakening to the possibilities a new depth of meaning of Tu b’Shvat for our group — I felt compelled to connect with the book’s author, Shlomo Tal.

Tal spoke with me from Safed, where Livnot U’Lehibanot is based, and where the custom of a Tu b’Shvat seder began more than 300 years ago. He asked me, when I looked at the Tu b’Shvat seder table, “Which fruit smiles at you?”

At first, the question brought to mind the old California Raisins commercials. But then I realized he was asking which fruit I would like to eat first.

For me, that “smiling fruit” was the pomegranate — and for Tal as well. For him, the ruddy fruit with an unexpected interior represented the “ability to see beyond” the outer covering. The pomegranate suggested to him a way to look past the “bitter rind” of some people that we must “unpeel in order to discover” the sweetness inside.

For Tal, the seven species are a way to remind us that community consists of many different kinds of people, each with something to give.

“There is no personal growth without community, and there is no community without every individual going through personal growth,” he said.

Inspired by our conversation, I considered each of the seven species. I realized how, in addition to being an earthy bond with Israel, they could foster an organic connection to diaspora communities — even in L.A., which is so dispersed that it’s almost a diaspora within a diaspora.

It’s with this seed of insight that I hope to grow our Tu b’Shvat seder and our grassroots community.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

Tis the season to be Jewish


The Florida evening outdoors were filled with glittering lights, as a lone man took in the scene from his office window.

So begins one of my favorite stories about Jerry Levine putting in a late night at work, and wondering what his place is…what the Jew’s place is…in a country that is predominantly Christian, with tall pine trees and red and green decorations to show for it.

He wished G-d…someone…would send him a sign to let him know where he belonged.

Let’s face it, Jerry thought, Judaism is quaint…even fun at times…but it’s not a glamorous religion.

In fact, if one in dire straits cut potatoes in half and scooped out the centers and used them as candle-holders, it would be rendered a kosher menorah.

Contrast that to the glittery scenes of the Season.

It’s true that one will see holiday décor everywhere…but that’s when we need to look at our own identity the most, and bask in what is ours.

Following are three components of the menorah to create our own meaningful, beautiful backdrop to this Festival of Lights.

1- The Oil

As Chanukah commemorates the Jews’ triumph over darkness, remembering the miracle of the Maccabees finding one pure cruise of oil to light the Temple menorah- oil that was only enough to keep the flames burning for one day that ultimately lasted for eight days- we do the same, by lighting a menorah, preferably with pure olive oil, for eight days.

The oil itself represents who we are as a people- it simultaneously permeates all it comes in contact with, permanently saturating, and at once will immediately separate and rise above when mixed with other liquids. One can say that the Jewish nation, with its sacred obligation to influence their surroundings with light and morality, have always historically impacted each and every land and culture they’ve intermingled with, from ancient Mesopotamia to the media’s fascination with Israel today. At the same time, while our contributions to the world are irreversible, and while Jews have gone to great lengths to express appreciation for others’ love and friendship and kindness, one can say that our place in society is also a separate one. We are still the moral conscience of the world- but while many embrace this fact, others abhor it. As individuals, we, too, have a responsibility to bring comfort and goodness and kindness to any environment or people we come in contact with. At the same time, we must never feel pressured to abandon the Torah values which make us who we are, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.

We stay within, and rise above.

2- The Order

A menorah contains eight candle-holders. If one is lighting on Day Two, the empty holders are still there. The ultimate way to maximize growth and potential is to fully act on one moment at a time, while looking ahead to more growth and potential- as we celebrate each accomplishment, we can look to the future and know that there is more.

Judaism teaches us that we never arrive at perfection; that bettering ourselves is the work of a lifetime. My teacher and mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe embodied this mindset. When a college student visited him in the 60’s and told him frankly that he admired him greatly and would love to be his Chassid but couldn’t wrap his head around the Chassidic garb, the Rebbe responded, “If all you do is wake up each morning and ask yourself, ‘How can I make today better than yesterday? How can I bring even more goodness to this world?’ I will be proud to call you my chassid.”

There’s always more light to ignite.

So how is it done on Chanukah?

-We make the blessing (on the first night one is lighting the menorah they also make the Shehechiyanu blessing)

-We add one additional candle each night, lighting the wicks from left to right, using the shamesh, a separate candle designated for lighting the menorah

-Even if we attend a public menorah lighting, every Jewish home should have its own menorah lighting.

3- The Flames

We watch the candles for 30 minutes after they are lit to complete this mitzvah, as the flames, in the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe‘s words, “tell us the story of Chanukah, of the Jewish people,” perhaps together with some crispy hot latkes and sour cream.

And finally, let’s think about how tomorrow evening when we light yet one more candle, we will have yet one more accomplishment- in how we related to the people around us, in how we related to G-d, in how we related to our soul. Judaism is big into taking stock of our lives.

Like our friend Jerry at the window.

But the story doesn’t end there, dear readers.

In middle of Jerry Levine’s musings, his world went dark; there was a power outage in his business district.

Realizing that it would take some time to rectify, he locked up his office and cautiously made his way through the darkness to the parking lot.

When he walked outside he was hit by a scene he would not soon forget: All the street lights were down, the decorations off, the holiday tree barely visible against the ink-black sky.

But there was one halo of light still going strong, defying electricity and all the other forces going against it, that told him he had already come home- a menorah with three flames proudly publicizing the third night of Chanukah, telling the story of millions of flames and millions of souls…still burning bright. We don’t have trees with tinsel. But our menorah- be it of potatoes in a concentration camp or of the finest silver in the White House- reminds the world, and reminds ourselves, that we are a magnificent, miraculous, everlasting flame.

Giving thanks for a fight-free Thanksgiving


As my family — and families across the country — begin preparations for the Thanksgiving feast, I started to wonder what kind of family tsuris could rend this day of plenty, pilgrims and, well, pigskin, asunder.

Even in this season of presidential candidate debates, I knew that the table divider at my house probably wouldn’t be politics — after all, only some 6 percent of Americans have had a Thanksgiving dinner ruined by a political argument, according to a Economist/YouGov poll taken last December. But what about politics of a more familial kind?

This year, with my own family coalition coming over to partake in the feast, I didn’t want any infighting. After all, Thanksgiving is historically an important day for both sides in a potential conflict to come together — the day is imbued with the story of Wampanoag Native Americans joining the Pilgrims for that first dinner held in Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, who attended, wrote in a letter to a friend “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer.”

Though our plans were smaller scaled, and did not include a hunting party, we did plan on entertaining for a few hours, and wanted to do it in happy union with our family.

Moreover, on the Shabbat the week of Thanksgiving this year, we read from the portion Vayishlach, which relates the story of how Jacob and Esau — brothers estranged by a birthright that a hungry, impulsive Esau sells for a bowl of stew — reconcile. Years have passed, each is successful in his own right, but Esau is coming with 400 men. Is he going to settle the score?

Though my family arrives at my door without an army, each family gathering does present the opportunity for slights to be addressed and wounds reopened. In the Bible, Jacob sends ahead gifts to his brother to ease the tension. In our invitations to Thanksgiving dinner, I also suppose we send an offer of potential reconciliation of family issues.

Setting aside my projection that our table could be split between Clinton and Sanders supporters — I do have a right-leaning nephew, but he’s celebrating Thanksgiving elsewhere — I could see that there were other factors, aside from voting patterns, that could divide our company: important things like stuffing and cranberry preferences.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in France and the stabbings in Israel, peacefully resolving family disputes may seem trivial — that is until the blow-up happens around your own table, as it did at my mother’s house one year when a guest showed up totally shickered. It also happened at another Thanksgiving when an Orthodox vegetarian refused to even pass the turkey platter.

Like a lot of baby boomers, with parents aging or passing away, my family has experienced recent shifts surrounding Turkey Day. For decades, my wife’s aunt and uncle hosted Thanksgiving dinner; guests were required only to contribute good cheer. But with her passing a few years ago, my wife and her sister began to prepare separate holiday dinners.

Then, three years ago, after my sister-in-law became ill with cancer — today she is cancer-free, something to be especially thankful for — we offered to host Thanksgiving for both families.

So now, the entire mishpocha, comprised of around 16 politely opinionated people, comes to our Los Angeles home. Just throw a bigger turkey in the oven and schlep out a few more chairs, right?

But just because the meal is largely a secular one for Jews, do not think for a second that our preferences for “traditional” flavors — whatever they may be — are given the day off. For many families, there’s only one way to prepare the turkey, the yams, the pie — and only that way will keep peace at the table.

Turning to the Bible, there is a portion (Genesis 18) when Abraham suddenly realizes that he and Sarah are going to have angelic guests — the literal and not behavioral kind — in their tent. They rush about preparing the food and seeing to the comfort of their divine guests — so much so that when hospitality, or “hachnasat orchim,” is discussed in a Jewish context, these verses are often cited.

Yet, no matter how fine a model are Abraham and Sarah as hosts, they did not have to divvy up the food assignments among branches of their family, each with their own tribal preferences.

Many Thanksgiving dinners today are group endeavors, even potluck, and ours is not the exception. My brother-in-law and his wife supply salad and drinks, my sister-in-law brings a kugel and mother-in-law buys knishes (this is, after all, a Jewish meal).

But for the traditional Thanksgiving must-haves, nothing is left to chance — in fact, there is planned redundancy. That is, to keep everything copacetic between the two sisters (who deny any competition), there are two of most everything: two styles of stuffing (one with kosher sausage, the other with challah and vegetables), two types of cranberry sauce (a cranberry orange relish and a sauce made with wine and nuts), plus two vegetables and yams.

Though there’s barely enough room at the table for all the dishes, I must say that all the passing does keep us together. And we’re careful not to play favorites: There’s no singing the praises of one cook’s dish without a favorable comparison to the other’s offering.

There can be no table cliques or caucuses. We dine together or we dine alone. If this is the price of Thanksgiving “shalom bayit,” peace in the house, then call me a satisfied and satiated fan.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.)

How to set-up a guest room for out-of-town visitors


With the holidays just around the corner, some of us are getting ready to welcome out-of-town guests coming in to join the festivities. Having guests stay at your house can be fun, but it can also be stressful for both parties. Whether your guests will sleep in a spare bedroom or on a sofa in your living room, there are many easy ways to make their stay comfortable. You don’t have to follow all of these tips, but adopting even just a few of them will go a long way toward making your guests feel pampered. That way, they’ll be longing to return the favor one day. 

Let them know what to expect

It’s a good idea to manage guests’ expectations in advance, so let them know if they’ll be staying in their own room, taking over the home office or crashing in the living room. This could help them to know how much they should pack. It also gives them a chance to reconsider staying with you if they’d prefer the privacy afforded by hotel over a living-room sofa.

Make the bed comfortable

If your guests will be sleeping on a bed, maximize their comfort by adding a mattress topper. A memory-foam topper, or even a featherbed, can make even an old mattress feel new. Toppers also vastly improve the comfort of a sofa bed and, yes, even sofas. Instead of asking extra guests — or their kids — to sleep on the floor, consider purchasing an air mattress, which is not at all expensive and easy to store for future visits. 

Upgrade the bedding

Think of your guest room more like a boutique hotel and less like a roadside flophouse. Invest in soft, high thread-count cotton sheets and pillowcases. Try to offer two pillows per guest, one firm and one soft, as well as a couple of throw pillows for back support while reading. And iron the pillowcases for a fresh, clean appearance. In addition to a cushy comforter, make sure to have an extra blanket available, and leave it on the bed from the start — guests often feel bad about asking for things, so it’s better to anticipate their needs.

Have storage options

Although most guests expect to primarily live out of a suitcase, it can help them feel more civilized if they get a closet or other space to hang or store clothes. If you don’t have extra closet space, find creative options, like storage ottomans, over-the-door organizers or even clearing a shelf on a small bookcase that can double as a dresser. You can also insert a tension rod or pull-up bar in a doorway where guests can hang clothes — and remember to supply the hangers.

Get rid of clutter

Clear the area where your guests will be staying. Having your personal items around — be they clothes, tax statements or your collection of baseball cards — gives them the impression that they are imposing on your personal space. Let them know they’re welcome by offering a clean, minimally decorated haven.

Pamper them in the bathroom

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of five kids, two parents and two grandparents sharing one bathroom, but one of my first questions when staying at a hotel or a friend’s house is always “What’s the bathroom situation?” Ideally, your guests will have access to their own bathroom, but if they will be sharing yours, make room so they can store their toiletries. Prepare a basket of essentials like a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo, and splurge on a few luxuries like scented soap or lotion. Provide a stack of plush towels, including washcloths. And if you’re sharing a bath, make sure the guest towels are a different color from yours so they’ll know which is which. 

Include the must-haves

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Celebrating Sukkot in a time of drought


While preparing for Sukkot in drought-ridden California, I hoped that the holiday’s joy had not dried up alongside much of the state’s water supply. For a holiday also called “the season of our joy,” one that celebrates the harvest and is filled with greenery and fruit, I worried about how the lack of rain would affect our celebration here and in other areas of the parched West.

[How Israel’s water solutions can save California]

In my Los Angeles neighborhood, trees were dying all around, including a birch in my front yard that reminded me of one from my childhood home. And in a season when the shaky sukkah is meant to represent the fragility of life, fire was giving us the shakes as well. At Rosh Hashanah, we heard that the entire town of Middletown, in Northern California, had burned down. A first cousin of my wife lives there; luckily he and his wife were not home at the time and their home was one of the few not destroyed.

Southern California is in the fourth year of drought. From 2011 to 2015, the recorded total for rainfall in downtown L.A. was a record low 29.14 inches. Forests and hillsides across the state are brown, parched and ready to go up in flames, as they did in the Valley Fire in Lake County. The Valley Fire has blackened over 75,000 acres, making it the fourth most destructive wildfire in California history.

To adapt to the water shortage, some of my neighbors were removing their green lawns and replacing them with rocks, bark and artificial grass. Would my sukkah need to adapt as well? According to the Rabbinical Assembly and other sources, the skach, or roof covering of the sukkah, must be of material that grew from the ground. But with everyone in Los Angeles required to cut back on their watering, would there still be enough palm fronds around — most Angelenos use the fronds for skach, since windy days often find my neighborhood streets littered with them  — to cover my sukkah roof? Would my celebration of Sukkot somehow endanger the trees, even the palms?

Wondering how my city’s trees were faring, I spoke with Andy Lipkis, the president of an organization called TreePeople, which he founded in 1973. Lipkis — who began planting trees when he was 15 years old — and his nonprofit have been leaders in the citizen-forestry movement, helping to plant about 2 million trees, and are working to “transform L.A.’s landscapes into living, healthy watersheds.”

Lipkis told me that in terms of sukkah roofing, I need not worry.

“The palm trees are not dying from the drought. There is no shortage of palm fronds or other potential greenery,” he said, much to my relief. But just as quickly he added that due to the drought, we were at a “point of risk.”

Lipkis had seen the trees dying around L.A., including the ones in the park surrounding his organization’s headquarters.

“We’ve lost dozens of big old trees,” including oaks, he said. The situation is exacerbated because ground squirrels and other rodents, looking for water, eat the tree roots, which results in the trees turning brown and eventually toppling, he said.

He reminded me that especially in this time of drought in semi-arid Los Angeles, “we are in the sukkah to connect with the sources of our lives, our food and our water.”

Lipkis also wanted me to think about why Sukkot, his favorite holiday, was created.

“The rabbis, way back, knew that people forget about the vital importance of trees in sustaining our lives, including producing our food,” he said.

Trees “act like tanks capturing the rain in their sponge-like area of their roots. Instead of the water running off, they put it back in the aquifer,” said Lipkis who has used his expertise in water management and technology to influence policymakers in city government.

Realizing that water-wise, “the infrastructure we built can no longer be relied on to meet all our needs,” and acting very much like a tree, Lipkis has come up with his own plan to capture rainwater — a plan to which city agencies have been paying attention.

Using a system built from a connected series of plastic, hollow highway barriers — in their usual use, are filled with water to give them weight — Lipkis has devised and placed on the side of his house a “temporary, experimental, 1,000-gallon” cistern to catch rainwater running off the roof via a downspout.

“You do a little re-engineering,” said Lipkis, who recalled that in the Bible, the kings who built cisterns in the arid land of Israel were celebrated.

During a recent storm here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Lipkis, awakened by the rain, rose at 3:45 a.m. to find the system already had 200 gallons, he said. By 7 a.m., when Lipkis went off to observe the holiday, the cistern was full, he said.

As a result, the lemon, lime, olive and fig trees that have been struggling in his front yard are now being sustained with the water he has collected.

Lipkis — who usually builds a sukkah out of giant timber bamboo and a few palm fronds thrown on the top — said he won’t be constructing a sukkah this year. Instead he’ll be using his energy to help 10 other households to install a similar cistern system in their yards.

Later that day, inspired by our conversation and with cisterns on my mind, I went into my backyard. I found a wheelbarrow filled with four inches of water from that same Rosh Hashanah storm. I poured it onto a struggling lemon tree that would soon fill my view from the opening of my sukkah.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him atedmojace@gmail.com.)

On Shavuot, remembering the day I almost dropped the Torah


On Shavuot, we are reminded that the Torah is a tree of life to which we are to hold fast. But what happens when that hold slips from your grasp?

It’s a question I found myself asking six weeks before Shavuot, late in the Torah service on the last day of Passover.

Returning with my wife Brenda to Temple Beth Emet, in Anaheim, Calif., where I grew up, we both had come to attend the Yizkor service and to see her family who continue to pray there. Not far from Disneyland, it’s a shrinking kingdom of Jewish memories where, as I walked down the aisle to my seat, I could see my Hebrew school teacher and the familiar faces of those who had been friends of my parents.

A little while after we were seated, the gabbai came down the aisle, blue card in hand, and asked me if I wanted to be “hagbah” — that is, to raise the Torah after it was read. “Thank you,” I said, accepting the honor.

When my wife joined me, we quickly exchanged notes and found that we were going to be a Torah team, since while she was out in the lobby, the gabbai had asked her to be “gelilah” — the person tasked with dressing the Torah.

As the scrolls were taken from the ark, I nudged her, saying the larger of the two scrolls was probably the one I should lift. As I sized it up, I could see that this scroll was longer than the one I had grown accustomed to lifting in my minyan in Los Angeles.

Torah scrolls vary quite a bit in size, from short study scrolls weighing only a few pounds up to tall, arm-length versions that can weigh up to about 50 pounds.

Besides being a holy object, a Torah scroll is also expensive, taking a scribe a year or more to write its 304,805 letters by hand, and costing between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on size, quality of script and parchment.

Trying to keep this out of mind, I counted down the aliyot, the sections in which the Torah is read, until with the completion of the eighth and final reading. Quickly, I walked up the few steps to the bima where I had chanted, in what seemed like a million turns of the Torah ago, for my bar mitzvah.

Grabbing the wooden handles, known as the Trees of Life, I rolled each tight, so that three columns were left showing in the middle. I carefully slid the scroll towards me, and then,using the Torah reading table’s edge as a fulcrum, I slid the remaining section down, bent my knees and levered the Torah up. With the handles about even to my shoulders, I turned away from the congregation, so the worshippers could see the writing, and raised the scroll higher.

I took about four steps to the chairs where I knew I was supposed to sit, and where my wife would tie the scroll and dress it.

Only, there was a problem.

“The least stable time during hagbah is right after you sit down,” says the National Chavura Committee’s website, and this is the truth. While lowering my body to sit, I lost the tension between the two halves, and the half in my left hand began to wobble. Thrusting my arm out to steady it only caused the scroll to gyrate more in what began to appear to me as a slow-motion disaster.

Now, being asked to raise the Torah is a great honor — or, as the gabbai had put it, “greater than them all.” Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser, citing the Mishnah in an article titled, “Raising Awareness: The Symbolic Significance of Hagbah and Gelilah,” explained: “lifting the Torah scroll, is a public act of qinyan, of establishing ‘ownership'” rights.

But if that were the case, those “rights,” remembered on Shavuot with the celebration of the giving of the Torah, were wobbling away both from me and from the congregation, who if I dropped the Torah, would need to decide how to reassert their ownership. Would they fast? Give tzedakah?

One more wobble, and then my wife, seemingly coming out of nowhere, grabbed the top of the errant roller, and even though the parchment buckled into an S-like shape that widened my eyes, she stopped its fall.

“Good save,” someone said to her as she returned to her seat.

In another era, according to Prouser, the raising and dressing of the Torah was “executed by a single individual.” But today, I was ecstatic to be part of a team: a husband and wife, who had long been juggling work, children, family and Judaism, coming together, after some juggling of my own, finally to take grasp of the Torah and own it.

“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,” says the Book of Proverbs, “and whoever holds on to her is happy.”

The convert and the Christmas tree


For me, Christmas was always something other people did. Growing up in a Jewish home, I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold in movies, on TV and in the homes of friends: hanging ornaments on a tree, unwrapping presents and singing songs of Yuletide cheer (whatever that means).
 
As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Chanukah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree. And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all?
 
I’m now 34 and have never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, who is not Jewish and who I live with, has suggested buying one, but I always tell her that it feels weird to me. Even though I don’t keep kosher or maintain Shabbat, somehow having a Christmas tree feels like a repudiation of my Jewish upbringing.
 
We’re now enrolled in “Judaism by Choice,” a weekly class for those interested in converting or at least gaining a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish. We learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups. 
 
In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Chanukah bush, either.
 
“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, why are we doing Christian holidays in our home? If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”
 
After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting and worships the ground that Martha Stewart walks on, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.
 
I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays? 
 
I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows this year, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well-versed in the challenges facing young Jews.
 
Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families. 
 
“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.” 
 
I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, is in the process of converting to Judaism to marry her fiance, Ben. She had an artificial Christmas tree that he didn’t want in the home because he saw it as a Christian symbol. She didn’t see it that way.
 
“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.
 
Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.
 
“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”
 
“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”
 
Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss. 
 
“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”
 
Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said. 
 
Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”
 
The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Chanukah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.
 
“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.
 
Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.
 
“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.
 
“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”
 
Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.
 
“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.
 
As kids, we’re taught that Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple and the last flask of ritual olive oil lasting eight days instead of one. As grownups, we learn that before the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian Greeks, there was a fierce and often violent internal conflict between traditional and assimilated Jews over whether to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle.
 
The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist. 
 
“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”
 
Amanda is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still deciding whether Christmas is OK to celebrate as a Jew. We spent Thanksgiving at her sister’s house, where we helped buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with Amanda’s 8-year-old niece. It was a beautiful experience, but I’m not sure it’s one my children will have — at least, not in their own home. There are no easy choices or easy answers. 

Limitation Drives Innovation: A Sukkot Message


Give children everything, and you give them nothing. 

In a world where endless information and the world’s leading experts on a myriad of topics are literally a quick click away, it is easy to assume that unbounded learning environments are critical to both creativity and academic rigor. 

In fact, the exact opposite is true. As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” It is limitation—not openness—that forces the rigorous, collaborative thinking that leads to groundbreaking innovation. 

Consider a first grade engineering challenge in which students are asked to create a free-standing structure sturdy enough to hold an egg. Moderately challenging, maybe. Now consider the same challenge with the following constraints: first graders have to work in groups of four; they can only use a roll of tape, ten straws, five pieces of string, and three paper clips; the structure has to be at least seven cm tall; and, they have only twelve minutes to complete the task. I saw this design challenge happen in one of our classrooms last week, and the mental sweat was palpable. 

The lead educator at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco talks about the notion of “creative constraints.” In the museum’s Maker Space, students select design challenges—an invention to freeze time, a way to save their school after it’s flooded in Jell-O, a cage for the moon—and they are given a “mystery challenge box” with a handful of materials. They must solve the design challenge using only those materials. According to research out of the dSchool at Stanford, constraints are essential for sophisticated design thinking; they push students to think about the purpose of the invention and the possibilities for innovation. At the Children’s Creativity Museum this comes to pass: young engineers’ mystery box solutions are elegant, innovative and sophisticated. 

Similarly, Sukkot’s creative constraints yield much of the holiday’s meaning.  Building a sukkah is not an open, boundless challenge. Quite the contrary: in our sukkah, we must be able to see the stars and feel the rain and our sukkah must receive more shade than sun. A sukkah must be made to withstand an ordinary wind but it cannot rest against an existing wall. We move from our permanent homes—equipped, for many of us, with every modern convenience imaginable—into the sukkah, a transient, primal dwelling. There we eat our meals, reconnect with friends and family, and study Torah. There, we return to the sense of the infinite possibility. Stripped of so much that we have convinced ourselves defines us, we imagine what we truly could be. 

In the classroom, limitations lead to rigorous, innovative thinking. In the sukkah, too, limitations force us out of our comfort zones, and we find ourselves in a celebratory, aspirational, sacred space where we are more free to recognize our core values. The “limitations” of sukkah dwelling allow us the space to ask the key questions Rabbi Jonathan Sacks identifies for the high holidays: “Did we use [time] to serve a purpose or did we merely exist? Did we use it for ourselves or did we share time with others? Did we bring blessing into a life other than our own?” In other words, are we living consciously? Are we living with purpose?

This year, as I walk the halls of our school, I hope to see many students blessed with the limitations that propel their intellectual, ethical, and spiritual growth. And may we all be blessed with a Sukkot full of the meaning and purpose that constraints can bring. 

Chag Samaech! 

Calendar November 9-15


SUN | NOV 10

AN UNCOMMON JOURNEY

Siblings Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs, survivors of Kristallnacht, will share their experience and discuss their memoir, “An Uncommon Journey,” during the Museum of Tolerance’s Kristallnacht commemoration. A book signing will follow. Advanced reservations recommended. Sun. 3 p.m. Free (with museum admission). 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2504. ” target=”_blank”>aju.edu.

“GREETING THE SEASON: THE DECEMBER DILEMMA IN AMERICAN JEWISH POP CULTURE”

Merry Christmas — whether you like it or not. Author and Rutgers University Jewish studies scholar Jeffrey Shandler discusses the unique impact Christmas has on American Jews’ celebration of Chanukah in an era of consumerism and public displays. The lecture will be followed by commentary with Josh Kun, associate professor with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism as well as the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Sun. 4:30 p.m. Free. Please RSVP. The Davidson Conference Center, 3425 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (213) 740-1744. ” target=”_blank”>sierramadreplayhouse.org


TUE | NOV 12

KRISTALLNACHT COMMEMORATION

The Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and the Jewish studies program of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) host their annual commemoration of Kristallnacht. With prose in both Yiddish and English, song and commentary featuring Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel, it will be a moving evening with the help of pianist Tova Morcos. A short film about LMU students in Poland studying the Holocaust will be premiered. A reception follows the program. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. LMU University Hall, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-7664. THU | NOV 14

EMIL DRAITSER

The Ukrainian author and scholar discusses “Laughing all the Way to Freedom: Social Functions of Jewish Humor of Modern-Day Exodus.” How were Jews able to create communities and hold on to their identity when society told them no? Jewish “jokelore” of course! Draitser draws from his book “Taking Penguins to the Movies: Ethnic Humor in Russia” and addresses the vital social role of Jewish humor. A Q-and-A with sociology professor Gail Kligman follows the lecture. Thur. Noon. Free. 10383 Bunche Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles. (310) 825-8030. ” target=”_blank”>jfsla.org.


FRI | NOV 15

“AFTERMATH”

When a secret is learned, two Polish brothers must revisit their perception of their father, family, neighbors and the history of their nation. Winner of the Yad Vashem Award at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival and the Critics’ Prize at the 2012 Gdynia Film Festival, “Aftermath,” inspired by actual events, has caused such a controversy with the Polish right wing, it has been banned from some local cinemas. Come and learn what all the fuss is about. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 478-3836. ” target=”_blank”>shalominstitute.com

Holiday reading round-up for kids


The good news for Jewish children’s books this year is the occasion of the 20th anniversary of beloved picture book character Sammy Spider. There is even a colorful plush toy available on the publisher’s Web site (karben.com). Sammy’s creator, the prolific L.A.-based children’s author Sylvia Rouss, continues to turn out new titles for Jewish children, and her two newest books are highlighted here. One of them does not feature any talking spiders, but it is a delightful Sukkot-themed collaboration with Sylvia’s daughter, Shannon Rouss. Unfortunately, the same economic issues affecting the secular world of children’s publishing have hurt Jewish children’s book publishing; it is hard to justify publication of books about Jewish holidays when the likely sales of such books will be minimal, thus leaving few to choose from. However, the following new titles rise above the rest and will make fine holiday choices for the coming new year. 

“Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur” by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

Josh Shapiro and his family, along with Sammy and his patient spider mother, again appear in a holiday tale — this one focusing on the meaning of Yom Kippur. As usual, little Sammy is the curious observer of all things human, who never quite gets the fact that he is actually a spider and is supposed to spend time spinning webs, not celebrating Jewish holidays. And, again, his wise spider mother is a font of all Judaic knowledge, explaining various rituals in simple, preschool-appropriate language. Young Josh has disobeyed family rules and played with his ball inside, inadvertently breaking the honey dish, and disturbing Sammy and Mrs. Spider’s intricate web. Josh has been learning about Jewish holidays in school, and his parents help him to write up a list of “people you want to apologize to before Yom Kippur.” In the end, it is not only his parents who deserve to hear, “I’m sorry,” but Sammy Spider as well. The colorful cut-paper art by Katherine Janus Kahn is reminiscent of Eric Carle’s work and is the most appealing aspect of this fun series for children. Other appropriate titles for the season include “Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah,” “Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot” and “Sammy Spider’s First Simchat Torah.” 

“A Watermelon in the Sukkah” by Sylvia A. Rouss and Shannan Rouss, Illustrated by Ann Iosa (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

All the kids in Miss Sharon’s class are excited about being able to bring their favorite fruits to school in order to hang them in the sukkah. Michael is especially excited because his favorite fruit is a … watermelon. Uh-oh! This funny premise will engage children while they are learning about how the holiday is celebrated. Miss Sharon is unusually accommodating to Michael’s request to find a way to hang up the watermelon, and the other children in class are depicted as enjoying the various attempts to solve the conundrum. But before Michael resigns himself to bringing his “second-favorite fruit” to school, the class figures out an ingenious solution and all ends well. The bright and cheery artwork accents the moods of the happy schoolchildren along with a curious squirrel who seems to enjoy watching the problem-solving process. Luckily for everyone, Michael’s second-favorite fruit — a pumpkin! — gets left at home.

“Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook” by Jane Yolen, recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Crocodile Books, $25).

Is it a cookbook or a story collection? It’s both — the unusual format of this handsome book will appeal to families who like good food and good stories. Noted storyteller Jane Yolen retells 18 Jewish tales (adding interesting tidbits about her source material on the final page of each story) followed by Stemple’s tasty recipes, which correspond to each story in obvious ways. The book is broken up into categories of brunch, soup, main courses and dessert. Each story is preceded by an appropriate Jewish saying, such as, “The reddest apple may have a worm,” which begins the Middle Eastern story of “The Three Skillful Brothers,” in which an apple plays an important role. For the upcoming holidays, “Two Jars of Honey” or “The Loaves in the Ark” would work nicely. Afterward, families can enjoy making honey cake or challah with the provided recipes. Later in the year, there are many other stories and correlated recipes to enjoy. It is nice to see that the authors have included Jewish ethnicities other than Ashkenazi. Young people can learn how to make shakshuka after hearing the story of Chaim, the yeshiva boy who comes back to an inn 25 years after eating an egg that he did not pay for. Pomegranate couscous is another surprise main course with kid appeal. Although the oversized book’s layout, design and colorful collage illustrations are particularly engaging for reading, it may be a bit cumbersome for the actual cook. Note to gift givers: The level of sophistication is high, and some of the stories are complex, so this book is recommended for well-seasoned readers age 10 and up.

“The Very Crowded Sukkah” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Bob McMahon (Two Lions, $17.99).

Sam, his parents, and his sister Ava are busily preparing the family sukkah by hanging paper chains, cranberry strings and fall fruits and vegetables, when a sudden rainstorm surprises them and they run inside the house to avoid a soaking. The forlorn children watch and wait by the window for the sun to make an appearance. Meanwhile, other outside creatures have the same idea. Into the sukkah flies a ladybug and a butterfly to dry off their wings. Ants march in the dirt and bunnies shake off their wet, puffy tails. When the rain stops, Sam’s family does get to enjoy their holiday meal in the cozy, uncrowded sukkah, and they eventually clean up and go to bed. Kids will get the joke on the final two-page spread: Night has fallen and the sukkah is again populated by myriad curious animals seeking out whatever crumbs they can find. The large and brightly colored illustrations depict a joyous family celebration, and the text is written in the perfect meter to be read aloud to very young children, who will enjoy naming the cute animals and finding the hidden ladybug. An author’s note on the final page provides useful information about the holiday of Sukkot. 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Aug. 10-16, 2013


SAT AUG 10

MOSTLY KOSHER

Celebrate Jewish culture with Southern California-based klezmer band Mostly Kosher’s bandleader and singer Leeav Sofer and Janice “Rachele the Matchmaker” Mautner Markham on violin. They perform songs and stories from across the globe as part of the family series “Big!World!Fun!” at the Ford. Sat. 10 a.m. $5 (adults), free (ages 12 and younger). John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. “>yicc.org.

“AN EVENING OF DANCE”

The Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series continues with the Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Led by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, Complexions troupe brings its athletic, lyrical, technically proficient and seasoned choreography and dancers to the Ford stage. The evening also includes local favorite Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a creative outlet for dancers in South Los Angeles. Sat. 8 p.m. $45-$85. John Anson Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. TUE AUG 13

“ROMAN POLANSKI: A RETROSPECTIVE”

Sure, there is controversy, but Polanski is a prolific and influential filmmaker. James Greenberg, editor-in-chief of  DGA Quarterly, the journal of the Directors Guild of America, discusses and signs his new tribute to the man behind “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist” (to name a few). Documenting Polanski’s rich and varied career, this chronological retrospective features more than 250 images, including behind-the-scenes stills. Greenberg uniquely captures the five decades that Polanski has been a significant, complicated and distinctive voice. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. “>jewishla.org/yala.


WED AUG 14

“THE HEALTHCARE MOVIE”

If you thought you knew everything there was to know about health care, think again. National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) presents Laurie Simons’ and Terry Sterrenberg’s documentary on the right to get healthy. Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, it chronicles the evolution of the health care systems in Canada and the United States. Now very different, these two countries once had systems that were essentially the same. The event also includes a panel with physicians and policy advocates Bill Honigman and Bob Vinetz. Wed. 11:30 a.m. Free. RSVP. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8503. THU AUG 15

MAMAK KHADEM

The emotional and spiritual sounds of Persia are coming to the Skirball. With influences that stretch back to ancient times and musicians from Greek, Persian and Syrian traditions, Khadem’s concerts celebrate cultural diversity. You will also experience global instruments like the oud, tonbak, setar and kanun, turning your Thursday night into something rather exotic. Show up at 7:15 p.m. for the Kurdish and Azeri dance instruction. Thu. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. “>jnf.org


FRI AUG 16

“>laemmle.com.

JFS brings seders to seniors


For 34 years, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has been holding seders for senior citizens across the Los Angeles area, sponsoring services and feeding those who have nowhere else to go during one of the most widely celebrated holidays on the festival calendar. 

This Passover tradition continued on March 10, when JFS hosted seders for 600 attendees and 120 volunteers at Temple Beth Am near Pico-Robertson, Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and Hollywood Temple Beth El in Hollywood. 

“People are very gracious and appreciative of the fact that they have a place to go and be part of a seder and part of a community,” said Sherri Kadovitz, community outreach and special projects coordinator for JFS. “They’re older adults, and a lot of them don’t have a lot of family here. They are happy to be with friends and that JFS provides this service every year.” 

The services were nondenominational and open to the public, who could register through local senior centers. Volunteers this year included children under 10 years of age, students from Milken Community High School and older adults in their 70s. 

The Temple Beth El meal was geared toward the Russian-speaking community, while Temple Beth Am brought Holocaust survivors together. The third, at Ramat Zion, had no specific target audience. 

Rabbi Helene Kornsgold, who led the seder services for the first time at Ramat Zion, where she is religious school director, said she became involved through Kadovitz, who is a member of the congregation. 

“I really enjoy Passover, and I think everybody should have the opportunity to experience a lively, thorough seder,” she said. “I thought I would be able to provide a meaningful experience for some people if it’s their only seder this year.”

The rabbi said it’s important for everyone to be part of the holiday in some capacity because “regardless of what traditions people do, they remember Passover. They remember being with their families and celebrating the holiday. It seems to be one of those things that sticks with people. It’s a good thing that [promotes] positive Jewish memories.”

JFS has been working with food services company Catering by Brenda for more than 10 years to provide the traditional Passover meals. During the event, there was entertainment as well. A klezmer band performed at Temple Beth El, while singers performed Yiddish music at the others. 

Monique Gibbons was one of the volunteers who helped set up, serve food and participate in the seder this year. The JFS board member, who goes to Temple Beth Am, said, “The seniors get a kick out of it, and they have a great time. It’s a lot of fun. …We have people that come back and volunteer year after year, so we’re friends.”

Gibbons added that due to the seder program, seniors have been able to find their own community and come together during Passover. 

“We are Jewish, and this is what our ancestors have done for thousands of years. It’s nice to see that it’s still important to people,” she said.

Rabbi Gabriel Elias of Congregation Mogen David has led services for the JFS seders more than five times. He said he does it because he likes to help people and give everyone a glimpse into the Jewish past. 

“If we didn’t do it, some of [the seniors] would never do it at all. A lot of them are Russian and Iranian immigrants, and unfortunately they didn’t experience Passover because they weren’t free to [in their countries]. They now have the opportunity to experience something that’s part of their tradition. What JFS does is clearly important and beneficial to the Jewish people.”

The community seders held on March 10 aren’t the only Passover events JFS is involved with this year. The organization is also distributing kosher-for-Passover food through its SOVA Community Food & Resource Program and providing additional meals throughout the holiday. In general, JFS assists more than 100,000 people every year through its numerous programs and food pantry, according to Kadovitz.

Kadovitz said she appreciated the chance to be involved with the seders this Passover. 

“It’s a wonderful experience. I’m thrilled that I am part of this,” she said. “It’s very enriching and very rewarding.” 

Confessing our sins


Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

In Burmese Chanukah celebration, signs of Myanmar’s openness to the West


In almost any other community from Moscow to Washington, it would have been just another public Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony providing an opportunity for the local government and Jewish community to showcase their strong ties.

But in Myanmar, where the government has been run by a military junta and the Jewish community numbers just a handful of families, the occasion last week of a public Chanukah lighting ceremony involving government officials was remarkable.

On Dec. 27, the last night of Chanukah, Myanmar’s eight Jewish families were joined by government officials, diplomats and former ambassadors at a Chanukah celebration in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. In all, about 100 people were on hand for the party at the Park Royal Hotel.

Earlier, Jewish community leader Moses Samuels visited the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate who until a year ago had been under house arrest for most of the last two decades. At the meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly said that she once had visited the country’s century-old synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua (Hebrew for Instills Hope), which is still open.

Suu Kyi had been invited to the Chanukah event but said she could not attend because it conflicted with a prayer ceremony she was holding at her home for her late mother.

The visits to Suu Kyi and the Yangon Chanukah party were signs of the changes taking place in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the last year has seen significant economic and political reforms and new openness to the West. Last month, in an affirmation of those changes, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country, the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century.

“The United States is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you keep moving in the right direction,” Clinton told Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, during her visit.

Samuels, whose Burmese name is Than Lwin, has been instrumental in keeping alive the Jewish presence in Yangon.  Every morning he opens the well-kept blue-and-white synagogue, even though most of the time there is no official prayer service—unless there is a yahrzeit anniversary for the deceased or a visiting Jewish tourist group. Samuels and his son Sammy, who lives in New York, run a tour company in the country called Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours.

Until this year the community’s Chanukah ceremonies were quiet affairs in the synagogue, according to Samuels. But with Myanmar opening up to the West, the community decided to make the event bigger this year, holding the rite at a hotel and including a photo exhibit of Israel-Burmese relations.

Among the Burmese officials present were Daw Yin Yin Myint, the director general of the Foreign Ministry; U Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of the armed forces who is the vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy party; Maung Maung Swe, chair of the Myanmar Travel Association; and U Hein Latt, vice chairman of the newspaper Popular Journal.

Diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, India, Singapore, Britain, Italy and Israel came, and the celebration involved not just Jews but also Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’i.

Several thousand Jews once lived in Burma. The first known Jew to live in the country was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya, who ruled from 1752 to 1760.

Growing numbers of Jewish merchants came to Burma over the years, and in the mid-19th century a group of Baghdadi Jews led by David Sassoon settled in Burma, India and other lands in the Far East. Burma’s synagogue was built in 1854 and rebuilt in 1896. The community supports a cemetery; its oldest grave is dated 1876.

After the Japanese invasion in 1941, many Burmese Jews fled to India.

Both Burma and Israel achieved independence in 1948, and the two countries enjoyed cordial relations for the first two decades of their existence. That included a warm friendship between prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and U Nu, who was the first head of state to visit Israel. A daughter of U Nu, Than Than Nu, attended last week’s Chanukah party.

When a military junta took over Burma in 1962, installing a repressive regime and nationalizing businesses, most Jews left.

In a recent interview, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yaron Mayer, told JTA that relations between the two countries had “remained good over the years.” He noted that in 2011 a Myanmar delegation attended an energy conference in Israel.

Some of the few Jews left in Myanmar said they hope that with time and a continual opening of Myanmar’s political system, the Jewish community here will grow.

“No matter what religion we practice or what beliefs we value,” Sammy Samuels said at the Chanukah party, “when we light the candles tonight it reminds all of us to rededicate ourselves to improving the lives of those around us, to spread the light of freedom and to believe that miracles are possible even in times of darkness.”

Ben G. Frank is the author of the newly published “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” from Globe Pequot Press.

Campaign colonics


What did I miss?

For seven days I didn’t have salt, meat or CNN.  My mornings began without “Morning Joe” or “Morning Edition”; I saw sunrise on a mountain hike, not with a clicker in my hand.  My daily hour devoted to The New York Times was given over to stretching. Pilates replaced Politico. I struggled with steel dumbbells, not Fox News dumbbells. Instead of a tablet, a hammock; instead of a BlackBerry, a blackberry. The only tweets came from birds.

There’s nothing like a little media fast — I spent my holiday on a ranch in the high desert — to remind you how little it costs to be a bit out of it. Missing the gyrations in poll data doesn’t make you dumb. You’re not a bad citizen if you don’t keep up with each day’s harvest of political lying. A healthy democracy doesn’t require consuming daily servings of punditry. You don’t need to track each dispiriting plot point of the primary season to grasp that the triumph of the plutocrats is the big story of our time. You could sleep your way through the whole presidential campaign and — no matter what the outcome — wake up to find that big money still has a hammerlock on government. Sure, if you zone out from the relentless news cycle, you might miss a gory pileup or two, but it’s not as though you need to rubberneck every last car crash to realize how dangerous it is out there. 

There is, of course, no virtue in being totally uninformed. Demagogues depend on ignorance, and a public that doesn’t pay attention to stuff that matters is a perfect accomplice to its own enslavement. Pick an issue — economic inequality, corporate oligopoly, climate change, health care, you name it — and there are plenty of well-funded propagandists waging war on reason. Fake facts, phony expertise and false narratives thrive on stupidity; disinformation is the mother’s milk of oppression. To the degree that journalism offers evidence and cultivates critical thinking, it demonstrates why the free press warrants being free.

But seven minutes of consuming news, especially after seven days of avoiding it, is enough to induce toxic shock. 

If there’s a bigger waste of time than CNN’s panels of strategists, analysts, advocates and hacks, I can’t think of any, except maybe for the gabbers on the other networks. Even the most professional correspondents and the best-intentioned contributors are cogs in the industrial production of don’t-touch-that-dial. These shows aren’t about news; they’re about watching the news. Their business is to sell audiences to advertisers, and the laziest way to do that is to hype everything — especially this breaking news you won’t want to miss that’s coming right after the break — as urgent, fateful, must-see TV. Even if Mitt Romney or another Republican candidate in this field becomes the next president, it would be ludicrous to believe that the airtime that will have been afforded to the race by November 2012 will make us a wiser electorate. Campaign programming may be entertaining, the way a season of football or “The Biggest Loser” is fun to watch, but to claim that the wall-to-wall coverage of this melodrama is actually important to America — that the quality of its electoral outcome depends on the amount and kind of media attention that’s now being given to it — is ridiculous.

I don’t want to exempt the prestige press from this. Elite political journalism suffers from two chronic requirements. One is the need for reporters to tell the story as it unfolds in real time. Because journalists — unlike historians — don’t know the ending, they have to supply a sufficient number of dots to be retroactively connected into the narrative that ultimately emerges. The consequence of this desire not to look foolish in hindsight is an awful lot of preemptive bet-hedging and ass-covering. No good reporter wants to omit a plot line that may turn out to be significant, or to make an assertion without a prudent, and potentially face-saving, qualification. Dealing with the former means paying attention to pointless sideshows; dealing with the latter means making mush.

The other problematic requirement is the straitjacket of balance. A mainstream reporter can’t simply state that, say, Donald Trump and Herman Cain are con men gaming the political system in order to promote their brands; they have to attribute that view to someone else, and they have to dredge up a counter-assertion — these guys are great leaders! — in order to give the appearance of even-handedness. This is the brush that tars congressional Democrats and Republicans as equally obstructionist and unwilling to compromise, and that paints labor unions as the equivalent of the Koch brothers. The origin of this journalistic behavior isn’t some professional best-practices manual; it arises from 40 years of shrewd intimidation by the right, which has used the charge of “liberal bias” to force good reporters to pretend to be imbeciles.

My media detox will doubtless wear off — I’m already trying to “catch up” on stories I missed, even though I won’t end up paying a civic penalty for having a weeklong blackout in my Road to 2012 databank. I suppose I could convince myself that I have a vocational reason to be totally up to speed; yakking about the 24/7 news cycle is what I sometimes do.  But that’s just an excuse. I’d much rather hold on to what dawned on me each dawn I was away: A remote mountaintop is a near-perfect vantage point from which to see the circus.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

In a remote New Mexican valley, a Jewish skiing legacy at Taos


One of the most wonderful things about skiing is the sense of seclusion, the incomparable quietude and serenity of standing atop a 12,000-foot peak surveying miles and miles of snow-covered emptiness. Somehow the prosaic concerns of the everyday world don’t seem to reach there.

So when I scheduled a few days off last winter from my job as editor of a 24/6 Jewish news outlet to go to Taos Ski Valley in a remote corner of New Mexico, I was looking forward to being completely disconnected from my work life. BlackBerries don’t work on black-diamond slopes.

But one evening apres ski, I made a rather unexpected discovery while flipping through the local coffee table book on the history of Taos. The ski area’s legendary founder, Ernie Blake, whose family still owns Taos, immigrated to America from Germany in 1938. My parochial instincts immediately perked up.

It turns out the timing was no mere coincidence. Blake’s original name was Ernst Hermann Bloch, and the family left Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II because he was Jewish. His remarkable journey took him not just from the Alps to the Rockies, but from a life as an Olympics-caliber German athlete to an interrogator of Nazis in the U.S. Army to founder of a world-class ski area in a state better known for its deserts.

Like so many other Jewish refugee families from Europe, the Blakes assimilated in America. Though he married a Jewish woman and had a bar mitzvah, Blake didn’t talk much with his family about his Judaism, and his descendants no longer really consider themselves members of the tribe.

“We didn’t know we were Jewish, essentially; we didn’t pay any attention,” one of Blake’s daughters, Wendy Stagg, told me. “We did Christmas in a secular fashion. We gave gifts and had a tree. My younger brother is active in Christian churches. The rest of us are essentially agnostic or non-believers.”

But if not for Blake’s religion, he may never have come to America and there would have been no Taos Ski Valley, one of the last family-run ski areas in the country.

The way I saw it, I owed my ski trip to Blake. So between rides up Kachina Peak (elev. 12,481) and runs down Upper Totemoff, I resolved to find out more about this Jewish man behind New Mexico’s largest ski mountain.

Born in Frankfurt in 1913 to a Swiss mother and a German father, Blake spent most of his childhood in Switzerland, where his athletic prowess bloomed on the slopes of St. Moritz and as a hockey player on the ice ponds nearby. If not for his religion, he would have been a shoo-in to be on the German ice hockey team in the 1936 Olympics, which also happened to be the first Games to include alpine skiing.

Blake actually met Hitler once, in January 1933, when Blake, then a pilot in the Swiss Air Force, went to hear Hitler give a speech in Frankfurt shortly before his appointment as German chancellor.

“We were not impressed,” Blake recalled years later in an interview with Rick Richards, author of “Ski Pioneers: Ernie Blake, his Friends and the Making of Taos Ski Valley.”

Blake’s family had never been religious, but that didn’t make any difference in Nazi Germany. In 1938, after a visit by the Gestapo to the family home, Blake’s father made the fateful decision to move the family to the United States.

The 25-year-old Blake ended up in New York, where he took a job in the winter department of Saks Fifth Avenue. On weekends he’d ride the so-called snow train to the Adirondack Mountains to teach skiing.

At the time, the ski industry in the United States was in its infancy. Skis were made of wood, not the fiberglass composites they are today, and until the first rope tow was installed in Vermont in 1934, downhill skiers had to climb the mountain themselves. The first chairlift went up in 1936 at Sun Valley, Idaho.

It was in December 1940 at the top of a chairlift on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vt., that Blake met the woman who would become his wife: Rhoda Limburg, a Jewish World War I orphan from England who had been adopted by a Jewish New York state Supreme Court justice.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but by summer Blake would follow Rhoda to Santa Fe, where Rhoda was taking art classes. The trip afforded Blake his first glimpse of the Taos area—then little more than a sleepy town near one of New Mexico’s active native American pueblos.

That summer the couple decided both to marry and make New Mexico their home. Rhoda, 93, still lives there. Blake died in 1989.

On their honeymoon in Sun Valley, the pair encountered a problem common to ski enthusiasts, which Rhoda said almost ended in divorce: She wasn’t a skier, and he couldn’t abide spending his honeymoon on the bunny hill. They resolved to ski apart, and the marriage held together.

With war raging in Europe, Blake soon joined the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, interrogating top Nazis, including Hermann Goering, in his native German. Concerned about his Jewish-sounding name, the Army had him change it to Blake.

Blake flew to Europe on the day of the Normandy invasion and joined Gen. George Patton on the front. He was with the Patton when the U.S. Army encountered the first Nazi concentration camp in 1945. The experience, Blake’s son Mickey said, always haunted his father.

Nevertheless, Blake never felt comfortable identifying outwardly as Jewish – though it’s said that he gave generously to the local New Mexico UJA—and Blake kept his new name after the war.

“I feel it’s not fair to be marked, to wave a flag and allow others to make judgments before they know who and what you are,” Blake said in an interview for Richards’ book.

By 1949, Blake and his wife had settled in Santa Fe, where his ski career took off. Blake helped run both the Santa Fe ski area and Glenwood Springs ski basin in Colorado, traveling between the two in a small plane he piloted himself. It was on these trips that he spotted the remote peaks about 20 miles northeast of the town of Taos. He decided to start his own ski area there.

At first, people thought he was crazy. Aside from the logistical challenges involved—getting permits from the National Forest, carving ski runs, buying equipment, hiring staff—there was no established market for skiing in the area. The closest big city was Albuquerque – a place that wasn’t all that big, didn’t have many skiers and had its own local ski hill much closer by. Taos was more than three hours away.

But Blake persisted, and Taos gradually took shape, from a ski hill with little more than a rope tow and a couple of steep runs to the world-class ski area it is today, with 1,300 acres spread over 110 trails serviced by 13 lifts. The area, in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, averages about 300 inches of snow per year.

Taos’ distance from a major city and its operation by the Blake family has helped keep its intimate feel. It doesn’t have a ritzy atmosphere or cookie-cutter base village, and it lacks the crowds that have made skiing at other resorts as much about waiting in line as schussing.

Blake’s legacy is still palpable on the mountain. Four ski trails are named after the German officers who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. One slope, Al’s Run, is named for a Jewish doctor friend of Blake’s who supported the development of Taos and so loved skiing that he kept going even after a heart condition forced him to take to the slopes with an oxygen tank strapped to his back.

And, of course, the mountain is still filled with Blake family members, whom you might spot working the register at the cafeteria, as Stagg does, or leading a ski lesson for kids. Until Blake’s death, he was doing some of those things himself.

“It’s a family business,” Stagg says.

One instructor I had recalled the radio spots Blake used to run late in the season, when the spring thaw already had begun. The skiing might not be so good, he would acknowledge in his thick German accent, “but ‘dere are still plenty of girls and ‘dere is still plenty to drink.”

“People here have very vivid memories of him,” said Sam Sokolove, executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. “He was a larger-than-life character.”

Despite the absence of a Jewish Blake legacy, there’s still some Yiddishkeit at Taos. Last Rosh Hashanah, when Sokolove and a few friends were looking to put together a spiritual retreat, they chose Taos. They brought prayerbooks, hired a rabbi and davened in the shadow of Ernie Blake’s magnificent mountain.

On the trail of the Maccabees


The heroes of Chanukah are no secret. The legendary Judah Maccabee and his warrior brothers defeated the Greek Hellenists in true Israelite fashion. Just as a young David slew Goliath, this tiny family-led army defeated a powerful military force. That much we know. But where in the world do we find a physical trace of these ancient warriors?

The mystery of the elusive trail of the Maccabim, as they are known in Hebrew, begins between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Near the entrance to Modi’in, one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities, elaborate Hasmonean graves are clearly marked with modern signage. Local legend suggests this is indeed the site of the ancient city of Modi’in, Maccabee headquarters during the time the Chanukah story took place. But is this, in fact, where the clan was laid to final rest 22 centuries ago?

Our search begins with the establishment of the modern city of Modi’in, which launched construction only in the 1990s. Next door, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach founded the collective settlement of Moshav Mevo Modi’im with a similar-sounding name more than 35 years ago. Developers unearthed thousands of relics after digging into two Modi’im sites. The first was Titora Hill, where archeologists discovered fascinating signs of ancient habitation, including remains of a large settlement. An elaborate tunnel system dating from the Bar Kokhba period and a crusader fortress also were unearthed. Today, the ruins stand as a green sanctuary in the middle of a burgeoning city.

The second major find came to light on the nearby road running from Modi’in to Latrun (between Shilat Junction and Mevo Modi’im), at the site called Um el-Umdan, Arabic for “mother of pillars.” During the construction of Route 2, excavations unveiled the oldest synagogue in all of Israel, decorated externally with pillars, which led to the locale’s moniker. Inside, archaeologists discovered beautiful frescoes. Other remarkable evidence includes a 25-room villa from the Hasmonean era and a Second Temple-era mikveh. In the second century C.E., following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans razed this Jewish village.

The amazing discoveries at these sites derailed construction in the area and proponents proposed both as locations of the ancient village of Modi’in. But across the street from the aforementioned Um el-Umdan is perhaps the most remarkable discovery of all. On Highway 443, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bilingual Hebrew and English signs point to “Maccabean Graves — Hashmonean Village.” Here, in a story that rings familiar for many sites in Israel, a group of Jewish schoolchildren and their Zionist teacher were seeking a connection with these strong Jewish heroes in 1907. They asked a local Arab shepherd if he knew where the Maccabim were buried. He led them to a site called Kubur al-Yahud, Arabic for “the graves of the Jews.” On Erev Chanukah, they lit the first candle of the holiday and danced at the cluster of monumental graves. This Chanukah tradition continues today. 

Experts doubt this is the authentic site of the Maccabee graves, but popular belief endures. A look at the ancient texts describing the events of Chanukah offers more hints of the real location. As it states in the Book of Maccabees I (13:25-30), Shimon, the sole survivor, buried his family. He also constructed a pyramid-like tombstone on each of the graves for his parents and four brothers as well as his own future final resting place.

“Shimon sent for the bones of his brother, Jonathan, and buried them in Modi’in, city of his forefathers.

“All of Israel eulogized him and mourned for him many days.

“Shimon erected over the tombs of his father and brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, high enough to be seen from a distance.

“He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers.

“For the pyramids he devised a setting of big columns, on which he carved suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor he placed carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea.

“This tomb which he built at Modi’in is there to the present day.”

It’s impossible to conclude the accuracy of the enduring folk legend around the location of the graves. But excavations dating from the 19th century suggest the traditional site misses the mark and that Midya, a nearby Arab village, more closely fits the ancient description instead. Meanwhile, the experts qualified to actually determine the veracity of the myth are archaeologists, who remain unwilling to excavate the graves due to the sensitivity of the religious community. With the popular fervor for strong Jewish heroes so attached to the current site, the mystery of the Maccabee graves is likely to endure.

For those interested in exploring more of Hasmonean lore, the beautiful botanical garden and biblical nature reserve at Neot Kedumim offer insight into daily Hasmonean life. Activities include crushing olives for oil with a massive stone mill, creating clay lamps, drawing water, milling flour and participating in biblical cooking classes.

Another wonderful excursion through time is available both above and underground at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center, where Maccabee-era houses, ritual baths, and galleries and multimedia presentations buttress the southern entrance to the Old City and Kotel area. Virtual panoramas, time lines and more are found on the park’s Web site.

For more information, visit Neot Kedumim (www.neot-kedumim.org.il) and Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center (www.archpark.org.il)

Olim land in Israel on eve of Chanukah


Some 76 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel on the eve of Chanukah.

The new immigrants arrived Tuesday morning on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group Aliyah flight organized in conjunction with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and
the Jewish Agency. They will kindle the first Chanukah light in Israel.

Andrew Marx, 41, from Little Rock, Ark. brought two menorahs with him explaining that they “have been in my family for generations and I inherited them from my parents when they passed away. Each one of these menorahs, in a way, represents the light they still shine on me from above. Tonight I will have the privilege of lighting my first Chanukah candle as an Israeli citizen.”

What young Jews do on Christmas Eve


Sitting in front of the television eating Chinese food and watching reruns of “It’s A Wonderful Life” isn’t exactly what young Jews are doing this Christmas Eve.

A new trend that started years ago—big blowout parties with lots of time to mingle and network—has become tradition. Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza are two of the biggest of these types of holiday events.

Matzo Ball is a project of the Society of Young Jewish Professionals (SYJP), the nation’s largest and most successful membership organization for Jewish Professionals.

Presented by SYJP, JDate and SLEEK Medspa, the 25th annual Matzo Ball promises a night of high-energy networking and matchmaking for singles ages 21-49.

According to Andy Rudnick, founder of Matzo Ball, the event offers men and women the opportunity to meet in an environment conducive to developing networking opportunities, long lasting friendships and romantic relationships. On Dec. 24, singles in New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston will take part in the nationwide event.

Founded in 1987 by Rudnick, SYJP is his brainchild, and the idea developed from one man’s desire to bring Jewish people together and find a nice Jewish girl along the way. “I met the woman who became my wife at a Matzo Ball,” he said. To date, Rudnick said SYJP has “sparked more than 1,000 marriages and thousands of friendships.” 

With a background in marketing and communications, Rudnick runs a chain of plastic surgery centers called SLEEK MedSpa, one of Matzo Ball’s sponsors.

“When I was in college in 1986 I bartended in a hot night club that was closed on Christmas Eve, so I went to this singles party at a hotel,” Rudnick recalled. “Many young Jewish kids thought it was great but they did not like the environment. People had to wait in line to buy drink tickets and wait again to get drinks. The lights were high. The environment was not conducive to lowering your inhibitions and having a good time and meeting people. It felt like the prom.”

The following year Rudnick worked in a Boston real estate company and noticed that a nearby nightclub closed. He convinced the nightclub to do the event. His mother, who thought it cute and conceptual, inspired the name “Matzo Ball.”

Launched with limited marketing, Matzo Ball picked up steam.

“Boston radio stations got a kick out of it and put me on the radio and promoted it,” Rudnick said. “The first night we had over 2,000 people show up in Boston. They were not prepared for it. We knew from that one event that Christmas Eve was the night where we could bring all these Jewish kids together and turn over to them the number one nightclub in town. The event was born. As we grew and developed it from city to city we kept the same theme.”

Although JDate (the leading Jewish online singles community) helps sponsor Matzo Ball, the online dating service has its own event on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. JDate is the presenting sponsor of Stu & Lew’s Schmooz-a-Palooza.

Held for the Jewish community for the past 18 years, Schmooz-a-Palooza attracts more than 1,000 attendees. According to JDate’s director of public relations, Arielle Schechtman, the event is known as one of the hippest parties in Los Angeles for those looking to make new friends, meet someone special and spend time with fellow Jews on a night not typically associated with the Jewish community.

“Schmooz-a-Palooza started 18 years ago, so it’s not so much a trend as it is a tradition,” Schechtman explained. “One of the terrific things about Schmooz-a-Palooza is that it is not just for singles. Whether you are single or in a relationship, Schmooz-a-Palooza is the place to be on a night where there are not a lot of other options for Jews. JDate is involved in Schmooz-a-Palooza because it is one of the biggest Jewish events of the year and a fun way to build and connect with the Jewish community. This is your chance to party like a celebrity, indulge in VIP-style revelry and toast ‘l’chaim’ with your friends inside one of the hottest venues on the West Coast.”

Schechtman said Schmooz-a-Palooza’s venue, The Roosevelt Hotel, has onsite restaurants for attendees, and since the event starts at 8 p.m., they have the opportunity to have an early dinner with friends and family before the party begins.

“In 2009, we partnered with the 92nd Street Y on a Chinese food and movie event on Christmas Day,” she said. “We also feature Brandon Walker’s Chinese Food and a music video on Jdate TV.”

This year’s Schmooz-a-Palooza features a “lucky” theme as the number 18 represents “Chai” (life) and is significant in Judaism. Attendees will be able to participate in casino games (with fake money), dance the night away to tunes by DJ Ian Gotler, and live the “chai” life, hanging out in the exclusive Teddy’s Nightclub.

However, Jdate is not only about fun and games. Building the community, Schechtman added, is critical to JDate’s mission. This year, the company is proud to be partnering with The Concern Foundation (www.concernfoundation.org), an independent, volunteer driven non-profit organization dedicated to raising and granting funds to support cancer research for all types of cancer worldwide.

“In the past, we’ve also donated a portion of Schmooz-a-Palooza’s proceeds to Bet Tzedek, the premier public-interest law firm which provides free legal services to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds,” she said.

So how did Chinese food get mixed up in Jewish tradition? According to Marc Tracy of Tablet, The Hebrew year is 5771 and the Chinese year is 4707.

“That must mean, the joke goes, that against all odds, the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years,” Tracy wrote. “In fact, Jewish love for Chinese food is neither hallucinated nor arbitrary. It is very real and very determined, and it originates roughly a century ago in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

The predominant groups in the Lower East Side were Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. 

According to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. “The Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. In addition, they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?” Goodman wrote. 

Chinese restaurants also offered poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants the opportunity to feel cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

Part of the appeal of Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza is feeling sophisticated, but also catching up with old friends.

“People do their own thing,” Rudnick said. “It has become a mainstay for summer camp reunions. They always meet at the Matzo Ball.”

Obama sends Chanukah wishes


President Obama wished Jews a joyous Chanukah.

The Chanukah story, he said in a message Tuesday, “reminds us to count our blessings, to honor the sacrifices of our ancestors, and to believe that through faith and determination we can work together to build a brighter, better world for generations to come.”

He closed by wishing the “Jewish community around the world” a “Chag Sameach,” Hebrew for joyous holiday.

Jews, Christmas and Chinese food


I got a cute e-mail the other day, with a photo of a hand-lettered sign: “The Chinese Rest. Assoc. of the United States would like to extend our thanks to The Jewish People/ we do not completely understand your dietary customs . . ./ But we are proud and grateful that your GOD insist you eat our food on Christmas.”  Followed on the bottom, left to right, by a yin/yang symbol, the words Happy Holidays!, and a Star of David.

Have you seen this one too, by any chance?  It turns out to be a made-up cartoon by the writer David Mamet.  One gets so many Jewishly relevant e-mails these days – appeals for money, dire warnings, soothing sermons, angry agendas, evidence of amazing miracles, denunciations of enemies real and imagined, sage analysis, disingenuous disinformation, newsletters, blogs, and jokes, tasteful and otherwise.  Many, perhaps most, inspire prompt deletion, but this one touches the soul, pierces to the heart of the matter, and also tickles the taste buds, at a critical moment in Jewish history.

I know, of course, that in theory We Are One.  The idea of Jewish peoplehood has been my guiding principle since I was taught as a child that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality.  And yet, there’s nothing quite like Christmas to highlight the profound differences between the Jewish People purportedly thanked by the “Chinese Rest. Assoc.” – to wit, those Jews who dwell in what I have referred to, since I made aliyah, as the “Old Country” – and the Jewish people who dwell in Zion, the sovereign State of Israel.

When I was a young journalist in Manhattan, I would attend Christmas parties and feel like a stranger.  ‘Twas the season to be jolly, but I felt blue.  Christmas was America’s holiday, but not mine.  Thanksgiving was nice, and non-sectarian, but Christmas was the real deal, and I didn’t have a seat at the table.

It was not till I moved to the West Coast – where for a decade I worked in the Hollywood dream factory, before relocating to the other Jewish dream factory on the western edge of Asia – that I discovered the antidote to the Christmas doldrums.  In L.A., I would spend Christmas going to movies (sometimes two or three) with other Jews, followed by Chinese food.  Maybe you, dear reader, do the same, joyously partaking of the fare of Asian folks who, like you, are somehow not quite as all-American as, say, the governor of Texas. 

As the “Rest. Assoc.” observed, our culinary customs as a People are diverse and sometimes bewildering.  Some Jews will eat only in strictly kosher or vegetarian Chinese restaurants.  Some Jews keep kosher only at home and not “out”, other Jews believe that anything is kosher if you put soy sauce on it, and many Jews will eat anything, anytime, anywhere.  That’s pluralism for you.

Israel is different.  Chinese food is less plentiful (and not as good), not least because we don’t have many Chinese people in Israel.  We don’t have Christmas here either, not as a nationwide holiday, because Israel is a Jewish country, in even more ways than America is a Christian country – which it undeniably is, certainly on a cultural level.  There is no Church of America akin to the Church of England, whereas Israel has a Chief Rabbinate, and, in effect, a state religion, namely Orthodox Judaism – even though most of its Jews aren’t Orthodox, and more than 20% of its citizens aren’t Jewish. 

In the Old Country, if a Jewish person is intermarried, the so-called “December dilemma” is whether to have a tree or a menorah in one’s home, or both.  Here in Israel, you don’t see Christmas trees (except in Nazareth, East Jerusalem, the YMCA and the occasional contrarian boutique in secular Tel Aviv), and hardly any intermarriage. One reason for this is that there’s no civil marriage in Israel, and legally binding weddings for Jews may only be performed by Orthodox rabbis.  However, tons of Christmas decorations are imported to Israel from China and are used, even by very Orthodox Jews who would never dream of eating Chinese food, to decorate sukkahs on Sukkot.  Go figure.

In the Old Country, for some Jews, another December dilemma is which Chinese restaurant to choose on Christmas Eve – Szechuan or Hunan?  Cantonese, or that new Mongolian fusion place?  In Israel, on the other hand, if you’re Jewish you may not even notice, on December 25, that it’s Christmas, or conceivably, in certain parochial enclaves, be aware that Christmas exists at all.  The State of Israel was created, among other reasons, so that Jews wouldn’t have to deal with Christmas or any of the other holidays that in Europe made them feel like outsiders, often unwanted ones.  In Israel, in the opinion of quite a few Jews – including too many legislators in the Knesset, in recent days in particular – the Jews as the majority population have the right to use the tools of democracy to make other people feel like outsiders. 

In Israel, the holiday marking the winter solstice is Hanukkah, not Christmas.  Here, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, not like the States, where it needs to be a counterweight to mighty, normative Christmas.  Israeli kids learn the ancient stories of military victory and the eight-day oil lamp miracle, but we don’t have the marketing blitz or gift-giving frenzy you have in the Old Country.  In Israel, the IDF fights hostile gentiles, or prepares to fight them, all year round, day and night; while the diplomatic corps fights Israel’s foes on the battlefield of propaganda.  As for miracles, we take them for granted, though many Israelis feel that we probably shouldn’t, especially when planning for war.

I moved to Israel twenty-three Decembers ago, and for me, the anniversary is an annual occasion to ponder the contrasts between my two homelands.  The biggest difference, even beyond Christmas, is that for an Israeli Jew, his or her Jewishness is a full-time, full-strength concern.  And this is also true for Israeli Jews who would make a point of eating shrimp not on Christmas but on Yom Kippur, with or without soy sauce.  In the State of Israel, everybody lives with the consequences of Jewish history, the ups and downs, the yin and yang – everybody, not just the Jews.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.

In tough times, relying on the Jewish community for help


In August, in the heat of the summer, a Boston-area mother of three began to worry about how she would pay for Chanukah gifts. Across the country in San Francisco, a 33-year-old Russian-born mother of six said that thinking about this Chanukah made her cry.

Both women—Lauren of Boston and Lilya of San Francisco (they asked that their last names not be used)—are struggling in a down economy to provide for their families. Still, they are hopeful that with support of Jewish organizations, they will find meaningful ways to celebrate the eight-day Festival of Lights.

As American Jews prepare to celebrate Chanukah, which this year begins on the evening of Dec. 20, Jewish social service agencies across the country are gearing up to help the growing number of needy American families.

In the five boroughs of New York City, the magnitude of Jewish need is huge, according to William Rapfogel, CEO of the New York-based Met Council, a Jewish anti-poverty agency. Even before 2008, when the recession hit, Rapfogel estimated that one-third of the 1 million Jews living in New York City live at or near poverty.

Since ‘08, more middle-class and upper-tier earners have experienced job loss and other financial crises.

“There now really is no unaffected group, except maybe the very top income earners,” Robert Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, told The Associated Press. “Recessions are supposed to be temporary, and when it’s over, everything returns to where it was before. But the worry now is that the downturn—which will end eventually—will have long-lasting effects on families who lose jobs, become worse off and can’t recover.”

At Chanukah, Rapfogel expects his agency to distribute 15,000 to 20,000 toys. In New York, kosher pantries serving those in need will offer Chanukah food, he said.

Understanding the growing need for families, Lauren began calling Jewish groups in the summer hoping to get a head start to arrange for her three young sons to receive Chanukah gifts. She has tried to manage the gift-giving expectations, but admits it’s stressful.

Three years ago, her middle-class family faced an unpredictable crisis that left Lauren to raise her children on her own. Lauren sold her home and is living in a smaller house with the financial support of her family. She is juggling four separate part-time jobs, from caring for an elderly blind woman to office work for a seasonal service company.

Her children participate in the Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters program in New England, which provides some gift cards and will host a Chanukah party for its families.

Lisa Cohen, a licensed social worker and vice president of programs and services for the organization, says the program is inundated at Chanukah time.

“We anticipate a lot of tough stories this year,” she told JTA in a phone interview. Noting that the hard times have hit middle-class families, Cohen said, “We hadn’t experienced that as much before.”

Chanukah once was Lilya’s favorite holiday. She had immigrated to America in 1993 at the age of 14 with her parents and siblings. After she married, she would decorate her home and host a large family gathering, setting a table with special Chanukah dishes.

But last year, Lilya ended a difficult marriage and now is the sole support of her children. She is struggling to find work.

Lilya, trying to make significant changes in her life, says staff members at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the San Francisco Bay Area have helped with everything from resume-writing assistance to emergency funds and supermarket vouchers.

“I don’t feel alone,” she said.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the Bay Area over the last several years has seen an increase in families who had never utilized a social service agency, said Gayle Zahler, the agency’s associate executive director. She said her agency will see a 15 percent increase in the number of families seeking help, with a total of 3,000 families in some kind of economic distress.

At Chanukah, people feel more isolated, Zahler says. Her agency maintains five regional food pantries, including one at the San Francisco office. For the High Holidays it collected a record 11,000 pounds of non-perishable food. The office is gearing up for a similar drive for Chanukah, she said.

Rapfogel says the proximity this year between Chanukah and Christmas on Dec. 25 has an impact on how the holiday is observed. Even in predominately Jewish neighborhoods, Christmas ornaments and decorations are on full display.

“It’s a fact of life. There’s pressure on families to buy gifts,” he said.

For retailers, that proximity provides some optimism.

Naftoli Versch, who directs Internet marketing for Rite Lite, a large manufacturer of seasonal Judaica, told JTA that when the two holidays fall at approximately the same time, retailers can market the holidays together.

“There’s a lot more excitement,” he told JTA.

And Chanukah already is the biggest season for Rite Lite, which this year is offering 50 new products for the holiday. Expected to be among the most popular are home-related items such as Chanukah cupcake kits and environmentally “green” products, including organic vegetable wax candles in a biodegradable box.

The economy plays an important role in how Americans celebrate Chanukah, according to Dianne Ashton, whose book “Hanukkah in America” will be published next year. At the end of the 1800s, when Christmas became more child-centered and sentimental, the rise of department stores led to gift giving for children for both holidays.

By contrast, in the 1930s, during the Depression, the Jewish women’s magazine Women’s League Outlook featured paper cutouts for a headband for kids that had paper candle holders, like a Chanukah menorah. Throughout American history, Chanukah has offered Jewish families the opportunity to shape celebrations that are meaningful to them in their own homes, Ashton said.

“It will continue to be shaped by American Jews as they wish to shape it,” she suggested.

Last year, Lilya didn’t decorate her house. Her 14-year-old daughter told her that it didn’t feel like a holiday. That saddened Lilya, so this year she intends to bring her children to community Chanukah programs.

“I do have hope,” she told JTA.

For Lauren, Chanukah is a time to slow down her family’s hectic pace to celebrate the holiday, using homemade menorahs and dreidels her sons made in Hebrew school—the local Chabad congregation provided a scholarship that allows her sons to attend Hebrew school and summer camp.

Lauren sees a positive outcome from the upheaval in their lives.

“This has brought me closer to Judaism,” she said. “My boys wouldn’t be in Hebrew school.”

Pump up the volume: Music propels the way to a rededicated Jewish life


My 3-year-old son is obsessed with showing people his room, sidling sheepishly over to guests and asking, “Can I show you my room?”

My son reminds me how important our “place” is—“A Room of One’s Own,” in Virginia Wolff’s words. Our rooms make us feel secure and anchors us. (Just ask a teenager how important that is.) A room enables us to recharge before heading out into the world to do our work, and contains the objects, pictures and music that entertain us, occupy and preoccupy us, and evoke memories of another time.

I’ve been thinking about this room metaphor, especially as Chanukah nears. Chanukah means dedication. What we are celebrating is the courage of the Maccabees to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of our Jewish lives, after it was defiled by the Assyrian Greeks in 164 BCE. They re-established the room for the Jews to do their sacred work in the world.

What would it mean for us to dedicate a space and to make room for Judaism in our own lives? More specifically, what does our “Jewish room” (read: Jewish identity) look like? What are the objects and pictures in it? What is the ambiance of our Jewish room?

Is it a place that we feel like ourselves, or do we feel stiff and formal in it? Is our Jewish room more like a closet tucked away, a place that is in desperate need to be organized, the dust cleared away and precious gems of our past revived? Is it a place that we feel a tinge of guilt each time we pass because it has fallen into neglect?

Chanukah is an opportunity to do a little rededication of our Jewish rooms and Jewish lives. But what aspect of Jewish life do we want to rededicate?

Classic and contemporary Chanukah music can help answer the question. We all know how central music is to enlivening a room. (My 3-year-old loves to croon away to his favorite kiddie rock on his new CD while bouncing off his bed and clutching his little ukulele.)

One of my favorite Chanukah songs is “Al Hanisim,” literally “Of the Miracles.” Traditionally inserted into the standing silent prayer, or Amidah, the blessing after meals and sung throughout the holiday, it praises God for the “miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.” It clearly affirms God’s centrality to the story of Chanukah and for the miracle of oil that lasted eight days, and renders less central the military victory of the Maccabees.

Another classic, “Maoz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages,” written around the 13th century in Europe, is a brief recounting of Jewish history and also focuses on God’s centrality: “Rock of ages, let our song/ Praise Your saving power; / You, amid the raging foes, /Were our sheltering tower. /Furious they assailed us, /But Your arm availed us, /And Your word, /Broke their sword, /When our own strength failed us.”

In a world in which we think that our own power/strength and ambition is the cause of our success, how do we let the realm of the spiritual/God/ that which isn’t known/ is out of our control, into our lives when “our own strength fails us”?

A more contemporary Chanukah song, “Mi Y’malel,” or “Who can Retell?” has an opening line that goes, “Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel? … Yes in every generation a hero arises to save the people.” The Russian-born Zionist Menashe Ravina plays here on the words from Psalm 106:2, “Mi y’malel g’vurot Adonai …” (“Who can tell of the mighty acts of God?”). The song places human strength and know-how at center stage. It is not surprising that the Zionist take on the Chanukah story emphasizes human agency over heavenly intervention. After all, the Zionists created the “new Jew,” who left the beit midrash (house of study) to work the land.

This Chanukah, how will you rededicate yourself to understanding Israel and its story better?

Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1983 folk song “Light One Candle” casts the particular story about the Maccabean struggle for religious freedom within a universal context, and links it to other movements of defiance and protest that bring about a more just society. With the closing stanza comes the charge to use the memory of the past as a clarion call to do justice. They sing, “What is the memory that’s valued so highly,/That we keep it alive in that flame?/ What’s the commitment to those who have died?/ We cry out “they’ve not died in vain”,/ We have come this far, always believing,/ That justice will somehow prevail;/ This is the burden and This is the promise,/ This is why we will not fail!”

This Chanukah, how does our particular centuries-old struggle against the Assyrian Greeks to win religious freedom help motivate us to help others with their struggles?

Of course, some contemporary fare is a bit more lighthearted. Debbie Friedman’s “Latke Song” doesn’t let us forget that our holiday celebration would be nothing without traditional foods with lyrics like “I am a latke, I’m a latke, and I am waiting for Chanukah to come!” The song reminds us how important traditional food can be to help us create rich associations (and full bellies) during the holiday.

What traditional recipes will you try this year? How might you spice up your repertoire with some contemporary cuisine – sweet potato and ginger latkes anyone?

Matisyahu takes a different tack. The hip-hopping Chasid’s Chanukah tune “Miracle on Ice” sets up the opposition between Chanukah and Christmas. It confronts us with the threat facing Judaism in a majority culture that seduces us to participate and our need to look heavenward for support. He tells us, “born to struggle and fall but my strength does comes not from man at all … eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right/ Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”

While it is easy to morph December into one big “holiday season” (who doesn’t like the egg nog latte at Starbucks?), what are the ways that you want to draw distinctions between your identity and practice and those of your Christian neighbors? How can you turn the discomfort of “difference” into a source of pride?

Yeshiva University’s a cappella group the Maccabeats with its 2010 YouTube sensation “Candelight” (a take-off of Taio Cruz’s No. 1 song “Dynamite”) and the Israeli group the Fountainheads from Ein Prat with “I Gotta Feelin’ Hanukkah” (a spoof on the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feelin’”) present us with a final challenge: How can we make traditions and stories that we tell from year to year fresh, dynamic and fun?

The Maccabeats in particular retell the story, singing “I’ll tell a tale/ Of Maccabees in Israel/ When the Greeks tried to assail/ But it was all to no avail/ The war went on and on and on/ Until the mighty Greeks were gone/ I flip my latkes in the air sometimes sayin ayy ohh spin the dreidel/ Just wanna celebrate for all eight nights singin ayy oh, light the candles.”

So this Chanukah season, crank up the volume in that Jewish room of yours. Play the music loud, even wake the neighbors and discover the power of rededication.

Kashrut and Mindfulness: Savoring Fresh, Local Fare at La Seine


This is a story about a dream afternoon I spent at La Seine, where chef Alex Reznik is cooking seasonal, farm-to-table, California-Asian … kosher food. The restaurant’s owner, Laurent Masliah, named La Seine for the river at the heart of his hometown, but I can’t help but think it’s intentional that the name also sounds somewhat like La Cienega, the boulevard on which the restaurant is located. Its building is long and low, and its wide, clear-glass front looks out onto the busy street. Guests can sit at the sushi bar to the left, at the traditional bar, in the lounge or, on the other side of two exposed brick divider walls, in the more formal dining area. That room’s palette is earthy and clean, crisp white, elegant but not too formal. Masliah — who, with his eager, open face,  greets his guests dressed in khakis and a dark shirt, kippah in place — clearly wants everyone to be comfortable here.

Evenings, the dining room is full of people celebrating — multigenerational family groups, office mates, lovers enjoying tender hanger steaks, lamb and more lamb (bone chop, belly confit) or the day’s fish on black Forbidden Rice. The dining room’s acoustics are terrific; a couple at a table for two can converse even though the large family at the table along the wall all seems to be talking at once. For a person lunching alone, the small patio area out front, screened by a ficus hedge, is perfect on a fall day in Los Angeles. Taking time to eat and time to think about what we are eating is as much a luxury these days as the more discussed “luxury” of good, nutritional food. And the food Reznik is making at La Seine takes time and deserves time.

Lunch begins with a cocktail, suggested by Reznik himself.

“It’s afternoon,” he urges, his eyes bright.

He is out on the floor often, checking in with diners, looking a little like a clever scientist, with his shaved head and short-sleeved white coat. He is full of energy, and he needs to be, as his workdays begin at 11 a.m. and go on well past midnight. On Wednesdays, he and his crew venture out even earlier to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. La Seine is closed on Shabbat, of course, but Reznik seems to struggle a little with the idea of rest. He sleeps in, he takes walks, but he’s happy to be back in the kitchen when the sun goes down on Saturday night.

The cocktail is delicious, as promised — a mix of refreshing plum, quince, Campari, gin and Prosecco to sip as the world hurries by on La Cienega. Plates begin to arrive. The deep, sweet and earthy-tasting heirloom beets with arugula have tiny cumin-spiced French lentils at their center instead of the typical glob of goat cheese. There is no dairy at La Seine, and it isn’t missed. (La Seine’s mashgiach studied cooking in Israel and also acts as a sous-chef.) Reznik, who is a “Top Chef” alum, takes the restrictions as a challenge, along with the issue of cooking “seasonally” in Southern California, where it is hot well into October and the sweet corn, tomatoes and English peas still attract.

Chef Alex Reznik. Photo by Peden + Munk

My salad is followed by a crudo, paper-thin white slices of snapper in fine salsa, with sweet pink grapefruit, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and a beautiful half-dozen pieces of sushi, which Reznik calls a playful take on fish tacos. Tiny slivers of ripe avocado and cilantro are tucked in the rice, topped with a bite of tempura halibut and a dollop of spicy aioli. The crispness of the fish and the richness of the aioli are perfect together. Because I am alone, I can eat slowly, taking notes, taking breaths, tasting each flavor, finishing each dish.

Reznik prefers the idea of sushi as an appetizer, followed by a more substantial meal. (One night at the bar, I saw a man happily polish off a yellowtail, spicy big-eye tuna, avocado and tempura roll, braised short ribs, extra fries and a lamb dish. One can eat heartily at La Seine, and it also offers a full kosher wine list watched over by friendly sommelier Adnan Mourani.) When the chef comes out to check on me again, he suggests I try something more … manly … for my next course.

It turns out to be his excellent version of the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, bahn-mi, with heavenly thin, spicy potato chips. The bahn-mi roll is perfectly crusty on the outside, the beef short ribs that take the place of the traditional pork are rich and spicy, perfect with the lime, mint and spicy mayonnaise that softens the inside of the roll. The complexity of these tastes, adapted from the colonial French by Vietnamese cooks and brought to America and interpreted here by a Ukraine-born chef in a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, says just about everything I love about eating in Los Angeles. I finish my perfect, solitary meal with a lemon soufflé tart, the last refreshing sips of my cocktail and coffee.

The laws of kashrut can be understood as a kind of mindfulness practice: to take time to stop, notice the details — if you are lucky enough, as I was at the start of a new year, to be surrounded by such bounty — to pay attention to the gifts of the earth, the garden and the chef himself.

La Seine is now open for lunch as well as dinner, and, after Shabbat on Saturday nights, there is live entertainment in the lounge. 14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills (310) 358-0922. laseinebg.com.

Gossiping — What you can gain if you refrain


“What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t witness with your mouth.”  -Jewish Proverb

Too often, I realize that people preface their sentences with “I heard” or “they say.” Intrigued by the personal details and juicy information that is likely to follow, most of us allow these sentences to continue and build up into paragraphs consisting of nothing other than questionable rumors and gossip.

Gossiping, indeed, gives us all a temporary vicious thrill. But at what cost? Upon this realization, I began to feign disinterest when people would gossip around me. It was difficult initially, but as I made a habit of this, I noticed a significant change in my life. I was no longer actively accumulating personal, unconfirmed information that had nothing to do with me. I was focusing on myself, and I was more open to making and maintaining new friendships.

As an Iranian-Jew, I often see the effect gossiping has on other people’s feelings, opinions, and even worse, relationships in the community to which I belong. Why do we gossip? Is our curiosity so insatiable that we can’t help it? How does gossiping affect us anyway?

When you exchange gossip, you suffer the consequence of wasted time. You know what it’s like. So we know a few more details about someone that may or—get this—may not be true. How will this information benefit you? How will you move forward with your life, with your career, with your family, because of information that more likely than not, has nothing to do with you? I asked myself these questions and came up with the following.

Nicole Behnam

By listening to gossip, you are masking your vision by looking through a distorted lens and, unintentionally, judging someone. Let’s say you have a friend named Danielle. Friend A says this about Danielle. Friend B says that. Friend C says something else. Now your perception of Danielle has been distorted by three different people. Could this be right? Judging a person does not define who they are, it defines who YOU are.

It’s beautiful and comforting to know that you are a different human being to everyone you meet. We have all had our share of joys and sorrows, of successes and defeat, of experiences that define us and make us unique and different from one another. But to listen to a rumor about someone and mask our vision with a story about them is inhumane.

A rumor, after all, is just a story. But if it does not involve us, what reason do we have to sit there and listen, to formulate an opinion, to judge, to agree, to disagree, or to repeat any of it? After I realized this, I not only began to express genuine disinterest, but I began to vocalize that the repetition of gossip made me uncomfortable.

“Lo telech rachil b’ameicha,” Rabbi Wolpe quoted the Torah in his sermon last year at Sinai Temple. “Do not go being a talebearer among your people (Lev. 19:16).” He went on to note that “Of the 43 sins we are about to confess on Yom Kippur, over a quarter of them are sins of speech, because we hurt more people with our words than we do with anything else, and the single most dangerous action that you can take in the world today is hitting the send button.”

He is right; it is too easy to hit the send button.  It is too easy to sit idly by and listen. It is too easy to take pleasure in being the person who knows something. Because you get to say “guess what I heard?” at the expense of somebody else’s reputation, and even worse, their feelings.

“You can spread a rumor today that will hurt someone in Israel tomorrow,” said Wolpe. “All you have to do is repeat it.”

Before you are about to pass on a rumor, he advises us to ask: Is it true? Is it fair? And is it necessary? Whether we heard it from someone reliable is irrelevant. Whether it improves on the silence is beside the point. More often than not, you will notice the power of your silence, the honor in not being a talebearer.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project observed that although gossip “unifies people who play by the rules” and “exposes the misbehavior of those who cheat on their spouses, don’t return phone calls, or take credit for other’s work,” she felt significantly happier after dismissing these types of poisonous conversations.

So before repeating a rumor this year and from now on, before even listening to the gossip in the first place, let’s opt out. “You can create a world with words, and you can destroy someone’s world with words,” said Wolpe. If nothing else, let’s use our words this year more wisely, more kindly, more effectively, and more productively.

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year


Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

Serious to cute, holiday books inspire all ages


There is always something new on the shelf for the upcoming Jewish holidays, and this year we highlight a few nice children’s books and some worthwhile spiritual reading for adults. We celebrate the facelift of the Hillel machzor after 25 years, note a couple of worthwhile new adult volumes and give a nod to popular Jewish children’s book publisher Kar-Ben, who has pretty much cornered the market on holiday titles this year.

“On Wings of Awe: A Fully Transliterated Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” revised edition, by Rabbi Richard Levy (Ktav Publishing: $24.95).

Rabbi Richard Levy’s revolutionary High Holy Days prayer book, “On Wings of Awe,” was published 25 years ago and was considered enormously innovative. Allowing for transliterations of Hebrew text, including matriarchs along with patriarchs and providing translations that dealt sensitively with gender issues, it was welcomed particularly by Hillel congregations worldwide and many in the Reform Jewish community. Now, Rabbi Levy has revised the machzor to include more poetic translations, new interpretive readings and added prayers. Of particular interest is the transliteration of every Hebrew prayer in the service. Levy comments: “This is particularly important on these days when so many Jews who may have little contact with prayer throughout the year want to pour out their deepest thoughts and hopes, not only through elegant English offerings but by participating in Hebrew prayers that may carry deep association for them. If they cannot read Hebrew letters, this door is closed to them.”

“Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder From the Rabbis of the Talmud,” by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky (Jewish Lights Publishing: $24.99).

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, popular author of nine previous books and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has collected 22 short narratives (one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet) that are perfect for bedside reading or for a holiday afternoon. Visotzky retells ancient biblical and midrashic tales with large doses of humor and wit, and opens up those stories to provide insight into important issues of modern life. Fascinating and informative, each story also highlights the history of the times, the nuances of the rabbinical discussion surrounding the tale, and Visotzky’s own take on the whole thing.

“Here I Am: Jewish Spiritual Wisdom for Becoming More Present, Centered and Available for Life,” by Leonard Felder (Trumpeter Books: $15.95).

For those looking for a way to find the calm within, Leonard Felder (the West Los Angeles psychologist who has written 12 books on Jewish spirituality and personal growth), has discovered how to draw upon centuries-old Jewish sources to focus the mind. The book is excellent for those who are interested in finding ways to relieve family tension and become more relaxed and loving. But Felder states that these easy-to-follow methods also help Jewish teens and young adults. “Young people realize you don’t need to search outside of Judaism for tools on mindfulness and centering. They can learn how to de-stress and refocus on days when they are feeling overloaded, rushed, or pulled in several different directions at once.”

“What’s the Buzz: Honey for a Sweet New Year,” by Allison Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern (Kar-Ben: $15.95).

Just in time for a Rosh Hashanah treat, kids learn about bees and how honey is made. This is the third book in a delightful series about nature in Israel and how it relates to Jewish holidays. (The others in the series are also highly recommended: “Sukkot Treasure Hunt” and “Harvest of Light.”) Life in Israel is explored through a child’s eyes as she celebrates the New Year by dipping her apples in honey that she has gathered from a local bee farm. It is a pleasure to visit typical Israeli families through this series. American children can be exposed to the side of Israel that is removed from the political conflict and focus on positive aspects of life in that country.

“Talia and the Rude Vegetables,” by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Francesca Assirelli (Kar-Ben: $16.95).

Talia doesn’t get it. Grandma wants her to go to the garden and gather “rude vegetables” for a Rosh Hashanah stew. “How can a vegetable be ‘rude’?” Talia wonders, but she is a city girl, and she does as she is told. After she finds an ornery onion, a crooked carrot, a terrible turnip and a peculiar parsnip to bring to Grandma, she devises a way to perform a holiday mitzvah to help a less fortunate family. Finally, she and Grandma boil up a delicious pot of (root) vegetable stew in this fun and colorful tale.

“Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast,” by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry (Kar-Ben: $16.95).

In this simple story for very young children, siblings Sadie and Ori wake up quite early in the morning on Sukkot and problem-solve their way into making breakfast for themselves and their stuffed animal friends. The lovely, soft watercolor paintings that depict the joyous sharing of a Sukkot meal are the true stars of this pleasant, undemanding narrative.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

Israel offers good-will gestures for Christmas


Christian Palestinian residents of the West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel, including overnight, for Christmas.

The gesture is among several being implemented by Israel’s military and Civil Administration for Palestinians celebrating the holiday.

Also, some 300 Christian Palestinians will be allowed to go to Ben Gurion Airport, subject to a security check; 500 Christian Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip over the age of 35 will be permitted entry into the West Bank and into Israel for religious and family gatherings subject to a security clearance; and 200 Christian residents of Arab countries will be permitted to enter the West Bank for the holiday.

Thousands of pilgrims are expected to visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem during the Christmas season. Christmas ceremonies will take place in accordance with the “Status-Quo Principle,” relating to the ceremonial traditions established in years past, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, the Israeli city of Haifa unveiled in its city center a 38-foot Christmas tree made of recycled water bottles and other plastic objects. The tree, comprised of 5,480 recycled bottles and illuminated by LED-certified lights, was created by Israeli designer Hadas Itzcovitch and her father, artist Ernest Itzcovitch, to raise awareness of environmental issues.

A Yeshiva boy and Christmas


When I was 20, I spent my junior year in college in England. When classes let out for the last two weeks of December, I traveled to Morocco, where something life-changing occurred.

What happened was that I felt a longing, even an emptiness, I had never before experienced. Something was missing from my life, but I could not at first identify it. I knew it was not about being without friends or family — after all, I hadn’t been with family or friends in England for the previous three months. And it wasn’t about being alone — I had gotten used to traveling by myself.

This sense of missing something kept gnawing at me, until one day I realized what it was: I missed the Christmas season. I missed that time of year in America.

At first I denied it. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home and in yeshivas, I had obviously never celebrated Christmas. How could I miss something that I never had? And being so Jewish, how could I miss the quintessential Christian holiday? It seemed religiously wrong, maybe even sinful.

But I could not conjure up any other explanation: I was in a non-Christian country, and therefore I heard no Christmas songs, saw no Christmas decorations, and Dec. 25 was just another day.

I subsequently spent a lot of time reflecting on this. It made little sense to me: Why would a yeshiva boy miss the Christmas season?

I came to two life-changing realizations. First, though my yeshiva world did everything possible to deny the existence of Christmas — for example, we had school on Christmas Day, and “midwinter vacation,” as it was called, was at the end of January, not at the end of December — this yeshiva boy really liked the Christmas season.

And, second, this Jew, whose yeshiva upbringing taught him to think of himself only as a Jew, was in fact an American as well.

Though it took more than a few years to fully realize just how deeply American I was and how much I appreciated American Christianity, it was Christmas in Morocco in 1968 that first opened my eyes. And I was never the same.

My youth in New York had consisted of an Orthodox home, Orthodox shul, Orthodox yeshiva, Orthodox friends and Orthodox Zionist summer camp in which only Hebrew was spoken and which was entirely Israel-oriented. Of course, I was an American, but how was I supposed to feel American? Little in my life reinforced that feeling (except for my father’s stories and picture books from his years as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II).

In that Orthodox world, American identity was not denigrated, just ignored. Anything Christian, however, was sometimes denigrated and always avoided — with one exception: Every year, in my home, we four Orthodox Jews would watch the Christmas Mass from Rome. We were fascinated by the pageantry and ritual.

So, until I was an adult, my contact with Christians and Christianity was almost nonexistent — except for Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I remember as a youngster aching to speak to this ultimate Other — a Christian. What were they like, I wondered? Did they really only have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven? Did they not have to do anything? I remember having “Christian-envy” as a child: They could drive every day of the week and eat whatever they wanted and still go to heaven — what a deal!

The Morocco revelations — that I missed something Christian and that I felt quite American, not just Jewish — were, therefore, a jolt.

As the years passed, I not only made peace with my American identity and with my enjoyment of the Christmas season, I came to treasure that season and to fall in love with America and its distinct values (what I call the American Trinity: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum). While director of a Jewish institution — the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley — I volunteered to be a Santa Claus for the Simi Valley Rotary Club, of which I was a member. So, during the same week that I led Shabbat activities for a thousand Jews, I also went to my Rotary Club meeting (what is more American than the Rotary Club?), and I played Santa Claus at a local department store.

It is that season now, and I never fail to get goose bumps when I hear Burl Ives sing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” let alone when I attend a live performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” surely the most glorious religious music ever composed. I love hearing people wish each other “Merry Christmas.” When my yarmulke-wearing children were younger, I used to take them to see beautiful Christmas lights on homes.

Those who wish to remove Christmas trees from banks and colleges and other places where Americans gather are not only attempting to rob the 90 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas of their holiday, they are robbing this committed Jew, too.

And, to think, I first realized all this in a Muslim country.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.