Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Israel I support

The first time I touched the Western Wall was on a Young Judea trip from Los Angeles to Israel back in 1997 — and can I just tell you? I felt … nothing.

Absolutely nothing. And, oh man, I wanted to feel something. Everyone said I would. From our rabbi in Culver City, to all my Sunday school teachers, to my friends who had been to Israel, to my mother and my grandmother who had touched the wall.

“It’s unlike anything else in the world,” they all said.

I felt like there was something wrong with me for feeling nothing when I touched it. So I nodded along with everyone else when they went on about how spiritual and meaningful it felt — but honestly? I can tell this now: I felt just a wall.

But I did feel other things that summer: Namely, a deep and abiding love of this little strip of land, this geographic fingernail that holds so much potential and so much promise. And more than that, I felt a powerful, permeating love of the people — all the people — living there.

Now, 20 years later, after immigrating to Israel nearly seven years ago, I have those feelings even more. I also feel that the wall matters to many of the people underneath this big huge tent with me. This little piece of wall is a symbol of how the Romans tried to crush us, and we survived. More than that: We thrived. We became bigger and more flexible. We became more diverse in our culture and religious experience. This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

But then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal to create an egalitarian prayer space for Jews who are not Torah observant. And that makes me livid. Because in doing so, Netanyahu basically said, “Screw you” to our big, huge tent. He basically said, “Screw you” to Jews like me and Jews like many of you.

If you’re a Diaspora Jew who believes in pluralism, chances are you’re angry right now, and that’s good. And I’m glad you’re angry because we need you to be angry. But I need you to come with me a step further, and feel something even more meaningful: People.

Our government does not give a damn about certain people despite great protestations to the contrary. I’m just going to give you a few examples. Many Holocaust survivors are in abject poverty. One out of four, actually. We have a lovely ceremony every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, but our leaders basically do nothing to focus on the living who need help. And each year the number of survivors gets smaller and smaller, until — very soon — there will be no one left. And it really feels right now that despite the ceremony, despite ample reference to the Holocaust in political speeches abroad, that our government is just waiting for these people to die already. Because if that weren’t the case, wouldn’t we make sure that not a single Holocaust survivor was freezing in the winter, hungry all year round or alone? Is this an Israel you support?

In Israel, you can’t marry outside your own religious group or outside your own group’s strictest religious interpretation. Jews can marry only Jews. Christians can marry only Christians. Muslims can marry only Muslims. And if you’re Jewish and want to get married with a Reform rabbi in Israel, you can’t. Unless you go abroad and get married there, and then come back with a certified marriage license, and go through ridiculous legal and bureaucratic hoops and blah blah blah. This is unacceptable. Who we love and choose to make a life with is not anyone’s business but our own, and we shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops if we have enough faith to commit to someone for the rest of our lives. Is this an Israel you support?

Migrants and refugees are invisible to most Israelis — they work in the back of the kitchen, or they’re out there sorting garbage. They are poor and in need, and they are ignored. Or harassed. Or locked away. With the rare exception of people at such places as Terem Medical Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, no one looks after them. Because it’s easier to look away than face their pain and our moral shortcomings. Is this an Israel you support?

Arab citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel) get racially profiled daily. They are humiliated. Daily. They are stopped and questioned and even searched. Daily. Mahmoud can’t get a building permit, but Moshe can. Their streets are not always paved, and trash builds up along their sidewalks. They’re told, “You have it better than you would in Syria” — a disgusting thing to hear because, despite being citizens, they are still not treated as equals of their Jewish neighbors. Is this an Israel you support?

Our child poverty rates are way too high. Our schools are de facto segregated into separate and not equal systems where basically zero effort is made by the government to help integrate communities in after-school programs. Our housing prices are way too high because so much of our money goes toward building settlements, further entrenching us in a conflict that gets harder and harder to end. Is this an Israel you support?

This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

I don’t support that Israel. But I do support Israel. I support the Israel that raises money to help a Palestinian guy pay a fine he got for wearing the wrong bathing suit on the beach — after 20 years of not seeing the shoreline because he lives behind a different wall.

I support the Israel made up of the civil rights workers and the human rights workers who are giving their lives — and in some cases, risking their lives — to defend the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

I support the Israel whose citizens run toward a terror attack and not away from it because they want to help in any way they can.

I support the Israel whose citizens speak out against 50 years of occupation — an occupation that hasn’t made us any safer or any stronger, an occupation corroding us from within and teaching our children that some people are more equal than others.

I support the Israel whose citizens volunteer in South Tel Aviv with the migrant babies, who show up to help take care of impoverished Holocaust survivors, who send their kids to mixed schools between religious and secular Jews, and the Arabs and Jews who want their children to know their neighbors even when those neighbors come from different worlds.

I support the Israel whose citizens understand something fundamental: The Western Wall is a very important symbol of our faith and our strength as a people — but it is just a wall. Just a wall. It was the hands that placed those stones back in the day that were holy, and it is the hands that touch them today that are holy.

So, American Jews — and everyone else dismayed by the true face of our government that you are now seeing — please don’t give up on Israel. Speak out and vote with your wallets.  Don’t boycott us, because that will only make the extremists on all sides that much stronger. Support us by giving to organizations that support a just and equal Israel for all her holy people, such as Hiddush, New Israel Fund, Oasis of Peace: Wahat al-Salam––Neve Shalom, and Women Wage Peace.

The Israel I support and I love and I will give my life for understands that people are, above all, the most important — and treating people with dignity, respect and, yes, equality —  should be our holy mission on this earth.

I hope you will support that, too.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer in Jerusalem working on a book about the Old City. The Venice, Calif., native climbs on roofs and drinks scotch.

A flower is placed by next to the name of a former concentration camp inside the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem on April 24. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The German and the Israeli

I’m not sure how to view what happened at lunch today. Coincidence? Serendipity? Or “bashert”, the Yiddish word that means “meant to be”.

I know several now-middle-aged Germans who never met a Jew until, as adults, they traveled outside their country. Nearly twenty years ago, one such German was my seatmate on a long, delayed trans-Atlantic flight. Andreas, from Cologne, was happy when I mentioned that my mother was born in Germany; his expression, however, turned somber when I explained that we’re Jewish, and she and most of the rest of her family managed to escape their “heimat”, or homeland, in the years after Hitler came to power. Other relatives, of course, were not so lucky.

Whenever I meet young Germans, here or during my four trips to that country, I do my best to make relevant and real what seems like ancient history to them. We ended up speaking for hours about my family’s experience in the Holocaust and his family’s actions during the Third Reich. Although he knew neither Jews nor Shoah survivors, he was surprisingly sensitive to my stories and clearly moved by them.

Andreas and I became friends on that flight, and have stayed in touch since then. I visited him once in Cologne, and he’s visited me at my home in New York, where he travels every year for business.

He was in town this week, and we went to lunch at a pleasant Long Island restaurant overlooking a pond. The conversation inevitably turned to politics and history, and we discussed whether there is any basis for comparing America’s current leader to Germany’s long-dead Fuehrer. We spoke about his two sons, ages 14 and 11, and what they know of Germany’s history.

After we finished eating, we went outside to the restaurant’s balcony to take some pictures with the spring scenery. We were alone for a couple of minutes until an elderly white-haired woman stepped outside and asked us if it was OK to smoke there. I said I had no idea, and she apologized, saying she’d mistakenly thought we were restaurant employees. By that time I’d recognized her accent, and asked in Hebrew, “You’re Israeli, right?”

She was surprised, but laughed and confirmed my hunch. Continuing in Hebrew, I asked if she’d been born there. Again, laughter, and the response “What, you want to know my whole complicated life story?”

Well, I answered, I’m a reporter, and yes. Go right ahead! After she spoke for two minutes in Hebrew, I stopped her and said (in Hebrew), please repeat that in English, as I want my friend, a non-Jewish German, to hear this.

So Maya told us how she was born in Tel Aviv in 1938, but the following year, her parents inexplicably decided to return to Europe, where they’d been born, with her and her eight-year-old brother. To their horror, they soon were entangled in the Nazi web, fleeing from place to place, country to country, hiding in forests, being caught and escaping detention… all in all, a typical Holocaust survivor’s story (if it can even be said that there is such a thing). Maya only remembered the last, frantic years of the saga clearly, from ages four to six; she discovered the rest of the details years later from her parents and brother.

“And then”, she concluded, “we finally returned to Tel Aviv from Europe after the war ended, and we were all almost killed in a huge explosion. We made it into the shelter in the nick of time”.

With that, Maya said she had to get back to her friends, having decided to forego her smoking break for our entirely unexpected chat.

She went inside, and I turned to Andreas. He looked stunned, his eyes wide with astonishment at what he had seen and heard over the previous five minutes. I had to smile. “This is not exactly the kind of unplanned conversation you might have with a stranger in Deutschland, is it?”, I said. “In fact, I guess this is the first time you’ve actually met someone who survived the Holocaust”.

Andreas nodded. “You know”, he said slowly, shaking his head in disbelief, “I was thinking the most interesting thing I would tell my kids next week was about the 35-mile bike tour I took from Jersey City. But now I have a very different story to share with them.”

Is Zionism a bad word?

With characteristic poise, Rabbi David Wolpe turned to the three panelists onstage at Sinai Temple on a recent Wednesday evening, in front of a sellout crowd of some 250 people.

“I’m going to start with a quick yes-or-no question,” he began. “Do you believe that people under 35 are less attached to the State of Israel than they were 30 years ago?”

On either side of me were Rabbi Sarah Bassin, 34, of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, and Sam Yebri, 35, a lawyer, accomplished leaders in their respective Jewish communities, progressive and Persian. Each answered immediately in the affirmative. And then there was me — the only millennial on the panel, feeling intellectually outmatched, my headset pressing uncomfortably into the back of my skull.

“Yes,” I answered quickly.

And yet, in my mind, I was already hedging, picking at the very premise of the question. I scribbled the phrase “less attached” on the legal pad perched on my knee and frowned at it. Of course my generation is less attached to Israel. Is a parent less attached to an 18-year-old child than to a defenseless toddler taking its first steps into the world?

That’s the difference the past 30 years have wrought for Israel: from a state struggling out of its uncertain beginnings to a proud and mighty nation. Over the generations, the meaning of the word “Israel” has changed, and consequently, inevitably, so has the meaning of the word “Zionism.”

“No one in the Jewish community supported a Palestinian state — I mean, no one, post-1967,” Wolpe said at the March 15 panel about young Zionists, sponsored by Hadassah and the Jewish Journal. “Then, a Palestinian state became orthodoxy. Everybody in the Jewish community supported a Palestinian state. Now, it’s becoming unorthodox again.”

The pendulum has swung wildly and often. What began in Europe as a movement of socialists and atheists to re-establish a Jewish homeland these days often feels monopolized by the religious right.

“Instead of creating bridges, we are contributing to the conflict between East and West by our stupid desire to have more.”
—A.B. Yehoshua, Israeli author

Each generation defines and redefines Zionism to suit its needs and circumstances. It’s a task that becomes more and more difficult, as each passing year is another separating today’s youth from the movement’s inception.

By the time I enrolled at UCLA, Zionism was read in many circles as a type of extremism. “Really?” an editor at the UCLA Daily Bruin once said to me after I professed to being a Zionist. “I didn’t expect that.” I read his meaning well enough: How could a person who seems to be reasonable also be a Zionist?

It used to be that the definition was a simpler and easier one, dictated by ironclad concerns of Jewish continuance and survival. Such was the case, for instance, in the Galician shtetl where my paternal grandfather was born, where Zionism meant young people training together in preparation to cultivate the land that would shortly become their only refuge.

In 1939, my great uncle, Mordechai Arom, was one such youth, preparing to join his brother, my grandfather Shmuel, in Mandatory Palestine, when their mother took ill. Mordechai was ready to stay in Poland to care for his dying mother, but she called him to her bedside and commanded him to go. With her dying act, she became the matriarch of a Zionist tradition that still holds. The first day Mordechai arrived in Palestine, he received a telegram that she’d died. His first week in the Holy Land was spent sitting shivah for his mother.

For my grandfather Shmuel, in the years after the war, Zionism meant building an observant congregation in Rishon LeZion even while questioning the God that sent his relatives to be slaughtered en masse. He died in 1964, struck by a car while collecting alms for the temple, later named Neve Shmuel in his honor.

Zionism intruded on my mother at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, on June 10, 1967, when news came over the radio in Mr. Cameron’s 12th-grade history class that Israeli troops had taken the Western Wall plaza. My mother was visibly emotional, so the teacher dismissed her to the library, where she wept.

After college, she got on an airplane — for the first time ever — and flew to Jerusalem, not knowing a soul in Israel, not a cousin, not a second cousin, nobody. She stayed for two years. “As soon as I knew there was a State of Israel, I knew I had to go,” she said.

Those years marked an inflection point for Zionism. It had started almost a century earlier as a whisper, an outlandish notion popularized by Theodor Herzl, a peripatetic journalist and self-identified atheist. It began, if you will, as a bad word, denounced by much of the Jewish establishment as a Messianic affectation. In 1880, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Hebrew Union College, wrote, “We want no Jewish princes, and no Jewish country or government.”

“Zionism demands a publicly recognized and legally secured homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people. This platform is unchangeable.”
—Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism

Of course, the attainment of such a country in 1948 changed everything. My mother was born three years later, and the first 16 years of her life were marked by an aspirational Zionism, with Israel as the David to an Arab Goliath.

That Zionism reached its high point in 1967, with Israel’s astonishing victory in the Six-Day War. Then, Israel enjoyed the world’s admiration. Today, pro-Palestinian activists, including thousands of Jews, see 1967 as the beginning of the occupation — the moment the Jewish people went from oppressed to oppressor.

That unlikely triumph has come back to haunt the conscience of American Jewish youth, who have never known any Zionism other than one of victory and strength.

Meanwhile, the 80-year history of flight, toil and fear of death that my parents and grandparents experienced as Zionism is regularly obliterated by the reductionist slogans of pro-Palestinian groups and their allies, for whom a Zionist is an occupier, Jews are the White Man and oppression in Palestine is no different from oppression in Ferguson, Mo.

Nearly half a century after my mother graduated from UCLA, African-American activist Amy Hunter was invited by Students for Justice in Palestine to speak at UCLA’s campus as part of Palestine Awareness Week.

“We will not be free here in the United States if they are not free in Palestine,” she told a small but diverse audience, their fingers snapping in agreement. “I’m clear about that.”

It’s not as if the “Zionism-is-racism” equivalence is news. My mom remembers campus leftists asserting as much in the early 1970s. In response, she and her Hillel buddies walked around with pins that read, “I am a Zionist.”

Those pins still might be a good idea today. In 2017, campus Zionists face a movement that bills itself as a global liberation struggle. In the parlance of that struggle, “Zionist” is a slur, and the connections and political opinions it suggests have become so toxic as to discourage its use, even among many who ostensibly support Jewish statehood. Imagine if people who don’t eat meat balked at calling themselves vegetarians.

Among the reasons for my invitation to speak at Sinai Temple are the many conversations I have in the course of my reporting with members of the Jewish far left, including the group IfNotNow, a diffuse network of young Jews openly challenging the Jewish establishment for its support of the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

It’s neither the largest nor the most influential pro-Palestinian Jewish group, but it’s the newest and, because of its confrontational approach, perhaps the most worrisome for mainstream Jewish organizations. Lately, I’ve taken to asking members of IfNotNow if they consider themselves to be Zionists.

Unanimously, they decline to be quoted by name and then give variations of the same answer: I’ve moved past the term. It doesn’t apply. It’s beside the point. I don’t identify either way.

These young people are neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist — they’re post-Zionist.

In fact, IfNotNow and its constituency seem to be in the minority of young people in that they care about Israel at all. A Pew Research Cemter poll in 2013 found that among Jews 18 to 29 years old, 32 percent said caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish, compared with 53 percent of Jews age 65 and older.

Within that slice of young Jews, there is, of course, a considerable range of opinion. Among such groups as IfNotNow and J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, caring means advocating a Palestinian state for the sake of maintaining a Jewish one.

But on the other hand, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convenes its annual policy conference later this month in Washington, D.C., you can bet there will be plenty of Jewish youth in attendance for whom caring about Israel means something very different. Just ask Ron Krudo, executive director of campus affairs for the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, which is active on high school and college campuses across the country. Notwithstanding anti-Israel sentiment, students “are excited to share their stories of being a proud Zionist, and what Zionism means to them.”

“Even on some of these tougher campuses, you can always find a student who’s inspired to take action and be a voice,” said Krudo, 26.

Yet the fact remains that most young Jews can’t be bothered to care, or at least don’t feel their Judaism compels them to. For many, the question of Zionism is so fraught with contradiction that it’s much easier just to swear it off entirely.

I’m not immune to my generation’s ambivalence on the matter of Jewish nationalism. In the vocabulary of my education on a liberal campus, the word “nationalist” is likely to follow the word “white” or “militant” or “ultra.” In other words, mine is a Zionism that’s not without reservations.

“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent.”
— Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

But to say that I’m post-Zionist would be tantamount to saying that I’m post-Jewish — which is simple and easy but altogether untrue. The struggle for Jewish nationhood was written into my biography long before I was born.

After all, if it weren’t for the itinerant Zionism that motivated my grandfather Shmuel to drag his wife, the daughter of a cultured and well-to-do German-Jewish family, to hardscrabble Palestine, where they slept in tents and toiled without end, it might very well have been somebody else’s byline on this story; I may well have never been born. Israel is the center of gravity for world Jewry. You may object to its pull, but you simply can’t free yourself from its orbit.

To be sure, mine is not the blustering, self-assured Zionism of my parents. Even having this conversation with my mother sets her singing an interminable series of Israeli folk songs. Recently, standing in her kitchen, I pressed her on whether she truly believes that God gave us all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. “Listen,” she replied, “I don’t know who gave it to us, but it’s ours.”

I’m not so sure about that. But that doesn’t mean we’re not part of the same movement, she and I, the same multigenerational struggle for identity and soil. The panel at Sinai Temple landed repeatedly on the idea of “big-tent Zionism.” The tent has to be big enough for my parents and me.

Sometimes, that prospect feels doubtful. But nothing could be more necessary for the continuance of the movement. If Zionism is little more than a narrow political creed, it can be shouted down or reasoned away. What ultimately will win over the next generation of Zionists is what Yebri called “the beautiful aspect and miraculous magical aspect of Zionism.”

The miracle, in short, is that in 80 years, we have moved from total disempowerment to a position of such security and strength that we can argue bitterly among ourselves about what to do with it. It’s a compelling narrative, if we can capitalize on it.

“One of the strongest indicators of having a strong Jewish identity, beyond campus and education and peer trips to Israel, is a Jewish grandparent that identifies strongly with his or her Judaism, and I would submit that follows for Zionism,” Yebri told the crowd at Sinai Temple. “So if you’re a parent or a grandparent in this room who feels strongly about Israel … don’t delegate it to school or a book or Birthright, because by that point it’s too late.”

I suspect that many of the Jewish youth who have distanced themselves from Zionism aren’t as familiar with the Zionist narrative of their forebears as they are with today’s more politically charged definitions. If they were, they might be more likely to adopt it, baggage and all. It is, after all, an enthralling story, with no small share of heroes and martyrs.

A decade after sitting shivah for his mother, Mordechai, my great uncle, closed out his own life by sacrificing it to the Zionist cause — cut down while defending his village in Gush Etzion during the War of Independence. This, before Green Lines and settlement blocs and two-state solutions.

If the next Jewish generation wants to be part of a global struggle for liberation, then it may as well be our own. 

Learning to err on the side of compassion

This was rage — I had no doubt about that. The fire exploding upward from my chest, consuming me from the inner reaches of my core was pure, unbridled fury, the sort that I hadn’t encountered in some time.

Silence choked the operating room as every eye fixed upon me. My own attention was locked on the naked torso prominently displayed in the center of the room. There, permanently etched in the skin of the young man lying motionless on the table, was an unassuming tattoo of a swastika. 

Immediately reminded of my setting, the paralysis imposed by my initial response quickly relented, and I instinctively resolved to quell the tension in the room. 

“Hmmm,” I snorted through a forced smile.  I turned to my scrub tech. “I wonder if he knows?”

The truth is, while still in my first year of private practice as a general surgeon, my elective schedule has been rapidly expanding for a variety of reasons, and I am not altogether certain where these patients all come from. In the era of Google, Healthgrades and myriad other public rating sites, it is a common occurrence that folks show up in my clinic with uncanny detail in their knowledge of my personal life.  In 2016, the majority of people research their health care providers long before passing through the door of the examination room.  Among the most readily discoverable details regarding my personal life is the fact that I am Jewish and active in a number of local Jewish organizations. 

The operating room staff let out a nervous, collective giggle at my response. Then the circulating nurse, who had removed the patient’s gown in preparation for the operation, gasped. She was standing on the opposite side of the patient. I stepped forward and turned my attention to the flank that had previously been hidden from me. I was confronted with the instantly recognizable portrait of Adolf Hitler. 

A few moments of silence passed. “What are you going to do?” the surgical assistant asked me.

“I’m going to fix his hernia,” I said. 

The gentleman had presented to my office a few weeks prior to this moment, fresh from a visit to the emergency room of a crosstown hospital, seeking relief from the unforgiving discomfort that had evolved with the expansion of a weakness in the wall of his groin. He had patiently suffered for a few weeks as we awaited authorization from his insurance company to pursue definitive correction of this affliction. He was in pain, nearly debilitated physically at this point, yet he had continued to work through the discomfort, primarily out of necessity. There was no doubt in my mind that I was morally obligated to help him.

“It’s not my fault he didn’t adequately research his surgeon,” I said.

As I started the ritual of cleansing my hands and arms in preparation for the surgery, I began to manufacture a detailed personal history for this young man. The tattoos were clearly faded, suggesting that they were acquired some time ago. I imagined a disillusioned soul in his late teens or early 20s, burdened with the new responsibilities and expectations of adulthood, seeking a target for the angst and animosity these pressures so commonly foment. I have often hoped that, as I approach my fifth decade of life, I will not be held to account for the unending parade of bad decisions I made as a young man. In my mind, I fashioned an individual who was truly contrite for his past prejudices, though branded with evidence of those ideals for perpetuity. 

I suddenly found myself in admiration of his courage. Here he lay, willingly assuming the most vulnerable position imaginable, utterly dependent upon others for the most basic of human needs, down to the breath, without which life ceases to exist. In just a few moments, I would be placing sharpened steel to his belly, encountering the vital structures of the human organism on my journey to the source of his malady. Had he known of my Jewish faith when we met in clinic? Surely he would have informed me of the existence of the tattoos prior to the surgery if he had. If he hadn’t known, would he want to be made aware after the operation? I briefly contemplated awakening him from the anesthesia to offer the information, in case he would prefer to seek a new surgeon if he knew this personal detail about me.

All of these thoughts proved to be fleeting. As I have done thousands of times before, I finished washing my arms and hands, gowned up, and applied the skill I had gained in over a decade of surgical experience to mend the defect in his abdominal wall. The procedure was uneventful, and when I met the young man in the post-anesthesia care unit after his recovery from the cocktail of medications he was given over the course of operation, I described my findings, gave him a few postsurgical instructions and smiled as I left, promising that we would see each other in clinic in a few days.

Over the ensuing weeks, I thought frequently of this event, wondering mostly if I had handled it skillfully. As I considered what my alternatives might have been, I recalled one of the first patients I encountered in my practice as a freshly minted, attending surgeon. I had performed no more than 50 operations since completing my training and felt as green as I must have seemed to most of my patients to that point. I had occasion to consult on a 92-year-old man in my clinic, who had come to me to ask about correction of longstanding — and very large — hernias in both groins. For a nonagenarian, he was remarkably healthy, and I was beyond surprised to learn from the medical history forms he had provided that his sole previous surgery had been on his lung, done more than 70 years prior at the age of 20. A rough calculation indicated that this would have occurred in the 1940s, predating our modern understanding of mechanical ventilation by at least a decade. This, naturally, led me to question why he underwent such a risky procedure by the standards of the time. Following a brief pause, he smiled and said, “I suffered a gunshot during the war.” 

I have no doubts that he had encountered this conversation many times over his lifetime. I also have no illusions about the challenges generated by such conversations. After all, the gentleman had an undeniably German name, and his impeccable English was highlighted by an accent unmistakably Deutsch. He immediately followed this first statement with, “Yes, I fought for the wrong side.” 

In that moment, I became painfully aware of just how inexperienced I was. He went on to explain that he had been a 16-year-old boy growing up unimaginably poor, but with the intelligence, ambition and drive to be an engineer. In his reality, the only path to fulfillment of his dream was through the army. When he entered the military, Hitler had not been in power long, and the unspeakable atrocities he would ultimately bear responsibility for most likely had not yet begun, although this had offered my patient little consolation over the course of what turned out to be an extraordinary lifetime. No doubt shaken visibly, I wanted no more details, however.

“Sir,” I said, “I have to tell you: I’m Jewish.”

He again smiled and said, “I know. I can see your necklace.” 

I glanced down at the Star of David nestled in the “V’”of my blue scrub top. 

“I was hoping that you would fix my hernias, anyway.”

I repaired his hernias a couple of weeks later, and he presented to clinic to receive my congratulations for a flawless outcome two weeks after that. He was exceptionally gracious in showing his appreciation, and I last heard from him upon receipt of a brief “thank you” note through the mail some time later.

The human condition bears no prejudice. I happen to possess the training required to address the physical ailments that invariably affect all people, but human needs take on many different forms beyond the purely physical: emotional, psychological and spiritual, to name just a few. Regardless of race, creed, gender, politics or pedigree, maintaining health in each facet of the whole human being requires a constant vigilance in the battle against forces — both external and internal — that ultimately work toward their degradation. These forces act without concern for any variable that we may construct or artificially use to define ourselves as individuals or communities. I have the conviction that it is my moral obligation to use my abilities — both innate and acquired — to alleviate the suffering caused by this degradation without discrimination. In short, I seek to allow myself to be governed by the fundamental principle of kindness. If I have it within my power to lessen suffering, I will.

What did I learn from the patient with the Hitler tattoo?  That in such moments, it is imperative that we have a clear, unwavering sense of our values and that we act in a manner consistent with those values. I resolved that day that, when in doubt, I would always err on the side of acting compassionately. Kindness, it turns out, is sometimes the bold path forward. 

James Wiseman is a graduate of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, and the Residency in General Surgery at Houston Methodist Hospital. He currently lives in Tucson, Ariz., where he is an associate in a multidisciplinary surgical practice.

Back to school: A bittersweet visit to my alma mater

Last week, I went back to school. 

Not for an additional degree, but for a visit to my alma mater, the University of Florida, which is located in Gainesville, a strange, small town in north central Florida best known for worshipping a predatory swamp creature and football. 

UF and I were a bad fit from the start, like awkward roommates who have nothing in common but matching shower shoes and a mini fridge. I probably shouldn’t have applied there, but I took very seriously the Hollywood imperative dictated by J.J. Abrams’ first TV series and pulled a “Felicity,” following my older high school boyfriend to the college of his choice because my hormones couldn’t live without him. I had that unwavering youthful confidence that I could make lemonade from coconuts, and I was none too concerned about squandering the first major decision of my adult life when my fairy-tale fantasy of one true love hung in the balance. 

We broke up before I received my acceptance letter — a letter, I might add, that was about as hard-won as politely asking the high school registrar to send over my transcripts. I was accepted through early decision with a 75 percent scholarship, but that didn’t stop me from crumpling up my shiny gold “Congratulations” letter the day it arrived. I never applied anywhere else, my college fate sealed in mid-November of senior year, allowing me a good seven months to mourn the end of my relationship and the fateful choice I’d made to throw my destiny into the hands of an 18-year-old male. 

So romance got me to Gainesville the first time, but last week it was my sister, Jessi Berrin, who lured me back, because UF was honoring her with an alumni young leadership award. Given a campus population of some 50,000 students, this was a pretty big deal; my sister is a superstar in Miami, the youngest corporate director of government and community relations at Baptist Health, the largest health care network in South Florida. A group of family and friends joined the five-hour trip from Miami up the Florida Turnpike, where billboards remind you that “A heart beats at 18 days” and endeavor to stimulate conversations such as, “Aren’t you glad your mother chose life?” It was like a Ted Cruz infomercial playing nonstop for five hours. And don’t get me started on the rest-stop food options.

Needless to say, from the moment we packed into the car at my grandmother’s Coral Gables condo and my sister insisted we wear sunglasses with Florida Gators for eyes, I knew I had made the right choice to grab wine on the way out.

As a teenager, I had always imagined myself at a sophisticated school, perhaps in a big city, at a place like NYU, or at an edgy, hip Ivy like Brown — so long as it was a place sufficiently cultured, with a worldly student body and grown-up diversions. But Gainesville was the opposite: very southern, very blond (and not highlights blond, real blond), where women wore Lilly Pulitzer pastels year-round, seemingly everyone joined the Greek system, and beer halls, frat parties and football games ruled the day. UF was a world of Pita Pit and “Pokey Stix,” strip malls and Wal-Mart. So you can imagine how psyched I was to go back to visit.

It was bad enough that I never wanted to go to Gainesville, but it became substantially worse after I got there. I joined a sorority despite the fact that I am not a joiner and possess strong moral objections to the expressed values of Greek life (which is about as “Greek” as Disney World; and for young women, safe as a swamp of gators). I made bad decisions one after the other — I barely studied, gained at least a freshman 15, and got myself into some real mischief on more than one occasion. I’ll spare you the details of my wildly rebellious antics, because frankly, there isn’t enough column space. But imagine all the things you wouldn’t want your children to do and consider that a mild start. 

To be fair, the University of Florida itself is a great academic institution. And after all the messing up I did, I eventually found my niche in the film studies department, where my demanding film professor, Roger Beebe, first mocked me for joining a sorority and then taught me how to think. His experimental, 16mm production class changed the way I saw the world. Maureen Turim’s “Women in Film” class taught me the meaning of feminism and introduced me to Rita Hayworth. So it wasn’t all bad. “Put the Blame on Mame” could have been my theme song.

But the fact is I made choices during my undergraduate years that I regret. I remember college as a time of feeling lost, alienated and unanchored (it didn’t help that my parents were splitting up just then, after 27 years of marriage). I didn’t fit in anywhere, and when I didn’t fit in, instead of quietly turning to my studies, I insisted on exploding my container.

Revisiting that place and recalling a difficult period of my life was unsettling. Uncomfortable thoughts crept in, forcing me to wonder: Am I still that mischievous person? Am I someone who really doesn’t belong but has gotten quite good at faking it? Will the mistakes of my past resurface in the future? All this swirled through my mind as I re-entered The Swamp (the nickname of the Ben Hill Griffin football stadium) for a preseason scrimmage. The team playing itself was symbolic: A decade after graduation, my adult self was confronting my college self. 

Today it’s hard to measure how much my college choice mattered to the rest of my life. Had I gone to Harvard or some other Ivy from which students are catapulted into a powerful network of global leaders, maybe my life would be different. (Going to UF, on the other hand, didn’t preclude my sister from snagging a boyfriend with a doctorate from Harvard). 

My four years in Gainesville were not happy years, but they were full of growth. I didn’t excel academically, but I acquired a good deal of life wisdom I’m glad I got when I was 20. I can’t imagine ever being a “Proud Gator” like my sister, but that’s mostly my fault. Going back to school was a powerful reminder that it’s OK to accept what was, what wasn’t, feel the discomfort, and then let it go.

Of meat and metaphor: An almost-vegetarian makes brisket

I’m not a vegetarian, but since I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, I’ve been eating less and less meat. Many of my friends are vegetarian or vegan, and cooking in either of those styles avoids a lot of food issues for people. 

But around holidays, the expectation around meat intensifies. As soon as the faintest waft of Passover or Rosh Hashanah is in the air, brisket photos invade Facebook and Instagram: sumptuous, steaming dishes accompanied by, “I did it! My first brisket!” — these humblebrags validated by endless comments of “mmm” and “nom nom nom” (mimicking the sounds of chomping on something delicious). 

I have friends who make brisket latkes; I remember the Takosher truck’s brisket taco fondly; and when friends visit me from New York, I often take them to Got Kosher? for sweet or spicy brisket sandwiches.

But why brisket? How did this piece of meat become the legend of holiday tables in non-vegetarian homes and, simultaneously, a darling of the non-Jewish barbecue circuit? As is often the case, the answer draws from the practical and the traditional.

“Brisket is made from the pectoral muscle: it’s tough, and actually not a desirable cut, compared to, say, a filet,” said Anna Hanau, director of communications and outreach at Grow & Behold Kosher Pastured Meats, in an email. “Jews ate it because it was cheap. They then got really good at cooking it, and it became this traditional food, evoking all kinds of memories of Bubbe’s kitchen, etc., etc. It’s expensive now because there is huge demand for it, but it is actually a less-desirable cut, historically.”

Hanau said brisket is “definitely our most popular item,” a best-seller for Passover and year-round. But beyond the seder table, brisket is moonlighting as a star in the non-Jewish food scene — Hanau said it’s “not uncommon to find people standing in hourslong lines for smoked shredded meat.” 

Why is brisket so hot right now, especially as barbecue? Hanau explained graphically (admittedly, I asked) that as brisket smokes for eight to 10 hours or more, “the connective tissues that make it tough break down into these really delicious, unctuous ribbons that marinate the meat. So the popularity of barbecue, and brisket as a meat that can be cooked this way, definitely contributes to brisket’s popularity.” 

Ilya Welfeld, a friend, considers making brisket to be a “bit of a badge of honor.” 

“As a full-time working mother of a brood, we don’t slide smoothly into Shabbos or chag,” she said, referring to holidays meals, in an email. Brisket “seems so legit, so ‘balabusta’ and so big that when I serve it I feel legit as a Jewish woman, mother and caregiver. … Having brisket on the table makes me feel less like an imposter whose cover is ready to be blown any minute.”

“Brisket is Jewish soul food,” said Leah Koenig, author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen” (2015) and a frequent writer about Jewish food, history and culture. “I like to call it the Proustian madeleine of Jewish cooking,” she said in an email that sent me to Google and the discovery that writer Marcel Proust referred to the small French cakes as a symbol of involuntary memory (a memory evoked unexpectedly by a certain taste or experience). 

“Making one’s own brisket, successfully, is like earning a Jewish domestic goddess badge and then prancing proudly around with your newly decorated sash,” said Shannon Sarna, editor of the popular Jewish food blog The Nosher. “It’s a rite of passage for the Jewish cook, male and female alike.” 

Koenig added that the secret to brisket’s appeal is the long cooking time. 

“While the brisket is in the oven, the kitchen — and really the whole house — starts to fill with the heady scent of braised meat, and it brings on this flood of memories,” she said. “Hours, literally hours, before you even get to the table, you’re already swooning.”

Although brisket might seem like a big deal for mostly vegetarians, for regular meat cookers, it is a “kind of ‘set-it-and-forget-it’ foolproof option rather than a great cooking oeuvre,” Hanau said. 

According to Sarna, “it’s really the easiest cut to make because you just need to cook it low and slow with some veggies and liquid. Yet it’s one of the most requested topics on our site at Passover and Rosh Hashanah: How much do I make? Which cut do I buy (second cut!)? How long do I cook it? Brisket continues to befuddle many cooks.”

“Brisket is pretty hard to mess up, which makes it perfect for the busy mom who is running a household and a job and cooking in advance to feed all the various picky kids and their friends,” Hanau continued. 

I don’t have a household to run and kids to herd, but I do have chosen family — my friends who enjoy food, wine and company. So when the East Coast-based Grow & Behold, antibiotics- and hormone-free kosher meat farmers and distributors, offered to send me a brisket, how could I say no? (They have a “Los Angeles Buying Club” through which customers can pick up at Beth Jacob Congregation — — to save on shipping costs, but my box of meat was shipped directly to my house packed in dry ice.)

When I saw the 7.21 pounds of brisket (and various other meats) they’d sent me, I realized there were challenges ahead. An almost vegetarian doesn’t generally have pots big enough in which to cook a brisket, nor does she have a go-to brisket recipe. Ketchup and Coke featured prominently in many online “EASY BRISKET!!!” recipes. But I wanted something more sophisticated than all that processed sugar.

I bought a disposable roast pan and contacted my experts — Hanau, Welfeld, Koenig and Sarna, meat-torneys-at-brisket — to collect their recipes before Frankensteining together my own: salt and pepper, garlic, balsamic vinegar and red wine. I added a bunch of cut potatoes and onions, and cooked it for about nine hours. 

The resulting sauce had a tang that recalled the alcohol that had long since cooked away, with a sweetness that ignited the taste buds. My brisket was a success, yielding dinner for eight, leftovers for guests and a week’s worth of meals for me thereafter. (I still have some in my freezer, for the next time I feel my iron levels drop.)

I found myself thinking about the role of tradition in determining our palate’s proclivities, and of an old joke my mother used to tell me about the Jewish mother who would prepare a roast by slicing off the ends of the meat before putting it in the pan. One day her daughter asked why, and she said, “That is our family tradition — my mother always did it.” During the next holiday, the grandmother came to visit. “Grandma,” the girl asked, “why is it our tradition to cut off the ends of the roast?” And Grandma said, “Because the roast didn’t fit in the pan.” 

I love this story — not just because the brisket didn’t fit in my pan, either — but also because it speaks lovingly to our tendency to create value around the things that, often randomly, happen to us in our lives. We assign meaning to things because of their emotional weight, their connection to the people we care about. 

Those of us who make brisket — whether once or on every holiday — do so because members of previous generations did. It probably started as pragmatism, an affordable way to feed children; but brisket evolved into a shout-out to the past and a nod to the opulent and luxurious present, in which a huge cut of kosher meat is expensive but provides great nostalgic flavor. Today, we do it for our families, born and chosen, as our parents did it for the people they loved. And each of us provides her or his own interpretation of “why.” 

Combating an Israeli-American identity crisis

A year after Irit Bar-Netzer arrived in Los Angeles from Israel, she had her first son. That was 37 years ago, and that’s when the dilemma began.

“I wondered back then: How am I going to raise my children? As Israelis? Americans? Who is going to help us raise our kids? We didn’t have Grandma and Grandpa around. What’s going to happen to their identity?” 

It was by no means a new dilemma, however — in some ways, not even to her. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Bar-Netzer remembered how she felt growing up in Israel as a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak Hebrew very well. 

“The children used to laugh at us because we spoke Hungarian and not Hebrew,” she said. Still, she ended up speaking Hebrew to her first son in America because, she said, “It was easier and natural for us.”

Bar-Netzer, a psychologist who has worked with children for years, related this story during an Oct. 11 seminar at Temple Judea in Tarzana that was sponsored by Ma Koreh, a project of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) that is spending the next year providing lectures to Israeli parents. Conducted in Hebrew, the intimate gathering — the first in a series — was attended by 16 parents of young children and featured Bar-Netzer and child psychologist Ernest Katz. 

BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff said, “We want Israeli-American families to connect better through the organized Jewish community. We want them to understand that it is a tool in their toolbox for raising their kids here.”

The program is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and is done in cooperation with the Israeli-American Council and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which provides books written in Hebrew to young children. 

Although many of the parents at the recent event said they insist on speaking Hebrew to their children, they wondered if that’s enough to keep their kids “Israeli” and how important it is to send their kids to private schools in order to maintain their Jewish-Israeli identities. And while many agreed that not all aspects of Israeli characteristics are welcomed, they do want their kids to maintain some of the values and traditions they were raised on. (The famous Israeli chutzpah was not one of them, according to participants.) 

One father of a 4-year-old described the problem like this: “When my daughter asks me, ‘Am I an Israeli?’ I am confused. I don’t know what to answer her. I do want her to take the good things from both cultures: the Israeli and the American — because there are good things and bad things in each culture — but how do I do that?”

His wife, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8, said she experienced the issue herself as a child. 

“Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in English and I know they meant well, but today I know it was wrong. I never knew what I was. Israeli? American? Americans always thought that I’m an Israeli and Israelis thought I’m an American, so I was confused about my identity, and I don’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

Not that simply speaking a certain language solves the problem.

One mother of three said she insists on speaking with her children in Hebrew, even though they often answer in English. “I struggle with it every day,” she said. “Each time I speak to my son in Hebrew, he says, ‘I was born here. I’m an American. It won’t help you.’ It’s a constant conflict. How do you deal with that?”

Bar-Netzer said she believes part of the parents’ challenge is not only their children’s identities, but also their own.

“The conflict is huge, and you need to think what is right for your child,” she said. “You have decided to come here and raise him here; now you have to decide what’s important for you and what will be best for him. The fact that you had come here ready to listen and discuss it means that the subject is important to you and your children will benefit from that. When I came here, 38 years ago, there was no such discussion on how to raise Israeli children.”

While Bar-Netzer and Katz didn’t offer answers to the many issues the parents raised during the 1 1/2-hour meeting, they suggested that parents make a list of what is important for them and what’s important for their kids. 

“Learn to listen to your children and see what they need. You should send your children a clear message. That is the most important thing. You don’t want to confuse them by questioning their own identity,” Bar-Netzer said. “As long as it’s good and right to you as parents, it will be good for your children as well.”

UPDATE [10/19/15]: This article has been changed from its original form to protect the names of parents at the event.

Anat Kamm wants compensation from Haaretz for revealing identity

Anat Kamm, who was jailed for turning classified military documents over to a reporter, is seeking compensation from Haaretz for revealing her identity.

Kamm, a former Israeli soldier, is asking the newspaper for more than $540,000, according to Haaretz.

“Kamm views you and some of the newspaper’s employees as directly responsible, or indirectly, for revealing [her] as the source,” Kamm's lawyer, Ilan Bombach, wrote to Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken more than a week ago, the newspaper reported on Monday. “This exposure caused my client enormous damage.”

Haaretz attorneys said that Kamm's claims “have no real basis.”

Kamm charges that her house arrest and jail time cut short her career as a journalist and her academic studies.

Her lawyer said that if she does not get the money from Haaretz, she will sue.

Kamm was convicted in February of collecting, holding and passing on classified information without authorization. She had been charged originally with espionage, but the charge was dropped as part of a plea bargain. Kamm was arrested in late 2009 or early 2010.

Kamm admitted to stealing about 2,000 documents, hundreds identified as classified or top secret, which she downloaded to two discs, while serving her mandatory military service in the Israeli army in the Central Command. She gave the information to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau, who wrote stories based on the information that were approved by the military censor. The stories led to a search for Blau's source.

Following her military service, Kamm was a media reporter for Walla, an online news site that at the time was partly owned by Haaretz.

It’s official: Jewish camp strengthens Jewish identity

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish camp alumni—and their parents—have long known that those halcyon weeks spent at Jewish summer camp don’t just cement lifelong friendships, they strengthen Jewish identity.

Now they have it in writing.

A new study on the long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp concludes that those who have attended camp are more Jewishly engaged as adults, according to 13 key variables, than those who did not go to camp.

“We finally have a tool that proves Jewish camp works, that it helps create a more vibrant Jewish future,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which advocates for more than 155 Jewish nonprofit camps in North America and sponsored the study.

“Camp Works: The long-term impact of Jewish overnight camp” used data from 26 national studies of adult Jewish engagement, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, to produce the first statistical look at the effect of Jewish camping on individual as well as communal Jewish identity.

The report shows the most pronounced increase in Jewish engagement in four areas not typically associated with non-Orthodox Jewish behavior. Three of them have to do with Jewish communal identity: Camp alumni are 55 percent more likely than Jewish adults who did not attend camp to say they are “very emotionally attached to Israel”; they are 45 percent more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month; and 30 percent more of them donate to Jewish federations.

This is significant, says lead researcher Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, because those three behaviors indicate a certain level of Jewish communal commitment, and it is precisely that communal identification that many Jewish experts fear is most at risk.

“Where camp has had its strongest effect has to do with its creation of an intense, temporary Jewish community,” said Cohen.

That communal experience imprints on the individual, he surmised, leading to a greater propensity to view one’s self within a larger Jewish social network in adulthood.

The other 10 areas of investigation also revealed increased Jewish engagement among camp alumni, from a 37 percent increase in those who “always/usually” light Shabbat candles to a 5 percent increase in the number of those who “always/usually” light Chanukah candles. These 10 areas are related to an individual sense of Jewish identity.

Camp’s impact is more pronounced among non-Orthodox Jews under 49 than their elders, the report notes. That’s probably not because more young Jews have gone to camp, Cohen speculates, but because more options are open to Jews today than in previous generations, and fewer of today’s American Jews live in a primarily Jewish environment.

“If you’re a younger person, you need the intentionality of Jewish camp, or day schools or youth groups, to compensate for the loss of the organic Jewish socialization experience that characterized our parents and grandparents,” he said. “It’s as if to be Jewish today, you have to be Jewishly educated.”

Jewish day schools and youth groups also have a strong impact on Jewish identity, Cohen notes. But similar data studies have not been performed for these two institutions, so the evidence is mainly anecdotal, as it was for camping until now.

“The answer to the question of how do we keep our kids Jewish is not so mysterious,” he concluded. “Strong Jewish homes, supplemented by intensive Jewish educational and socializing experiences.”

Not surprisingly, Fingerman hopes the report will encourage foundations and philanthropists to open their wallets and increase their financial support for Jewish overnight camps.

“It should also be compelling to local federations looking for the best use of their dollars,” said Fingerman, who spent eight summers at Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah in the 1970s and now sends his own children to Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. “Camps are proven programs in building community, not just Jewish identity.”

More than 70,000 children and teens attended Jewish overnight camp in 2010.

Novelist A.B. Yehoshua raises the question: Can Jewishness be shed?

A.B. Yehoshua, long recognized as one of Israel’s best novelists, has in recent years also emerged as one of its most prominent scolds. On Tisha B’Av this year, he published an op-ed in the Guardian deploring the “moral deterioration” of Israel’s public life. Contrasting scandal-plagued politicians like Moshe Katsav and Ehud Olmert with the austere founders of the Jewish state, Yehoshua argued that the lawlessness and immorality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was now bleeding back into the state itself.

But if he is tough on Israelis, Yehoshua is no gentler on American Jews. On the contrary, in 2006, during a heated panel discussion at the American Jewish Committee’s 100th anniversary celebration, Yehoshua proclaimed the futility of American Judaism. Only in Israel was an authentic Jewish life possible, he insisted. Diaspora Jews change their nationalities as if they were changing jackets, whereas for Israelis, Jewishness is a skin that cannot be removed.

Yehoshua must have been brooding on that image, which provoked understandable anger among American Jews, as he wrote “Friendly Fire,” his quietly impassioned new novel. For at the moral center of the book is an Israeli who desires to do exactly what Yehoshua said was impossible — to abrade away his Jewishness like a layer of flesh.

Yirmiyahu, a retired Israeli diplomat, has chosen to spend his old age in Tanzania, working as the bookkeeper for a team of African anthropologists. To Africans, he reports to his visiting Israeli sister-in-law, white people are muzungu, “not actually white but peeled. Our black skin has been peeled from us.”

In just the same way, he defiantly says, he means to spend the last years of his life becoming muzungu to the Jews. And he means it. When his sister-in-law, Daniela, arrives at Yirmiyahu’s remote house, she gives him a parcel of Hebrew newspapers and Chanukah candles; he immediately tosses them into the stove, neatly erasing all traces of both Israel and Judaism.

The reader does not have long to wonder about the reasons for this disaffection. Yirmiyahu’s wife, Daniela’s sister, has recently died in Africa, and Daniela’s visit is ostensibly a pilgrimage in her memory.

But beneath this natural grief, the family is really suffering from an unnatural and incurable one: the death of Yirmiyahu’s son, Eyal, seven years before, in an army operation on the West Bank. What makes this loss so intolerable is that, as the novel’s title reveals, Eyal was not killed by a Palestinian bomb but by his fellow Israel Defense Forces soldiers in a case of “friendly fire.”

This dull euphemism becomes on Yirmiyahu’s lips a kind of curse word, which he can’t stop repeating to himself. The State of Israel took his son from him, the way God nearly took Isaac from Abraham, but this time, there was no last-minute reprieve.

This is a fictional premise fraught with dangers: The temptations to sentimentalize, moralize and sermonize are great. But Yehoshua deftly sidesteps them, choosing instead to lower the temperature of the novel to a slow, meditative burn. He accomplishes this, in part, by alternating the scenes of Daniela and Yirmiyahu in Africa with an entirely different kind of story — the domestic and professional troubles of Amotz, the husband Daniela left behind in Tel Aviv.

If the Tanzania sections of the novel deal with the deepest moral problems — by the end, the two Israelis are debating the ethics of the prophets under an African sky — the Tel Aviv sections are a comedy of manners, taking the reader adroitly through all the phases of contemporary Israeli life: family, army, work, sex, even traffic jams.

Yehoshua’s decision to cut back and forth between the two stories — each section is just a few pages long — keeps “Friendly Fire” from gathering much narrative momentum. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Yehoshua’s mastery of fictional technique has not decayed. On the contrary, the slow pace helps the reader see how carefully Yehoshua has devised the symbolic scheme of the book.

In time, every event and every setting starts to seem like a metaphor. Quietly, without insisting, Yehoshua allows these metaphors to echo and interrogate one another.

Take the run-of-the-mill problem that faces Amotz, a building engineer, as “Friendly Fire” opens. He has designed the elevator for a new high-rise apartment building in Tel Aviv, but the residents are complaining about flaws in the shaft that cause “an insufferable roaring, whistling and rumbling” whenever the winds blow.

When Amotz rides the elevator to find out where the wind is leaking in, he observes: “Without question, within this shaft that was meant to be completely sealed off from the world swirl uninvited spirits.” Yehoshua says nothing more than this, but it is impossible for the reader not to make the parallel with Israel itself. Despite the Zionist dream of a self-sufficient Jewish homeland, Yehoshua suggests, the country can never be truly sealed off from the outside world, and it, too, is haunted by the “uninvited spirits” of its neighbors.

Yehoshua makes even as mundane a detail as time zones carry a hidden symbolic charge. Amotz is expecting a phone call from Daniela in Tanzania, but he gets the time wrong, since Dar es Salaam is actually an hour ahead of Tel Aviv, not an hour behind, as he assumed. “The African continent is west of Israel or east?” he asks, and, of course, the answer is both: Israel is geographically between east and west, just as it occupies an in-between space in the world’s political and cultural imagination.

As the novel goes on accumulating these layers of meaning and symbol, it becomes clear that Yehoshua is not just writing an Israeli novel: He is evoking an Israeli and Jewish way of being and thinking, in which nothing in the world is simply what it is but comes to us multiply encoded.

This endless meaningfulness, which forces Jews to be ever-vigilant interpreters, is exactly what Yirmiyahu has gone to Africa to escape: “A place where we do not exist in any memories. Not religious, not historical, not mythological…. Everything that has oppressed me begins to fall off, without argument or debate.”

Yet it cannot escape the reader that even in Africa, Yirmiyahu shares the name of one of the great Hebrew prophets (as, for that matter, do Amotz and his father, the Parkinson’s-afflicted Yoel). Yirmiyahu is fully conscious of this irony, and he lectures Daniela at length about the cruelty of the God whose threats fill the Book of Jeremiah: “A prophecy of destruction, with relish. Disaster and death and cannibalism…. You worshiped other gods, so you deserve that your sons and daughter be eaten.”

Yet what is Yirmiyahu himself if not a Jeremiah, whose rage at Israel is immense because his disappointment in it is immense?

The friendly fire that claimed his son did not break that connection. On the contrary, over the course of the novel, we learn that Yirmiyahu has done his own investigation into Eyal’s death, and what he learns — about Israelis, Palestinians and their violent embrace — only deepens its tragic ambiguity. So, too, Amotz decides that he is ultimately responsible for the flaws in the elevator shaft, even though he did not build it himself — that an obligation to the community is not less binding because it is unasked for and even unfair.

By the time Daniela and Amotz are reunited in the novel’s last pages, none of the novel’s breakages have been permanently repaired. But Yehoshua’s subtlety and compassion allow “Friendly Fire” to offer the only kind of affirmation we need or can accept from art — not a false consolation, but a true image of solidarity.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish culture.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world

Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?

For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at

Reprinted with permission from

Defending Identity

Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”

Extending the Birthright privilege

Sophie Ambrose grew up without religion on a hippie commune near Jerusalem, Ark. Her mother had rejected Judaism, her father had rejected his Christian background. Ambrose explored churches on her own as a teenager, took a world religions class in college, and as a graduate student in Kansas, began to seek out Hillel and the sparse local Jewish life. Then one day, looking for classes, she Googled “Judaism + college + students” and came upon the Taglit-Birthright Web site.

The offer of a free, 10-day trip to Israel, which the Jewish community has been gifting to 18- to 26-year-old Jews since 2000, changed the trajectory of Ambrose’s life.

The first stop on the Birthright trip Ambrose took during the winter of 2003-04 — straight from the airport — was Masada, the first-century mountaintop site high above the Judean Desert that serves as a symbol of Jewish heroism.

“Everyone was really cranky and tired, and they made us hike Masada, and I remember this moment I had, this moment of standing there and hearing this story of our ancestors being there before us,” said Ambrose, a doctoral student in speech pathology for deaf children, during a recent phone interview from her apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. “And I was looking out at this land, that in some way I was beginning to picture belonged to me, and there was this moment where I went from being not connected, to being connected.”

Birthright’s success in awakening a connection to Jewish heritage and Israel is unprecedented in American Jewish life. As the number of alumni continues to multiply, they are infusing new energy into American Jewry.

Ambrose is one of approximately 10,000 Birthright alumni living in Los Angeles. By the end of this summer, North America will be home to 191,000 Jewishly pumped Birthright alumni. Around 24,000 North Americans and another 4,000 Jews from around the world will have made the pilgrimage this summer alone, and 16,000 were placed on waiting lists and didn’t get to go this round. In addition, more than 13,000 North Americans went last winter.

If those numbers persist, within the next decade about half of all Jewish young adults will have been on a Birthright Israel trip, turning it into a rite of passage almost as common as a bar or bat mitzvah.

The question now facing the organizers of Birthright — and the rest of the Jewish community — is what to do with all those alumni.

Ambrose has become a veritable Birthright poster child — she has both taken and taught several classes in Judaism, returned to Israel twice, become involved in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other organizations, currently serves on the United Jewish Communities speakers bureau and now observes Shabbat and kosher laws and has even gotten her mother to go to High Holy Days services. But most Birthright alumni, though their attitudes change, need more of a push to make behavioral changes.

“The idea of Birthright was to create a spark in people who really needed a spark if they were to remain in some meaningful sense Jewish, and it has done that,” philanthropist Michael Steinhardt said in a phone interview. “But it’s just 10 days.”

Steinhardt, along with Charles and Andrea Bronfman, envisioned and began funding Birthright in 1999.

“I feel extraordinarily gratified that those 10 days have worked as well as they have for as many people as they have, and that Birthright has grown to the point where, frankly, it is the only new entity in the Jewish world that is really something that catches the imagination of anybody,” he said. “But again, 10 days is 10 days. The real challenge is taking that spark and igniting it.”

In the past year, Steinhardt has fueled the next chapter of Birthright with cash and an organizational structure in the form of a new program, Birthright NEXT, founded with a budget of about $8 million and aimed at keeping alumni connected and focused on creating a vibrant Jewish life.

But harnessing alumni energy for long-term behavioral changes — for their own benefit and for the Jewish community’s invigoration — is proving to be a more difficult goal than the formidable but circumscribed goal of changing lives in just 10 days.

Israel faces challenges on three fronts

Israel at 60 faces three major challenges: identity, technology and politics. The future Israel will have to strive and struggle to maintain a credible role as the cultural and spiritual center of Jewish peoplehood. Demography will continue to play a fundamental role here, but the main challenge will be whether Israel can strengthen internal and transnational Jewish cultural bonds to preserve some consensus among the Jewish people.

Jewish religion and identity will remain central to how Israel sees itself and Jews worldwide perceive Israel. But to be viable, Israel’s Jewish identity must be attractive to an array of Jewish constituencies, each of which will view Israel as a place that, permanently or occasionally, is home.

On the technology front, Israel will have to expand its already remarkable facilities to become, even more than now, a world center for research and development capable of offering its creativity and services to Jews and others beyond the limited space of its local market. Israel must join the world’s most developed societies.

To achieve this, Israel will have to overcome the distinctions that persist between greater Tel Aviv and the country’s peripheral areas, and limit the deepening socioeconomic differences between the country’s richest and poorest.

On the political front, Israel will require leaders that can take the country to new horizons. Many Israelis today feel that our political leaders do precisely the opposite, slowing down the major transformations we need to make in such areas as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel-Diaspora relations, the relationship between religion and state, public investment vs. privatization in the economy and more active participation of private individuals in civil society.

Politics in Israel will have to be reinvented so it again becomes a driving force for the fulfillment of Jewish dreams. The overarching issue of peace and normalization of ties with Israel’s neighbors is crucial to this because the final outcome of the Middle East conflict will result either in the fulfillment of dreams or disaster.

These three major challenges share something in common: urgency. Every day that passes without progress brings potentially irreversible negative consequences that threaten the very survival of Israel and the Jewish people.

The way we respond to these challenges ultimately will determine the future course of the Jewish people — and Israel’s fate at its 120th birthday.

Sergio DellaPergola is a professor at Hebrew University and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem.

Briefs: Methodists don’t ‘divest,’ Jewish groups mobilize for Myanmar, Reno TV anchor sues

Methodists Reject Divestment Proposals

Methodists overwhelmingly defeated measures calling for divestment from companies that allegedly enable Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. The resolutions, targeting companies like Caterpillar, which manufactures tractors, and Motorola, which manufactures security systems, had drawn much media scrutiny before last week’s United Methodist Church General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jewish groups were even more offended by a background document prepared in connection with the motions than they were by the notion of divestment itself. According to Jewish groups, the document was dismissive of Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism and ventured into “replacement theology,” the belief that Christianity has superseded Judaism.

An alliance of grass-roots church activists, who nurture ties to the Jewish community, helped defeat five divestment resolutions, often in the early stages of the conference. The activists also helped pass resolutions opposing the proselytizing of Jews and promoting Holocaust awareness and the fight against anti-Semitism.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a public policy umbrella group bringing together national and local organizations, attended the conference. He credited outreach by Jewish groups across the country to sympathetic Methodists and called the defeat of the resolutions a “turning point.”

“The church has spoken that they don’t want this one-sided approach to their witness,” Felson said Friday, the final day of the conference. “This wasn’t about a national campaign, it was about community to community. This was about relationships.”

U.S. Orthodox Rabbis Assail Israeli Rabbinical Court on Nullifying Conversions

American Orthodox rabbis slammed the decision by an Israeli rabbinical court to nullify conversions by an Israeli Orthodox rabbi.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) said Tuesday that the ruling, which retroactively nullified the conversions performed under the auspices of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, was “entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice,” is a violation of “numerous Torah laws” and constitutes a “massive desecration of God’s name.”

“The RCA is appalled that such a ruling has been issued by that court,” according to a statement by the organization.

According to the RCA, it has received assurances from Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar that the ruling by the Rabbinic Court of Appeals has no legal standing.

The episode is the latest to rouse concerns over who is authorized to perform conversions recognized by the Jewish state.

In February, the RCA announced an agreement with the chief rabbinate recognizing 15 American courts and some 40 Orthodox rabbis in North America authorized to perform conversions. A group of liberal Orthodox rabbis said the agreement represented a capitulation to the increasingly stringent standards of the Israeli rabbinate.

Jewish Groups Mobilize For Myanmar

Both the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and B’nai B’rith International have opened disaster relief funds to send aid to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, where at least 22,000 people have been killed and millions left homeless after the May 3 cyclone.

The JDC’s International Development Program, which responds to natural and manmade disasters providing immediate relief and long-term assistance, collects funds on a nonsectarian basis. The JDC is helping some of the region’s estimated 10 Jews.

The B’nai B’rith disaster relief fund will allocate $10,000 to help IsraAID send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar. The team is cooperating with the local United Nations office and Israel’s embassy in the region.

Tel Aviv-based IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid, is an umbrella organization of more than 35 Israeli and Jewish nongovernmental organizations active in development and relief work.

For more information, contact the JDC at or (212) 687-6200; or B’nai B’rith at

To donate to the LA Federation’s Emergency Relief Fund, call (323) 761-8200 or send a check to: The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90048. Please make checks payable to The Jewish Federation with the words “Myanmar Relief Fund” in the memo line.

To contribute to AJWS, visit, or call (800) 889-7146. Checks can be sent to: American Jewish World Service, Burma Relief, 45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

London Mayor Critical of Israel Loses Bid for Re-election to Third Term

Ken Livingstone, a frequent critic of Israel, was beaten in London’s mayoral election.

The Conservative Party’s Boris Johnson received 53.2 percent of the vote last Saturday to 46.8 for Livingstone, the Labor incumbent. Johnson was sworn in the same day.

Livingstone has accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and refused to apologize after comparing a Jewish journalist from London to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The first person to serve as the mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Livingstone served two terms.

Johnson has worked to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has been a supporter of Israel. He opposed a call last year by Britain’s University College Union to boycott Israeli colleges and universities.

During a trip to Israel in November 2004, Johnson visited Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market shortly after a suicide bombing and toured the West Bank security fence, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Judaism Trumps Nationality Among Israelis

Jewish identity takes precedence over national identity for most Israelis, a poll found.

According to the survey in Tuesday’s Israel Hayom newspaper, 65 percent of Israeli Jews identified primarily as Jews and only then as Israelis, whereas 14 percent said the reverse. Nine percent said they don’t know in which order they identify.

Asked whether they want Israel to be more Jewish or more democratic, 47 percent said the former and 43 percent the latter, with the rest undecided.

The poll reflected mixed feelings among Israeli Jews about their country’s future as it celebrates its 60th Independence Day, though most made clear they would not want to live elsewhere.

Asked to rate their “personal mood” on an ascending scale of one to 10, the average number given was seven. The “national mood” was a more gloomy 5.8.

Program helps grandparents nurture interfaith grandkids

Bettina Kurowski is the chair of the 2008 fundraising campaign of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and active in her Conservative synagogue.

She’s also a grandmother of three young grandchildren. They give her great naches, or joy, she says, but she’s also worried — the children’s father is not Jewish, the kids are being raised in an interfaith home and Kurowski, for all her Jewish involvement, is not sure what role she should play in passing on the Jewish heritage that is so dear to her.

“My husband and I are the keepers of the Jewish tradition, the culture and values of Judaism — what it really means to be a Jew,” Kurowski said. “I took it upon myself to study how to be the best grandparent I could be while acknowledging the non-Jewish side of their family.”

“I didn’t want to give the children the sense that there’s something wrong with people who are not Jewish, but I still want to give them a sense of pride in being Jewish,” she added. “It’s a fine line.”

Looking around, Kurowski found few resources for grandparents like herself. She says she’s the only one in her circle of friends whose children intermarried, and she felt the need to share her concerns with others in her situation.

She got that chance last week when the Grandparents Circle held its first meeting at Valley Beth Shalom, Kurowski’s congregation in Encino.

The Grandparents Circle, which launched its pilot course on Jan. 8 in Los Angeles and will launch another in Atlanta on Jan. 29, is a new program created by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) to help grandparents present their Jewish heritage to their grandchildren in intermarried households.

Grandparents meet in groups of 20 to 25 for five weeks of guided discussion, share their concerns and learn specific skills for passing on Jewish history and tradition without forcing it on the children.

“They want to pass on their Jewish identity and background, they want to share their history and who they are with their grandchildren, but it has to be done in a way that’s interesting to the grandchildren,” said Liz Marcovitz, a program officer at the institute. “You can’t just start talking about Judaism with no context.”

The course is inspired by “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do,” a 2007 JOI publication.

When Kurowski read the book last year, she and her husband donated the funds to build a curriculum around it. Her federation has earmarked funds to run the pilot course, and Kurowski says it hopes to expand the course to other synagogues in the Los Angeles area.

Marcovitz says the Jewish communities of Chicago and Hartford, Conn., among others, are interested.

Eventually, JOI plans to set up a national listserve for all such grandparents, whether they have taken the course or not.

Suzette Cohen is organizing the program in Atlanta. She notes that the city’s Jewish community, which has a 60 percent intermarriage rate, is in its sixth year of running the Mothers Circle, a JOI support group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. Many of the Jewish parents of those intermarried couples have asked for a similar program for them.

“They often dance around the issue, afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing” and offending their child or the non-Jewish spouse, Cohen said.

The first Atlanta circle is already oversubscribed; a second group is filling quickly.

The gist of the book and the course is to teach by example: Invite the grandchildren to Passover seders in your home, show them photos of your family, light Shabbat candles and tell them why it’s important to you.

Build “layers of Jewish memories,” the book suggests, that will remain with the children as they grow to adulthood.

Grandparents are an often-overlooked influence on the lives of their grandchildren, said JOI’s associate director, Paul Golin. The institute’s extensive research on the adult children of intermarried couples found that one of the major influences on the religious identities of these young adults was their grandparents.

But it’s not a straight shot.

“It’s not about parenting, it’s about influence,” Golin said. “It happens holistically. If the grandparents are just who they are and have contact with the grandkids, they’ll have that influence. That’s why we say, just be the best Jew you can be. You don’t want to come across as a Hebrew school teacher.”

The Grandparents Circle is designed for Jewish grandparents whose intermarried children are open to it. If the grandchildren are being raised exclusively Christian, Golin notes, it is a much more delicate matter.

That’s the situation facing Rose Sowadsky, an Atlanta-area grandmother whose two grandchildren are being raised Methodist.

The children “are aware” she is Jewish — they were at her home Christmas Eve and saw she had no tree — but they have never asked her about it.

“They must have been well prompted at home,” she supposed.

Sowadsky does not expect to have any influence on her grandchildren’s religious upbringing, but she signed up for the Grandparents Circle for moral support.

“I want to see how others cope with it,” she said.

Many participants come to the group as couples, and many others are single women, usually widowed, like Sowadsky, or divorced.

Dr. Bob Licht, a semiretired Los Angeles dentist, is the lone single man in the group at Valley Beth Shalom. When his wife of 62 years died last summer, he felt he needed help passing on his Jewish heritage to his 4-year-old great-grandson.

The boy’s father, Licht’s grandson, is Jewish, but the boy’s mother is not. Licht said his children and grandchildren, including the boy’s father, received an appreciation and understanding of Judaism from him and his late wife.

Now that she is gone, Licht feels somewhat adrift. The boy had a brit milah, but Licht wants to make sure he continues on a Jewish path.

It’s not camp, but it’ll do

Camp Hess Kramer broke my young and fertile heart. It was an instance of pubescent love that evolved into unrequited passion. For eight years, I frolicked in the crisp Malibu breeze, danced maniacally to Israeli folk songs and celebrated the Sabbath each Friday at dusk. It was eight summers of sheer, unadulterated bliss. Camp was where I discovered my Jewish identity, and it supplied me with religious pride and a newfound zest for Jewish culture. It was a safe haven and a supportive community. Camp comprised my heart and soul.

This summer, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps — Camp Hess Kramer among them — instituted a gap year for students going into 11th grade, encouraging students to go to Israel, a common practice among Jewish summer camps.

A summer without camp? The thought was incomprehensible. I had my life ahead to travel and explore the world, yet only childhood for camp. Soon, I would be inundated with the stresses of being an adult, and it felt as if I was being forced away from my youth. I wanted to be in Malibu; I wanted to be a Jewish camper.

With a stance adamantly against the gap year, I argued with everyone in hopes of changing the program. Camp administrators, directors, counselors, campers, anyone who would lend a listening ear would be the victims of my anti-gap-year tirade. But, regardless of my presumptuous hopes, it was to no avail. I was banished from my second home, and my secure identity as a Jew was seemingly obliterated.

I stood at a crossroads, faced with two options, either go to Israel and contradict my initial stand, or just find other summer plans. My inherently obstinate nature would not permit me to choose the former, although I knew the trip ultimately would have been an unforgettable experience. So this summer, I set out on a quest to regain my Jewish sense of self.

I reluctantly joined the workforce. I found a job working as an editorial intern/reporter at the Beverly Hills Courier, and I was initially hesitant. It was my first job, and I was now to be treated like an adult. The daily grind, incessant traffic, 9 to 5 — could I handle it?

My worries dissipated the moment I entered the door. I was writing, earning bylines, and relaying information to a vast readership. I loved my topics, the work environment, the fresh smell of the paper off of the printing press every Friday.

But unbeknownst to me, through my job I was continually performing an act of kindness and righteousness. Each week, as I obtained information and then got it published for those who did not have the same resources, I was performing a good deed, a mitzvah. As acts of justice are imperative in being classified as “a good Jewish person,” I was not solely writing for the betterment of the community, but for myself. As the summer continued, my words inscribed on sheets of paper became symbolic of my progress as a Jewish person.

I worked at the Courier three days a week and also volunteered each Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I made my weekly trek up to cardiology in my volunteer uniform and assisted the nurses in the department, whether by answering telephones or organizing medical charts. In my hours at the hospital, I gradually became closer to my Jewish enlightenment. I saw that an act of kindness as simple as a smile can improve someone’s day, and I truly felt like a more righteous being when I observed the wonders of the nurses and doctors.

At camp I didn’t really have an opportunity to help those less fortunate, even in the sense of health. Now, I could actually visualize the affects of my deeds and the joy they brought. My heart was steadily increasing with joy, and I could feel the outcome of repairing the world, one act at a time.

My Fridays were devoted to Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that provides less fortunate Los Angeles residents with legal aid. Bet Tzedek, or “House of Justice” in Hebrew, warmed my heart while stimulating my left-brain. A brilliant staff has selflessly abandoned the inflated salaries of corporate law firms in order to help those who are less fortunate. While so much of Los Angeles dwells on monetary income, the best payment that Bet Tzedek receives is the joy of their clients.

Initially, I questioned whether I would ever regain my Jewish identity without Camp Hess Kramer. Yet, through my own path, I discovered that it does not take a camp or a synagogue to classify oneself as an observant Jew. My work this summer has empowered me to feel like a stronger Jewish person than ever. I hadn’t really lost my Jewish identity — I had just failed to recognize it.

Shayna Freisleben is a junior at Harvard-Westlake.

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

Dual Identity, Double the Questions

Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank.

“Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says.
Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band.

Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”

Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.

China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls.

These days, more American families are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.

There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish

Becoming American

She comes up to me through the crowd — designer clothes and Tahitian pearls and that I-know-I’m-gorgeous confidence that makes her impossible to look away from
— and hands me one of my own books. We’re at a writers’ conference in Long Beach. I’m scheduled to speak later in the day, and to sign books afterward, but she’s offering me a pen already.

“To Nancy and Bob Miller,” she instructs in a heavy Southern drawl.

Bob, I assume, is the gentleman standing next to her. He has a gray beard and round, wire rim glasses. He’s wearing a navy blue jacket and white trousers, and you can just imagine the captain’s hat that goes along with the outfit, whether or not there’s a boat in the picture. I sign the book and give it back to her.

“You know,” she says, “I’ve been trying to find you for some time.”

I smile and say I’m flattered.

Then she says, “I think you and I are cousins.”

I assume she means this symbolically — that she believes we have a few things in common — so I nod gravely and say something stupid like, “Is that so?”

“I don’t mean it symbolically,” she says, looking me in the eyes, dead serious. Next to her, Bob is nodding with all the measured wisdom of a ship’s captain about to make a life-and-death decision for the entire crew. “I mean I think you and I are related by blood.”

Now, I’ve been around the block enough times with my books to know that they sometimes evoke interesting reactions from readers. I’ve had strangers come up to me and recite entire pages from my novels, or say they believe they are a certain character in one of the books. I’ve had hate mail from Muslims who are convinced I’ve made up the entire history of Iranian Jews just to make them look bad, and from Jews who believe I write only to embarrass their family and to make sure no one will marry their daughter. But I’ve never had a Southern lady in a St. John suit claim she’s my cousin.

“I figured it out as soon as I read about Solomon the Man,” she says.

Solomon the Man was my great-grandfather. He was born in Esfahan, before airplanes were invented, and though he traveled widely and spawned many children — some, possibly, out of wedlock — I doubt very much he got as far as North Carolina.

“That’s a bit unlikely,” I venture, but Nancy Miller is unwavering.

Two months later, I’m in Pasadena, at another book event, and she finds me again.

“I don’t think you took me seriously last time,” she says reproachfully.

“Are you Iranian?” I ask Nancy, trying to put a stop to this.


“Were your parents Iranian?”

“My father was blue-blood North Carolinian. My mother might have been Jewish.”

Does she know that Jewish and Iranian do not necessarily go hand in hand?

“My mother is dead,” she says, “but I remember she talked about someone called Solomon when I was a child.”

Does she know that, at least in some parts of the world, there is more than one “Solomon” in the general population?

A year goes by. I’m at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills for another book event. My mother is with me. When I see Nancy Miller strut toward me through the garden, I quickly turn to my mother and warn, “That lady’s going to say she’s my cousin; just smile and play along; don’t engage and don’t antagonize.”

I pick up a pen and get busy signing books, hoping this will discourage Nancy from approaching. From the corner of my eye I see that my mother is smiling at Nancy Miller, looking every bit as eager to engage her as I had feared. Then she walks away.

She returns half an hour later with Nancy Miller. They’ve linked arms, and are laughing like a pair of 12-year-old schoolgirls. I hear the words, “Friday night,” and shudder at the thought that my mother has invited Nancy Miller to her house for Shabbat dinner. Then they see me staring at them.

“Gina,” my mother exclaims, proud and beaming, “I want you to meet our cousin Nancy. She and her husband are coming over for Shabbat dinner so I can introduce them to the rest of the family.”

I wait till we’re in the car, a safe distance away from the Four Seasons, before I ask. Nancy Miller’s mother, I learn, was indeed an Iranian Jew, related to Solomon the Man in ways that my mother will neither deny, nor confirm. In Esfahan, where Nancy Miller’s mother lived, she had worked for an American company and ended up marrying her boss. They had had a child — Nancy. When she was 3 years old, her parents had moved from Iran to North Carolina. There, her Iranian Jewish mother had hidden her origins from her Southern Baptist neighbors, but she had sometimes spoken to her children about her Iranian family — about a man, Solomon, who was a Tar player in the court of Zil-el-Sultan.

I’m stunned, and more than a bit embarrassed.

“How did you find all this out?” I ask my mother.

She shrugs. “Nancy told me. She said she’s told you, too.”

I’m thinking of the Southern accent, the country-club attitude, the ship-captain husband, trying to figure out how any of that fits in with a story about a family from the Jewish ghetto of Esfahan.

“She might have told me,” I confess. “I didn’t listen because it didn’t make sense.”

I’m thinking of what I hear so often, here in Los Angeles, from my American friends and neighbors, about Iranians not trying hard enough to “become” American, about how we speak too much Farsi, socialize with too many other Iranians. About how they — the Americans — can tell an Iranian from a mile away.

“She looked nothing like an Iranian,” I say. l

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

Stop sugarcoating intermarriage

Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not,
the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews. And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children, and because most of their children won’t identify as Jews, intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.

The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and Jewish Community Centers (JCC) became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of “Jewish outreach” efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, “interfaith outreach” seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.

Social scientists, myself included, have charted — and implicitly celebrated — the growing and exhilarating diversity of Jewish identities, communities and innovation. Since the early days of American Jewish sociology and its founder, Marshall Sklare, of blessed memory, we have documented the rises, falls and rises of Jewish identity over the life course. Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever.

But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life — however one measures it — than inmarried Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one’s kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one’s children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.

When we ask intermarried Jews, “how important is being Jewish to you?” as a group they score far lower than inmarried Jews.

Some news from the field has been encouraging. But for every report of an apparent success, we have an overall pattern of, let’s call it “less than success.” Sure the Baltimore Jewish population study reports that 62 percent of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, but the rate in San Diego is 21 percent and apparently less than 40 percent nationwide. Just 15 percent to 20 percent of intermarried couples are synagogue members, as compared with 60 percent of inmarried couples.

While Jewish religious engagement is steady or rising, Jewish connections and “collective identity” trends are clearly declining. While the inmarried are leading more intensive Jewish lives, the intermarried as a group remain much less engaged.
Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged — people reading this column, for example — raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry.

Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we’re “winning the battle.” In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.

Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there’s nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there’s much that is being done to affect the rate.

Some sociologists claim we can find evidence of high rates of Jewish commitment among the intermarried as a group, if only we measured properly. But on no measures do the intermarried outscore the inmarried.

Some speculate that because Jewish identities are fluid, or because the intermarried have become so numerous, the intermarried as a group may well move toward significant Jewish engagement. Yet no study shows the gap narrowing. Jewish identities are changing — but the basic import of intermarriage is not. San Francisco, for example, reports that from 1986 to 2004, observance patterns by the inmarried climbed, while those for the intermarried fell, further widening the gap between inmarried and intermarried.

The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

Gangs of N.Y. — and L.A.

The gang violence that has recently wracked parts of Los Angeles compels me to ask this question: Where are all the Jewish gangs?

I’m not being cute.

There was a time in history when America’s worst gangs were Jewish. From 1880 through the dawn of Prohibition, New York’s Lower East Side was synonymous with thugs, thieves, gambling and prostitution. That part of our collective memory we’ve understandably underemphasized: Just what did Tevye the Milkman’s daughters have to do to survive in the Golden Land?

“Along with upright unionists like David Dubinsky and his ILGWU [International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union], there were shlammers [goons], like Gyp “The Blood” Horowitz, Kid Twist and “Dopey” Benny Fine, armed with lead pipes, chains, knucks and guns, who constituted the vast and bloody mercenary army of the labor wars,” Mike Bookman, the author of a 2000 novel of the period, “God’s Rat,” told me.

Indeed, as Albert Fried documents in “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America” (Columbia, 1993), the Lower East Side of Yiddish theater, warm bialys, firebrand politics and hard-working immigrants was also rife with pimps, addicts and thugs — all Jewish.

The “demonically cruel” Dutch Schultz? His mother knew him as Arthur Flegenheimer.

And it wasn’t just New York. Jewish gangs were the terror of turn-of-the-century Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, where Hastings Street, wrote Fried, “spawned a farrago of teenage Jewish street gangs.” The cops called it “Little Jerusalem.”

These days, to point out the obvious, Jewish gangs are not such a problem. Sure there’s an Israeli Ecstasy ring here and a Russian prostitution ring there, but you can walk the mean streets of Brentwood, Sherman Oaks or Pico-Robertson and not have to worry about crossing paths with some turf-protecting boychiks sporting blue-and-white do-rags and Hebrew bling.

Jewish kids who want to go gangsta have only one outlet: rap parodies on YouTube.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with other boys their age. Over the past month, gang violence between Latinos and blacks in the Harbor Gateway area resulted in the murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green. Last Saturday, Latino gang members shot a 34-year-old black man in front of his daughters as he waited for them to meet a friend for a birthday sleepover.

“This is part of a tit-for-tat killing spree that has been going on for a decade,” said Joe Hicks, who, when he was executive director of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, spent a good part of his time in Harbor Gateway. “But something has definitely shifted into another gear that has gotten people pretty alarmed.”

Across the city, some 269 lives were cut short by gang-related violence in 2006.

The Green murder prompted an outpouring of community grief and outrage and a good amount of political posturing. It also focused attention on a report, prepared by Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice, that calls for a $1 billion “Marshall Plan” to improve the lives of kids vulnerable to gangs.

A billion may not seem like a lot — in Iraq, we’ve spent $323 billion and only succeeded in starting gang wars — but many observers want to, wisely, take a step back before rushing in with the checks.

“Harbor Gateway is a 2-mile area as desolate as you can find,” said Hicks, who is now co-director of Community Advocates. “You do need to bring additional services to the community. But if you build a basketball court or a Boys & Girls Club, the gang would immediately claim that. It would decide who’s able to play checkers or shoot hoops.”

Hicks’ experience, backed up by police, is that there are a limited number of really bad apples in any gang. When these “shot callers” were arrested and locked up in the mid-1990s, the situation improved, Hicks said.

“First, law enforcement has to get tough,” he said. “Lock up people for doing bad stuff. Second, convert peripheral gang members. Third, work on the younger generation with community development and activities.”

This struck me as sensible and straightforward, with this caveat: It’s not just gang culture that’s sick, it’s our culture.

When the L.A. Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez spent time with members of the 204th Street Gang, he found older men with steady jobs who commuted to gang bang.

“If it was about race, why are they killing each other?” he asked me. “Their primary identity is not their ethnicity, it is ‘us against the outsiders.’ It’s all about posturing and pride.” And their music and entertainment reaffirms their choice. “Mainstream culture glorifies criminality,” Rodriguez said.

Any solution or set of solutions is bound to fail if we as a society don’t consistently send a very simple message: gang behavior is bad.The era of Jewish gangs faded as most of the original gangsters aged and a new generation of Jewish youth found better outlets for their testosterone.

One crucial brake on their behavior? According to Fried, it was good old-fashioned shame. In 1912, as violence among Jewish gangs reached its peak, the Jewish community reacted with almost unanimous disgust.

“The Jewish community turned in on itself, confronting itself as never before,” Fried writes. He quotes the editor of a Yiddish newspaper, expressing the common outrage of the day: “The divine word, ‘I choose you among the people of the earth,’ ends up this way.”

Jewish gangsters who sought to elevate themselves by accruing wealth and inspiring fear found themselves objects of communal derision and disgust. Compare that reaction with today’s popular entertainment that too often idealizes and romanticizes gangsters.

“We have to find ways to erode the culture at root of urban America, the gangster hip-hop ethos,” Hicks said.

How to pay for Hicks’ beefed-up police and Rice’s “Marshall Plan”?What about a sin tax on black and Latino artists who partake in that glorification, and Jewish and non-Jewish agents, marketers, record labels and corporations who profit from their artistry?

OK, maybe a tax isn’t realistic. Then again, shame doesn’t seem to be working either.

Discovering the Name

The first Torah portion in Exodus is Shemot, Hebrew for “names.” “These are the names of the Israelites coming to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).

That might be where we got the name of the parsha, but that is not where the parsha takes us. Namings take place throughout Shemot. Moses gets a new name from the daughter of Pharaoh — her mistaken grammar is a mask for prophecy. In rabbinic commentary, the daughter of Pharaoh receives her name, and of course, God reveals God’s name to Moshe.

Take Pharaoh’s daughter’s naming of Moshe. You remember the story: Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, puts her baby in a little tevah, or vessel, made of papyrus. The word “tevah,” when it appears in the Bible, is usually translated as “ark” — the same word is used for Noah’s floating biosphere. (Perhaps to say: Just as Noah’s ark carried a new start for humanity, so does Moshe’s ark.)

The heretofore unnamed daughter of Pharaoh goes down to the Nile to bathe. She sees the ark stuck in the reeds (the suf) and the crying baby within. She realizes he is one of the Hebrew children, but she pities him, takes him in and finds him a wet nurse. She names him Moshe, saying: “Ki min ha’mayim m’shitihu” (because from the water I drew him out).

Pharaoh’s daughter prophetically sees the fortune of the crying infant and names what he is to do years later — draw the people of Israel through the water of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. He is the Moshe, the One Who Draws From the Water.

According to the sages, this baby boy already had a name. In Shemot, we are told that when the boy was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Ki tov” (how goodly).

Yocheved uses the same phrase God did when He saw the days of creation — “Ki tov” (It is good). Perhaps it is used to say that the story of creation represents the birth of the world, the moral aspect of which had gone so awry, and the birth of Moses symbolizes the rebirth of the moral universe.

Based on Yocheved’s exclamation, the sages say that boy’s name was Tuvya: the goodness of God — “a sign that he was fit for prophecy.” But the sages remind us that the prophecy of Pharaoh’s daughter established the name that even God would use. Moses’ name would not be based on his capacity, Tuvya, but rather his deeds, Moshe.

We don’t know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter until the sages name her: Batyah, the daughter of God. Her compassion and devotion to Moshe made her the adopted daughter of God.

Rabbinic midrash adds a beautiful symmetry to this already mysterious irony: The daughter of Pharaoh names the greatest prophet of Israel, and the sages of Israel name the daughter of Pharaoh.

A modern midrash fills this out. Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, the first cousin of the Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote an extraordinary poem titled, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name” (“L’chol Ish Yesh Shem”), which contains the following lines:

“Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by God
And given to him by his parents….”

As we meditate on this idea of names, of names given and destinies and identities established, questions arise: How is our inner identity established, that living tissue of inner essence, that mutely conscious dimension of our souls which gives continuity to our inner lives? Are we only named by the names people call us, our admirers and detractors together? Are we named by our aspirations or our failings, or by what we have learned as we step and stumble from one to another?

I believe that God has placed a secret name within each of us, and that it is our life’s purpose, at least partly, to know and speak that name with all we do. There are moments in life that define our names. The rest of our lives can be spent living up those moments or atoning for the moments when we have forgotten our inner name.

And in each of these moments of internal naming, where some aspect of our spiritual identity is engraved upon the soul, God is present.

Moshe said to God: When I tell the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will ask me, “What is his name?”

God says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I shall be who I shall be).

I think of God here, in this context, as being present in our spiritual strivings. God’s inner identity, the unknowable infinite nothingness of the Divine, is not what Moshe is asking. Moshe is asking of the name of the God sending him to this work that will define his life.

God says, perhaps: Don’t ask for me a fixed identity, a name that will ease your anxiety as you go about your life’s work.

Perhaps God is saying: “Get to your work, discover your name and I will be there with you.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons

For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

Second-class Conservative citizens

When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.

Rainbow-haired couturier takes fashion fun seriously

Her natural hair color is brown, but Nony Tochterman hasn’t shown her roots in about 20 years. These days it’s a bubblegum pink, and in the past she’s tressed herself in Skittles hues, including green, blonde, orange, purple, fuchsia and lavender.
Color, after all, is a lot of what the 40-year-old fashion designer is about. Her line is called House of Petro Zillia. Named after the Hebrew word for parsley, it is a perfect moniker for her design aesthetic, which takes fun seriously.

“I’m a colorful person,” Tochterman said. “I like color; I like texture; I like mixing things together. I think my customer is a sophisticated, ageless, confident woman.”

Such women have found Tochterman’s clothing in upscale boutiques since the company’s inception in 1996, but Tochterman says a store of her own “has been in my head for years.” This month, she and her husband and business partner, Yosi Drori, celebrate the grand opening of a flagship store in the trendy strip of West Third Street, between La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

“The store is not just about my clothes,” Tochterman said, “but about everything that I love — furniture, knickknacks.”
Tochterman is known in the industry for her whimsical feminine pieces, bold designs and unexpected color combinations, as well as a penchant for knits and vintage-inspired looks. The fashion of Petro Zillia is eclectic. It encompasses a retro sky blue cashmere sweater, with a rainbow and hearts on the front, but also a subtler, but still quirky navy silk wrap dress trimmed with pompoms, and a serious gray tweed flare skirt.

Her new store’s interior reflects this point of view. Shoppers enter into an open space subtly divided into three sections.
Up front, the feel is midcentury, with walls decked in mod orange and green wallpaper. Through the center, the mood changes to neoromantic. Tripartite walls are painted crackle pink on top, lime green in a center ribbon trimmed with gold-gilt molding and papered in a blue floral on the bottom. From the ceiling hangs a sizable chandelier that Tochterman says her husband found at “like a JCC donation center or something.” (Drori is responsible for most of the interior design.) In the back is a shift to ’70s psychedelic, complete with facing lime green loveseats: one tweed, one plastic.

Tochterman and Drori hope to make the location a hangout, in addition to a shopping destination. There are plans for a garden in the back under a big magnolia tree left by the previous tenant, the Shambhala Meditation Center. Next door to the store is a space the couple is converting into Tochterman’s design studio — one arena that has never felt foreign to her.
Tochterman grew up in Tel Aviv with a fashion pedigree. Her mother had a chic boutique, and Tochterman said, “I used to go to her studio, and she allowed me to work on the overlock machine.” By the time she was 7, Tochterman had learned how to knit, sew and cut fabric, and she eventually sold some of her pieces in her mom’s store.

At 14, Tochterman moved to Los Angeles with her parents and siblings, but she had trouble adjusting and moved back to Israel after a year and a half, living with her grandmother while she finished school there.

She returned to Los Angeles after she graduated. Soon after, she moved to New York to work in the fashion industry. Capitalizing on a huge late ’80s trend by making clip-on button covers, Tochterman founded a successful accessories line, Nony New York, with Drori in 1986.

They made the most of it while it lasted, but the trend was dead by 1995, and they closed the business. They traveled, had a brief stint as owners of a Caribbean hotel on Saint Martin and eventually found themselves back in Los Angeles with their infant son, Etai, living with Tochterman’s parents.

Petro Zillia was born soon after — an accessories line that quickly morphed into a full ready-to-wear collection. Some 10 years later, her designs have been featured in Vogue and W Magazine and worn by trendsetters like Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz and Madonna.

Tochterman and Drori continue to work together on the business and personal life they share. The birth of Etai was followed four years later by a girl, Romie. The kids are now 11 and 7 years old, and in February the couple will celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Tochterman’s open personality translates into her life as well as her work. In her identity, she feels herself more American than Israeli. But she’s still “Eema” to the kids, and Drori is “Abba.”

Religion, too, is a relaxed thing. They celebrate Jewish holidays with the extended family but do not observe much at home. In terms of religious school, Tochterman and Drori have not made it a priority. The kids attend a secular private school in Santa Monica, where they live.

One could say her diverse fashion sense applies to her worldview, as well.

“The way we see it, we want to raise good people, religion blind, color blind, sexual-orientation blind — citizens of the world,” Tochterman said. “I like looking at the spectrum of their friends. Indian, Jewish, Italian — it represents the world better.”

Trading in happy meals for real happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rocky Salomon is a 10th grader at YULA.

Speak Up!

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

New Year brings new hope to inmates

Daniel, a 24-year-old UCLA student, has gotten under my skin. I met him a month ago when I followed Rabbi Yossi Carron on his rounds through Men’s Central Jail
and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Daniel had a few more days to serve on the six-month sentence he received after his was convicted of dealing methamphetamine to some of his fellow Bruins — most likely, his release date would fall just before or just after Rosh Hashanah.

When I learned Daniel would be celebrating his last day in jail during the New Year’s service Carron organized for his prison shul, I asked to tag along.
In a hallway at Men’s Central on a Tuesday afternoon, Carron and three rabbinical students are maneuvering a pair of rickety carts loaded with prayer books and a Rosh Hashanah feast past a prisoner-painted mural that depicts a SWAT team, guns raised, staring down passersby.

At one point, several packages of pita bread slide off the top of one of the loads. At the rear of the convoy, where a Torah scroll on loan from a Sephardic temple nestles under a tallit, someone makes a joke about Uzzah — the poor guy in 2 Samuel, chapter 6, who meets with God’s wrath when he touches the Ark to keep it from bouncing off an ox cart.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is onhand, along with half a dozen volunteers. As the afternoon sun slants through broken windowpanes 20 feet above the concrete floor, this small group of Jews lays tablecloths and arranges flowers to transform a disused prison dining hall into sacred space.

Simon — his name, like those of other inmates, has been changed to protect his identity — is one of the first inmates to arrive. Now 30, he has lived on the streets or in jail since he was 15. His arms are inked with menacing skulls and demons, but the most affecting tattoo is a single teardrop on his left cheek — a memento he got when his time behind bars passed the five-year mark.

“I get out again in 33 days,” he says, adding that his first stop will be a drug treatment center in Torrance. “This time I’m staying out.”

Eventually the room holds about 20 inmates from Men’s Central and from Twin Towers Correctional Facility across the street.

“You have more rabbis and rabbis-to-be in this room than you’ll ever see again in your life,” Carron tells the men in his prison shul. “Mingle and make use of them.”

The soft buzz of friendly conversation fills the hall.

I manage to get in a few words with Daniel, who looks quietly jubilant.
“Man, this feels so good,” he tells me. “This is like the perfect way to end this experience. I’ve learned so much. It sounds strange, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”

At another table, Gary, an inmate whose hard years are etched onto a face that resembles a walnut, has recognized Pauline Lederer, a wheelchair-bound but sharp-witted nonagenarian who has been volunteering in Los Angeles County jails since the 1930s.

“I first met Pauline in 1983!” Gary exclaims.

After her conversation with Gary, Pauline says, “Things aren’t going well for him. Spending so much time in here is bad for the soul. It’s very sad, but I hope this helps.”

Soon Carron asks everyone to take a seat so that service can begin. Over the next hour, he weaves prayers recalling the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt with the traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy. Noam Raucher delivers a homily about how his experience shadowing Carron has shaped his understanding of teshuvah, and Alison Abrams opens the rosewood ark to read a passage from the Torah.

At the end of the service, Michael Chusid, a veteran of last year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration at Men’s Central, blows the shofar.

“Every generation has to overcome terrible suffering,” Carron says later, after the last of the roasted chicken and apple tart has disappeared. “What we’re doing on Rosh Hashanah is redeeming that holy spark within us, which is what happened when we crossed the Red Sea. It also points toward the freedom that I hope each of these guys will experience in some way in the New Year.”

Carron’s hope reminds me of Daniel, who’s marking the New Year and his newfound freedom by returning to a life that will be completely the same and totally different from the life he knew six months ago. Really, each day is like that — each day is the beginning of a new year. That’s easy to say, but hard to accept. In my own life, I’m starting to realize that, for now, it’s enough to move through each day as if I accepted it.

So whenever you happen to be reading this, Shana Tova.

For more on Rabbi Carron’s work, see

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday the 2nd

This weekend represents a final opportunity to view two Skirball Center multimedia exhibitions. “Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography” presents photos, video and multimedia pieces by emerging and mid-career artists, exploring the theme of Jewish identity. “L.A. River Reborn” focuses in closer to home, on the Los Angeles River and the relationship between society and the environment.

Through Sept. 3. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” border = 0 align = left vspace = 6 hspace = 6 alt = “”>

Monday the 4th

This Labor Day the Workmen’s Circle hosts an opening reception for “Peter Whittenberg: Prints,” an exhibition of politically minded graphic art. The decidedly adult-only show features Whittenberger’s recurring character, Robert P. Vonruenhousen IV, who has male sex organs for a head, and represents what the artist feels is wrong with America today.

5-7 p.m. Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007. ” TARGET=”_blank”>

Wednesday the 6th

Community spirit can be found at the Robertson Branch Library tonight. Families and kids of all ages are invited for “Neighbors Celebrating Neighbors: An Evening of Music and Stories.” The event features Uncle Ruthie Buell of KPFK, children’s book author Barney Saltzberg ,singer and recording artist Tiana Marquez and singer Tonyia Jor’dan.

6:30 p.m. Free. 1719 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 840-2147.

Thursday the 7th

The Academy does it short and sweet, this week. The Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the largest fest of its kind. Included among this year’s films are “George Lucas in Love,” directed by Joe Nussbaum (“American Pie 5: The Naked Mile”) and “In God We Trust,” by Jason Reitman, director of “Thank You For Smoking” and son of director Ivan.

Sept. 5-14. ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. ” align = right vspace = 6 hspace = 6 border = 0 alt = “”>
Homage is paid to the brothers Gershwin in the 1983 Tony-winner “My One and Only.” Head to UCLA’s Freud Playhouse to see Reprise’s production of this “Funny Face” adaptation, that also includes Gershwin music from other sources.

Sept. 5-17. $60-$75 (single tickets), $165-$195 (season tickets). Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Promoting Jewish Learning

On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed “Shalom Aleichem” as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

Billed as “Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners,” CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as “God Shopping,” “The Jews of Sing-Sing,” “Assessing Our Relationship to Israel” and “Jews as Global Citizens.” Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.

Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke’s Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.

Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.

In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, “Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40.”

The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children’s preparation for b’nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.

Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.

“CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours,” she told them. “You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you.”

A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, “They should identify with Israel like it’s their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed.” Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.

A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.

The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.

Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.

“This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that’s not the right word,” she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, “there is only one tent in town for everybody.”

Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.

“I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year,” she said. “I love the interchange with other professionals.”

Eliot Spack, CAJE’s outgoing executive director, said, “CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries,” referring to the educators who attend.

He called the conference “a celebration of Jewish teaching: “CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it’s helped people come to grips with their own Judaism.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.

“West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?” she asked.

Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism — memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language — each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.

Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference’s theme: “A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday.”

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.