Growing anger over American drones in Yemen


“Mrs. Michele Obama: Tell us can your husband sleep after so many innocent people were killed by his drones?” read a banner held by a Yemeni activist at a recent rally to protest increasing American drone strikes in Yemen.

The rally reflected the growing anti-American feeling among Yemenis, who strongly oppose increasing drone strikes that sometimes result in the killing of innocent civilians, including women and children.

So while American forces are succeeding in hitting gunmen in Al-Qa'ida, the drone strikes have also fueled anger against the US, especially in areas regularly vulnerable to the attacks. 

“The negative aspects of drones greatly outweigh their gains,” Saeed Obaid, a Yemeni analyst and expert on anti-terrorism and chairman of the Al-Jahmi Center for Studies, told The Media Line.

The 2011 political deadlock eventually resulting in then President Ali Abdullah Saleh's resignation caused Saleh's government to cut back on its anti-terrorism cooperation with the US. Washington therefore began using an increasing number of drones to contain Yemen's local franchise of Al-Qa'ida, which exploited the unrest and took control of large portions of south and southeastern Yemen.

Based in Yemen's mountainous areas, Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered by Washington to be the most dangerous cell of the global terror network.

Government officials say they have no figures on the number of US drone attacks, but human rights organizations, the press, and other observers agree drone strikes hit a record high last year.

There is disagreement, however, over the exact number of attacks, with The Associated Press (AP) claiming 40 strikes in 2012 but Yemen's National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) recording 81 last year. AP reported nine so far this year.

“The Long War Journal”, a Web site that reports on the battle against international terror, reported that in 2012 alone it had confirmed 228 deaths from drone attacks, including 35 civilians. However, the Yemen-based civil rights group Maonah Association for Human Rights and Immigration put the dead at over 300 people, mostly civilians.

Those living in areas frequently targeted by the unmanned planes say their lives have been significantly affected by the drones.

“The American strikes have had a huge psychological impact on the citizens as we don't know when and where the next American drone is going to strike,” Khaled Alabd, a Yemeni reporter and activist based in his home town of Lawdar – an Al-Qa'ida stronghold — told The Media Line. “Indeed, the sound of these drones that keep roaming our sky instills fear into our hearts. Many civilians were killed, and we never knew when we might be hit by a missile.

“With every American drone attack resulting in civilian deaths, anti-American sentiments increase against Washington as well as against the government which endorses these attacks,” he said.

The protests against the drones have been stepped-up recently. Last week, dozens of Yemeni human rights activists held a rally in front of the US embassy here to denounce the drone strikes and demand an immediate halt to what they called “extrajudicial killings.”

They also sent a letter to US President Barack Obama expressing their anger over the drone policy and continuous American violation of Yemen's sovereignty.

“We sent this message to Obama as Yemeni citizens whose country has been pounded by American predators ever since he came to power…All Yemenis stand against terrorism but they also stand against the illegal and immoral use of drones in the war against terrorism,” Mohammed Abdu Al-Absi, a well-known journalist and a leading figure at the protest, told The Media Line.

“Extrajudicial killings by the American predators are crimes against humanity,” he said, adding, “We respect American laws, so they have to respect ours  and help us do the same, not violate the laws themselves by infringing on our sovereignty and killing people without a trial.

“Killing a civilian or a terrorist by American predators is like gunning down people who participate in peaceful protests, with the only difference in the identity of the predator,” he continued.

Other activists agreed.

“We are against terrorists, but we are also against this illegal American way of killing people. Everyone has the right to a fair trial and the drones take this right away as they kill people without convictions,” Mohammed Alaw, head of the Maonah Association, told The Media Line. “This strategy ignores the well-known principle that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”

The rally came just days after a Yemeni activist whose village was struck by an American drone a week earlier delivered moving testimony on the ill effects of drones before a meeting of the American Senate Judiciary Committee

Farea Al-Muslimi, 22, of the Yemeni village of Wessab explained how his village had been mostly pro-American, largely because of his descriptions of the wonderful year of high school he spent in the US. A drone strike in Wessab against a man whom Muslimi insisted could easily have simply been arrested changed all that.  

“What the violent militants have previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab. This is not an isolated incident – the drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis,” he said in his testimony.

“I believe in America and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the US airstrikes have caused and how much they are harming the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program.”

While the drones have also helped the Yemeni government retake areas taken over by Al-Qa'ida-affiliated fighters in 2011, Yemeni analysts agree with Al-Muslimi that they do more harm than good in fighting terrorism.

Obaid of the al-Jahmi Center told The Media Line, “No one can deny the gains of the drones in the war against terrorism, but no one can deny their ill effects, either.”

“Actually the drones have helped America get rid of high-ranking Al-Qa'ida leaders, but simultaneously they helped the terror group garner more supporters and sympathizers,” he said.

“With every civilian casualty, Al-Qaida garners a thousand new supporters ranging from fighters to sympathizers. Such attacks also adversely affect the liberal forces, as people tend to support extremist groups out of sympathy,” journalist Al-Absi said.

Abdusalam Mohammed, Chairman of the Abaad Studies and Research Center, a non-profit Yemeni organization, said he believes that the biggest negative aspect of the American drones is the lack of transparency.

“The American use of drones is surrounded by ambiguity: Their technology and techniques are kept secret and so are their goals and strategies,” he told The Media Line.

“Unfortunately, the United States is only looking out for its short term gains in eliminating such terrorists, when it should also consider the interests of the country on whose soil its drones strike,” he said.

Underscoring his point, Mohammed cited the killing of the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awiaki in 2011 as an example.

The US considered killing Al-Awiaki a victory in the war against terror, but in fact this has had huge adverse effects on the ground, Mohammed said, adding: “That attack cost Yemen millions of dollars to the retaliatory sabotage attacks on oil pipelines in the region and helped Al-Qa'ida gain more popularity and garner wide public support.”

Obaid and Mohammed agreed that civilian casualties significantly decreased after the regime changed, attributing this to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour  Hadi's being a more reliable partner in the war against terrorism than his predecessor.

Mohammed concluded, however, “To avoid ever-increasing wide public anger, Sana'a and Washington have to reassess their strategy in their cooperation on the war in a way that helps both countries fight terrorism without infringing on Yemen's sovereignty and which promises no killing of civilians.”

Live in the ‘hood: lingering Shabbat


I thought I understood the unique power of Shabbat, until I moved to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood a few months ago.

It’s not like I’m a novice on thesubject. For several years, in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Venice Beach, I was part of an eclectic band of yuppie frummies who made Shabbat a major happening (Shlomo Carlebach slept in my house!). And for more than a decade after that, in Pacific Palisades and in Beverly Hills, I participated in more than my fair share of Shabbatons, farbrengen tables, shiurims, melave malkas, you name it; we didn’t just do Shabbat, we invited everyone to celebrate along with us.

So how is it possible that moving to a heavily Jewish neighborhood could change my perception of this one day that I thought I knew so well?

It hit me indirectly on the day after Sukkot, when I was invited to the neighbors for the first post-sukkah holiday meal. Someone made the comment that it was sad to see the sukkah now, because the magic was gone, and someone else added that that was precisely the point — the sukkah was there to remind us of how transient life can be. Next year, the sukkah and its magic will come again, and it will go away again.

That, I realized, is pretty much how I’ve always seen Shabbat — as a magical celebration that comes and goes every week.

I can tell you that in this neighborhood, Shabbat does not just come and go every week. In fact, it never really goes away. It’s more like a state of mind, a way of life, an energy source.

You can probably imagine what the actual day of Shabbat looks like in this neighborhood. Time stops. A thousand strollers are out. On Pico Boulevard, shul goers walk with a sense of purpose to their respective shuls. Most of the stores are closed, and the car traffic is reduced, but you can still see that it’s a major thoroughfare.

I feel the Shabbat energy more in the residential part of the hood. From certain Shabbat tables (I was in one of them), you can see and greet neighbors walking by (more and more, I hear Ashkenazim say “Shabbat Shalom” and Sephardim say “Good Shabbos” — long live integration). Well-dressed families stroll along the quiet streets, adding a sense of dignity to the atmosphere. Kids play on the street, and on my block at least, most of the front doors stay open. Needless to say, the Shabbat feeling is everywhere.

But what I find especially revealing in this neighborhood is what happens after Shabbat — the way the Shabbat energy overflows into the regular week. I spend a lot of time here during the week, and much of what I see and feel is similar to what I see and feel on Shabbat. The special restrictions — like no driving — are gone, of course, but the peaceful nature of Shabbat is still very much present.

You can feel this quiet energy that encourages you to keep certain Shabbat rituals going. Who needs video games and TV during the week?Why not have a few more get-togethers? Why not spend more time with the kids, or do more reading and, learning like we love to do on Shabbat?

It’s a classic neighborhood dynamic. The people you eat, pray, learn and play with on Shabbat are often the same people you see everyday — in one of the local shops, at a Torah class or just on the street. So the Shabbat memories are always fresh; they “live” with you throughout the week.

This phenomenon — the lingering Shabbat — is very alive in my new neighborhood.

And it can have as much, if not more power, than the day of Shabbat itself. Many of the Shabbats I had in the Diaspora (Pacific Palisades) were actually more intense than the ones I have in the hood. But when Sundays rolled around, boy would you feel the exile. Here, when Sunday arrives, Shabbat still “carries” you; all the familiar “Shabbat faces” are still walking around the neighborhood, as they do throughout the week. The friendly glow of Shabbat does not easily fade.

Some people might find this lingering Shabbat suffocating, others comforting. I actually find it helpful, because I like to be reminded of the Shabbat way: peaceful, joyous, unplugged. During the week, these “Shabbat moments” keep me centered, and help me navigate the uncertainties of life.

Because the source of power for the lingering Shabbat is the day of Shabbat itself, the weekly rhythm is critical. You’re never more than a few days away from the big day. This anchors you. You celebrate some big ones — Passover, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, etc. — once a year, but thanks to Shabbat, your weekly source of power is always right around the corner. When you leave a holiday celebration, and you say “see you next year” instead of “see you next week,” that does not anchor you. It’s more likely to just blow you away (literally), like a Super Bowl or an Academy Awards show might, until you get blown away again next year.

Shabbat, the way I experience it in this neighborhood, doesn’t blow me away. It blows me in. I live it one day, then I feel it lingering around me all week long, and I better understand its elusive power.

To tell you the truth, I love the lingering Shabbat as much as I love Shabbat itself. I want more of it. I need more of it. I need the peacefulness that I taste on Shabbat to kick in on Wednesday morning, just before I’m tempted to yell at the kids because they’re late for school; or on Thursday afternoon, just before I’m tempted to say something that might hurt my mother’s feelings; or on Monday night, just before I plug in to the computer instead of plugging in to my kids.

The Kotzker Rebbe once explained that the commandment to keep the Shabbat also means that we should keep it with us at all times.Until I moved to the hood, I never totally understood what he meant.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Democrats and Republicans again; Suissa’s Pico-Robertson ‘hood; A correction


Bill Boyarsky

Bill Boyarsky’s piece on public schools neglected to mention both Bob Hertzberg and Dr. Keith Richman’s contribution to the movement to transform Los Angeles schools (“Mayor’s Plan for Schools Gets ‘E’ for Effort,” Sept. 22) Most importantly, teachers not politicians, will be the final arbiters of whether our schools set high standards, improve and obtain excellent results or not.

David Tokofsky
Los Angeles School Board
District 5

Fire in the Hood

What David Suissa made explicit in his beautiful article we would like to make explicit (“Fire in the Hood,” Sept. 29). The bite of the ordeal we are going through as a result of the fire has been considerably softened by the love we feel around us. We are blessed. Thank you to everyone for your concern, for your help and for your prayers.

My hunch is that someday all of us who live in this community will look back at this period some day and realize that we were living through a charmed golden moment of the “West Coast exile.” David Suissa’s articles go well beyond describing our beautiful community, they help us to redefine it.

Kol Hakavod.

David, Deena, Aviva and Noa Brandes
Via e-mail

RJC vs. Dems

In the ongoing squabbling in these pages over whether Republicans or Democrats are better for Israel, letter writer Norman Epstein states that “[the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], the Republican Jewish Coalition, and the mainstream Jewish community supported congressional legislation to oppose U.S. funding of Hamas” while “Americans for Peace Now [APN] and other groups whose policies have long been discredited, lobbied for funding Hamas, confusing lawmakers.”

In reality, it is Epstein who is confused. The policies of APN, a Zionist organization supporting the survival of a secure, democratic Israel, far from being discredited, represent the mainstream of pro-Israel American Jewish opinion. APN has never lobbied for U.S. funding of Hamas. Rather, we opposed the House version of this legislation because it had nothing to do with opposing aid to Hamas (aid which is already barred under U.S. law), and everything to do with using Hamas as a pretext for banning, limiting, conditioning and sanctioning virtually every aspect of U.S. contacts with even those Palestinians who oppose Hamas. This is bad policy, for both the United States and Israel. In his confusion, Epstein also seems unaware that the House bill was opposed not only by the entirely nonpartisan APN, but also by President Bush (not generally known as an “aging Jewish liberal”), for very similar reasons to ours.Epstein also seems to have missed the fact that APN supported a more responsible version of the legislation that was eventually passed by the Senate.

Lara Friedman
Director of Policy and Government Relations
Americans for Peace Now
Washington, D.C.

I do not see the RJC speaking about Jack Abramoff and his crew of vicious vipers who have illegally stolen money right and left as they left the White House and Tom Delay’s office. I do not see the RJC talking about the medical bill that is hurting so many Jewish families and Jewish poor. Nor do they talk about the Iraq war, which has now taken as many people as were killed at the World Trade Center, nor the ineptness of the Afghan campaign. I could go on about Katrina, and the shutting out of any Democratic participation in laws that have been passed in the past years under the Republicans. And, lest I forget, the cutting of the estate tax, that the Republicans almost passed. And now look at how many Republicans were involved in blocking any mention of Sen. Mark Foley.

It is time that Jewish Democrats rise up and demand equal time, something that the Republicans have stymied in the media that used to belong to all the people.

Al Mellman
Los Angeles

Orthodox Youth

I would like to thank you for such an excellent article about a very touchy subject (“Orthodox Youth Not Immune To High-Risk Lifestyles,” Sept. 29). As a brother of Joel Bess, I watched him go through his “tough times” and to see him pull himself together is by itself unbelievable, but to start an Organization Issue Anonymous to help other kids is truly unfathomable. He doesn’t like to call it an organization because it might scare away kids; he calls it “a place to talk, eat and chill out.” Yoel (as the family calls him) has a heart of gold and I hope many more needed kids will join. Keep up the great work.

Meir Bess
Roosevelt, N.J.

Jonathan Bornstein

I read with interest Carin Davis’ article on the probable Major League Soccer (MLS) “rookie of the year,” Jonathan Bornstein of ChivasUSA (Pro Soccer Rookie Bornstein Gives Small Goals a Big Kick,” Oct. 13). From what I am told, he is deserving of all the accolades he is receiving.

He is not, however, the only Jewish soccer star playing in the MSL in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Galaxy started the season with two Jewish players, Mike Enfield and Ben Benditson. Enfield remains with the team and is a major contributor. (There were, in fact, seven Jews in the MSL at the start of the season.)Incidentally, Benny Feilhaber was not Jonathan’s only outstanding Jewish teammate as Enfield and he played together at UCLA.

Ephraim A. Moxson,
Co-Publisher
Jewish Sports Review

And Who Shall Die

Your thoughtful and thought-provoking column on military obituaries a few weeks ago inspired me. As stated in your column, few individuals within the Los Angeles Jewish community have a direct connection with a soldier, living or dead, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan (“And Who Shall Die,” Sept. 22).

When the people with power and money in our society simply don’t know the people who assume the personal risk of combat, it becomes painfully easy for the administration to sell the illusion that this war is necessary and moral.

Pico-Robertson Live in the ‘hood: Little sukkahs, on the hillside, little huts made of …


You rise from your 300-thread cotton sheets and walk along your Carrera marble floors through the hand-crafted French doors that give out to a spectacular patiooverlooking the city. Off to the side is a small, frail- looking structure that looks like an old hut, with palm leaves on top.

You make your way into this little hut, and you say a blessing. There is art from your children on the vinyl walls, as well as a picture of the kabbalist Rav Kadoori. Over a Persian rug is a 2-by-8-foot table with 10 folding chairs, and on a beige tablecloth sits two covered challahs, a jar of honey, a Kiddush cup, and a Chumash. In the corner there is a wooden stand with an oriental lamp, and hanging from the thatched roof are fake fruit and other decorations that your kids made.
 
You have entered one of the great rituals of Jewish life: The sukkah.It may also be the least comfortable.
 
I have eaten in sukkots in Crown Heights where rain fell on my soup. I’ve slept in sukkot and my lower back was mad at me for a week. The sitting can be tight, there is rarely enough space to move around, and if you’re in my hometown of Montreal, you better bring your scarf and gloves.
 
So what is it about this odd ritual that has such a hold on the people who experience it?
 
The first, most obvious thing is that it’s really a lot of fun. This is not a very noble thing to say about a holy ritual, but it’s true. You get to feel like a kid again, like when you used to assemble play kits, or get silly with your siblings under a makeshift tent in the living room.
 
Once you enter the sukkah, you feel blessed. Don’t ask me to explain this. It’s just a vibe. A glow. An energy field — you walk into a sukkah and you’re happy to be alive.
 
The coffee tastes better. The kugel and the spicy Moroccan fish are incredible. You sing like Bocelli. Your kids don’t get on your nerves as much. Even your shmoozing is happier; you’re more likely to bring up the new Cirque du Soleil Beatles show than the enraging U.N. representative they had on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
 
Am I exaggerating? Of course, I am. (I’m Sephardic). But a sukkah will do that to you. It makes your heart overflow; you feel more generous, more grateful.Maybe that’s because the sukkah itself overflows. A rabbi once said that the sukkah is “the only mitzvah that you can walk into with your muddy boots.” It envelops all of you. Other mitzvahs connect to one part of the body — you eat matzah with the mouth, you put on tefilin with the hands, you read Torah with the eyes — but the sukkah wants every part of you!
 
The sukkah loves your beautiful voice and wonderful humor, but it also embraces your warts and wrinkles and “muddy boots.” It understands human nature: You can’t separate the good from the bad. This little hut does not discriminate.In fact, the sukkah might be the most egalitarian, unifying mitzvah of all. The origin of this holiday is agricultural — a way of thanking God for the blessings of the land. Every “species” of the land that we commemorate — the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the willow and the myrtle — represent, according to our Midrash, a different part of the Jewish people. Our little sukkah embraces them all.
 
Which makes you wonder: If something is so much fun and so magical, so overflowing with unconditional love and embracing of every part of every Jew, why are there not more Jews putting up their own sukkah? I can’t speak for all Jews, but in my new neighborhood, they embrace the sukkah like a Chassid embraces another l’chaim.
 
Pico-Robertson is where the sukkah rocks. You can feel it in the air. From the frantic rush to purchase sukkah kits at the local mitzvah store, to the last-minute scramble to get schach (palm leaves to cover the sukkah), to kids everywhere bringing home sukkah decorations from school, to seeing so many sukkot being put up on the front lawns, you are reminded that in this part of the world, you simply do not hide your Judaism.
 
And in a few days, all the sukkot of the Hood will have sprouted. If you want to see how cool this looks, you should really rent a helicopter.
 
But for now, just use your imagination and picture , as you fly above, hundreds and hundreds of cozy little huts speckling the landscape. Inside each of these little huts there will be thousands of songs that will be sung, thousands of blessings and l’chaims that will be made, and thousands of stories that will be told.
 
After you land, feel free to pop into one of these little huts — and don’t forget your muddy boots.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Pico-Robertson: Live in the Hood


David and Deena Brandes’ house burned down on June 29. It was a small, three-bedroom house on a quiet street in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where they havelived for several years with their young daughters, Aviva and Noa.
 
On that day, David was having lunch in his study. His kids had gone off to sleep-away camp a day earlier, and he was about to start on a writing project that was behind schedule.
 
That’s when the doorbell rang. It was the house painter, and he told David that there was smoke coming from the roof. David asked the painter to get a garden hose while he called 911 and quickly grabbed some framed family photos, which he brought to the next-door neighbor.
 
When he returned a minute later, the smoke inside the house had become “billowy white.” While the painter tried to spray water, David grabbed more family photos, this time with a wet towel on his face, and he again brought them to his neighbor.
 
When he returned, a ball of fire tore through the ceiling. By now, instead of billowy white smoke, there were hundreds of surreal, ash-grey “floaters” orbiting throughout the house. The first of 13 fire trucks had already arrived, and one of the firemen asked David to immediately leave the house.
 
In all the commotion, with fire sirens blazing and neighbors starting to gather on the street, David had forgotten about Ripley, his golden retriever mutt. It was too dangerous for him to re-enter the house, so he yelled for the dog while a fireman looked inside. After a few minutes, from seemingly out of nowhere, Ripley quietly appeared. He had been hiding under the dining room table.
 
Outside, a neighbor had already alerted David’s wife, who was on her way over. While the firemen worked quickly and diligently to control the fire, David’s personal doctor, also a neighbor, showed up. His first words to David were something to the effect: “Please move into our house tonight.”
 
As he recalls it now, over a Diet Coke and a cellphone ringing with calls from insurance agents and adjusters, David’s initial emotion was not one of devastation, or even deep loss, but simply shock. When someone had suggested that he and his wife should still go on a cruise they had planned, the idea seemed so ludicrous that he couldn’t answer. The first night, when they were sleeping at their friends’ house, he remembers having his eyes open all night, and feeling as if his system had “shut down.”
 
When his hosts asked him if he wanted privacy, he replied that privacy was the last thing he wanted.
 
He was realizing how closely his house and his life were intertwined. His house was the sanctuary where his family was happy and safe, and where he had the peace of mind to do his writing, which is how he makes his living. This sanctuary, which had walls full of memories, was now ripped apart.
 
It didn’t take long for the sense of shock to give way to a sense of deep gratitude. David and Deena received so many offers to “stay at our place” or “eat at our place,” so many Shabbat invitations, so many messages reaching out to help, they had to be careful not to offend anyone when they kept saying “Sorry, we’re already invited, but maybe another day.”
 
It seemed that every time they turned around, a neighbor would offer something. A meal. A coffee. Clothing (they were lucky that the kids had taken a lot of their clothes to camp). Household items. Anything and everything.
 
Thanks to this outpouring of support from friends and neighbors too numerous to name (including fellow congregants at Beth Jacob Congregation), during the past two months of their ordeal — and it has been an ordeal — at no time did David and his family ever feel alone.
 
As I reflect on this story, part of me is in awe at the power of a neighborhood to rise to the occasion during a time of crisis. When the Brandes house came down, the same conviction that animates one to go to synagogue on Shabbat or drive a kid to school was there to help shelter a neighbor. I love that.
 
Another part of me looks at what happens in this neighborhood every day, when there is no crisis, no emergency, nothing special going on. I think of a neighbor calling from the market to see if anyone needs some challah; or another neighbor offering to take the kids to the park; or yet another neighbor letting a father know about a Shabbat drop-in party for his teenage daughter, and the list goes on; and I love that, too.
 
We’re in that time of year when Judaism seems larger than life. The Book of Life. The Days of Awe. The Day of Atonement. It’s easy to get caught up in the high drama of these big days, and forget that our Judaism lives and breathes during the quiet little days, after the big show is over and we all go home.I remember that before his house burned down, my friend David would always tell me about the little things he loved about his neighborhood — those quiet, everyday gestures among neighbors that accumulate over the years to create a real community.
 
He didn’t need the drama of a fire to know he was surrounded by an extended family. He knew it all along.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe


I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
 
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
 
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
 
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
 
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
 
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
 
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
 
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
 
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
 
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
 
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
 
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
 
It’s that time of year.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live in the hood: ‘last time the shoulder no good’


If you want to get the full flavor of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, there’s no better season than this time of year. When mainstream Judaism talks about the HighHolidays, they usually mean one or two days of Rosh Hashanah, and then the Big Day a week later. In the Hood, they don’t talk about days, they talk about the Month.
 
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah, and in between, a whirlwind of shul-going, spiritual atonement, sukkah-building, carousing and, of course, lots and lots of food.And in this part of town, you can’t say food, especially kosher food, without saying Pico Glatt.
 
When one of the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms came over a few weeks ago to work with my new nanny on creating a super kosher kitchen, every third word out of her mouth was Pico Glatt.
 
Before you actually enter Pico Glatt, which is across from Factor’s Famous Deli (“celebrating 58 years!”) and next to Paul’s Tailoring (“I’ve been here 26 years!”), you have the option of perusing a collage of overlapping fliers on the entrance doors. There’s one for Shira Smiles that covers up one for Milano Collection Wigs, which is next to fliers for David Sudaley Music, Rabbi Noach Orlevek (“Secrets of Successful Living”) for bubble.com (Juicy Bite flavour) and, among others, one for Bamboo mats to cover the sukkah (“lowest price guaranteed!”).
 
When you do enter, the first thing that hits you is an explosive aroma of competing spices. If the word ethnic had a smell, this would be it.The second thing that will probably hit you when you enter Pico Glatt is a shopping cart. You see, the first turn around the first aisle is in a constant state of gridlock, so I would suggest the alternate route eastbound between the checkout counter and the cereal display.
 
The interior look of Pico Glatt can best be described as “Busy Closet.” As you navigate the narrow aisles, you might come across a display of a new Cabernet Sauvignon, right next to a case of pre-powdered Latex gloves, just behind bottles of Downy fabric softener (Spanish only). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this look, you’d call it “Deliciously Random.”
 
Should you experience any frustration from either the gridlock or the difficulty of locating items, it’s quickly alleviated by the joy of watching Persian women order their meat from Hispanic meat cutters. (“If I keep it in the refrigerator for tomorrow, it’s OK?” “Last time the shoulder no good”).
 
The Persian influence is definitely happening at Pico Glatt. Nestled among the gefilte fish and chopped livers are prominent displays of Persian rice, Persian bread (Tehran Sangak) and several varieties of dried fruit and nuts. A brand of rice (Aftab Basmati) comes in bags of thick, rope-like material that they probably used in Mesopotamia, and that I might use as an art project with the kids.
 
If you’re like me and you like your advertising raw and innocent, keep an eye out for the signs at Pico Glatt. There are two in particular that have stuck to my neurons: one for Milky (“enjoyed 75 million times a year in Israel”) and one for an Israeli food product (Pikante Salads) that actually promoted “more weight”.
 
The nice thing about randomness is that it’s cool if nothing makes sense. For example, right below (and I mean right below) a big sign that says SUSHI is a beautiful display of fried chicken breasts, a meat-spinach-bean dish and Persian rice (day-glo orange). In fact, when I finally located the sushi, it was in-between small containers of sugar-coated almond slivers and saffron rice puddings. I bet you the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms don’t see the charm in this kind of scavenger hunting.
 
There is a little sign that says “If you need help reaching or carrying an item, please ask an employee to help.”
 
Notice that the sign says nothing about finding an item. Anyhow, good luck trying to figure out who the employees are, since most of the employees I saw looked just like the customers.
 
It’s true that there’s nothing like the conveniences of the modern supermarket: bright lights, wide aisles, clean layout, big selection, easy parking and, of course, perky people in uniforms who help you find everything you need.You won’t find perky at Pico Glatt. But if you want to really feel your Judaism, if you want to taste the “bottom of the cholent” where the rice is sticky and everything is real, you could do worse than this old-world food market on the edge of the Hood, with the big Month fast approaching.
 
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.