Confidence in Obama falls dramatically in Israel


While President Barack Obama remains popular in most countries, the sharpest decline in his image occurred in Israel, according to a new survey.

In Israel, confidence in Obama on world affairs fell from 71 percent to 49 percent in the last year, according to the 2015 Spring Pew Global Attitudes Survey released Wednesday.

Some 15 percent of residents of the Palestinian Authority said they had confidence in Obama on world affairs, compared to 82 percent with no confidence. Jordan had similar figures with 14 percent confidence and 83 percent no confidence.

Residents of the Philippines had the most confidence in Obama with 94 percent; next was South Korea with 88 percent. France was third with 83 percent confidence.

American’s overall image around the world remains largely positive, according to the survey, with a median of 69 percent holding a favorable view and 24 percent an unfavorable opinion.

Some 81 percent of Israelis view the United States favorably and 18 percent unfavorably, similar to the past two years. However, 87 percent of Jewish-Israelis view the United States favorably, compared with 48 percent of Arab-Israelis, according to the survey.

Lebanon, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have largely unfavorable opinions.

Results for the survey are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International during April and May. In Israel, 1,000 surveys were conducted in face-to-face interviews in Hebrew and Arabic, with a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

Israel’s image war


The Israel Defense Forces is bombing the Gaza Strip and the world is, for the most part, silent. In fact, the IDF is bombing Gaza and the world is, for the most part, supporting Israel.

How is this happening? Wars today are fought not only with bullets, but also with images. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has succeeded in appearing as the victim, even though it is acting with strength and determination. But don’t get too excited. This could turn around in a moment.

Israel’s advocates have so far had a much easier time than they did during Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9. The IDF has focused on attacking specific terrorists and has been extremely careful to not harm innocent civilians, even if this has meant calling off planned strikes. The government’s instructions on this have been clear.

Israel understands that wars today are fought not only on the physical battlefield. The war of images is no less important than the war of bullets. Israel’s public relations officials gained enough experience from the days of the Second Intifada to internalize the equation that fewer civilian casualties lead to less criticism and more international legitimacy.

The start of Operation Pillar of Defense went well. Israel opened the operation by killing Hamas military wing chief Ahmed Jabari and taking out long-range missile sites. It would be hard for the West to criticize strikes on such targets.

At the same time, Israel asked the West this question: What would you do if Paris or London were attacked? Pictures were broadcast of sites in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi that had been hit by Hamas missiles. This time, the world saw an injured Israeli baby, not just a Palestinian one. In the world's eyes, the heroes in Israel are not the country's pilots, but the civilians taking cover in bomb shelters. An image of a civilian huddling in a bomb shelter is received much more favorably than one of a pilot in a fighter jet.

The IDF’s pinpoint attacks have spoiled Hamas’s public relations efforts. Hamas, along with its allies in the radical Arab world, can continue to talk about “barbaric” IDF attacks, but it has no photos to back up such accusations.

There is no cause for euphoria, however, because everything can change in an instant. One mistake and the picture is reversed. Do you remember Qana (where the IDF accidentally killed large numbers of Lebanese civilians in both 1996 and 2006)?

Also, the diplomatic clock is continuing to tick. The French foreign minister is hurrying to come here, ahead of the United Nations secretary-general. The world’s support is conditional and time-limited. Israel is walking on very thin ice.

The first days of the operation have been very successful, even with the air raid sirens that sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the weekend. Paradoxically, these long-range rocket attacks showed the limits of Hamas’s potency.

Israel will not resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in this round or the next one. But the current military operation is meant to bring quiet to the south, restore Israel’ss deterrence and weaken Hamas. As a bonus, Israel is receiving support from the West and understanding from the media.

In a war of images, victory does not necessarily come on the battlefield. So a ground operation must be considered cautiously. It may be tempting, but it would also be risky.


 

Boaz Bismuth is a correspondent and columnist for Israel Hayom, whose English-language content is distributed in the U.S. exclusively by JNS.org.

Bob Saget: Clean-cut and filthy (uncensored version)


Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.

“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”

The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”



This is the uncensored version of this story. For the G-rated version, click here.



It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.

During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.

While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay” and “My Dog Licked My Balls.”

“For the record, he made the first move,” Saget said.

Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.

His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.

The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.

Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

“We have a great synagogue the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”

Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.

“Anybody who talks about my TV kids that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”

Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”

Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.

“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.”

Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.

“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.

“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”

In person, Saget is warm and approachable; wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.


‘My dog licked my balls’ — Bob Saget in concert

Ich bin ein Amerikaner


“The world is waiting to love America again” ran the title of a recent London Observer editorial anticipating Barack Obama’s visit to Europe.

Love may be too strong a word to describe the world’s feelings for America when George W. Bush was first sworn in as president, but not by much. It’s surprising, but irrefutable, to look back at the numbers he inherited. Polls taken in 1999 and 2000 show impressive majorities of people in nations all around the world holding favorable views of the U.S. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when headlines declared “We Are All Americans” in many languages, those numbers went even higher.

But today, love is not much in the air. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project put it, “Since 2002 … the image of the United States has declined in most parts of the world. Favorable ratings of America are lower in 26 of 33 countries for which trends are available.”

Some examples: In Germany, our favorability has fallen from 78 percent, when Bush was inaugurated, to 30 percent in 2007; in Britain, from 83 to 51; in Slovakia, from 74 to 41; in Argentina, from 50 to 16; in Turkey, from 52 to 9; in Indonesia, from 75 to 29.

The Bush/Cheney doctrine, of course, was never about being loved. Instead, they said they wanted America to be respected, which turned out to be code for being feared. No one disputes that national security depends on strength, which includes military and economic strength. But it also depends on ideals, and it’s in that department — the values implicit in our actions — where the White House has lost the world’s respect and actually undermined America’s power.

Everyone knows the list of horribles: Unilateralism. Name-calling. Cowboy diplomacy. Pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. Declaring the Geneva Conventions irrelevant. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Branding negotiation as “appeasement.” Preaching a “freedom agenda” while undermining domestic civil liberties. Supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of spreading democracy.

It goes on. And it has had an effect diametrically opposite to its intention. “Ironically,” the Pew project says, “the belief that the United States does not take into account the interests of other countries in formulating its foreign policy is extensive among the publics of several close U.S. allies. No fewer than 89 percent of the French, 83 percent of Canadians and 74 percent of the British express this opinion.”

For years, the Bush State Department has pursued numerous misbegotten and unsuccessful efforts at “public diplomacy,” based on the premise that what America has is a communications problem, that we need a more effective marketing campaign for our national brand. In fact, what we have actually had is a problem problem — a policy problem, an actions problem, a contempt for differing points of view, an arrogance about human rights, a penchant for demonization.

Yes, there are evil people and bad states in the world, and they want to do grievous harm to us and our allies. But there is scant evidence that the approach of the past seven years has effectively contained or defanged them. In fact, the Bush State Department seems finally to have recognized this. In its dealings with Syria and Iran, there is a belated, twilight recognition that talk is not the same thing as capitulation. The agreement at the G-8 summit in Japan to halve greenhouse gases by 2050 — 2050! — may be pathetic, but at least it is less pathetic than denying their human causes and their lethal consequences.

There is a good reason that entertainment is America’s No. 1 export, even at this nadir of our international reputation. The stories that Hollywood’s products tell, the values they embody, are hopeful, idealistic, celebratory of human potential and achievement. Yes, some nihilistic stuff is American-made and globally consumed, too. But by and large, people around the world like our entertainment for the same reason that we do: It comes down on the side of dignity, freedom and good triumphing over evil. That’s what America can mean to the world, and in some quarters — despite the bullying and blundering of the Bush years — still does mean.

When John F. Kennedy in 1963 told the world from the Brandenburg Gate, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was explicitly identifying with all people whose freedom was threatened. But there was an implicit message in his words as well: Here is what it means to be an American. Here is what the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution look like.

As The Observer observed, the world is waiting to love America again. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have a tremendous opportunity to change the face, and to change the meaning, of what “I am an American” has come to signify around the world. For the sake of our national security, and that of our allies, it can’t come a moment too soon.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Power shower


L.A.’s Jews and other minorities: oh, how we’ve danced!


In Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world, we Jews have grappled long and hard with our sense of place in America. Ultimately, having found our “place in the sun,” we have forged meaningful relations with many of the communities that make up this complicated goulash.

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that Jews are the most admired religious group in America — more than Catholics, Muslims and Evangelical Protestants. Jews received a favorable rating of 77 percent, compared to Catholics’ 73 percent, Evangelicals’ 57 percent and Muslims’ 55 percent. Unfavorable ratings for Jews are at 7 percent, Catholics at 14 percent, Evangelicals at 19 percent and Muslims at 25 percent.

An American Jewish Committee (AJC) study in 2005 found that American Jews exceed all other identifiable religious and ethnic/racial groups in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, mean years of schooling, years of higher education of spouses, prestige level of jobs, household income and net worth (and these are just a few of the measures).

Another AJC study revealed that the trend lines for Jewish acceptance and success are clearly aiming upward. Over the past 30 years, Jews with four-year college degrees increased from 39 percent to 61 percent, occupational “prestige” increased from 46 percent to 52 percent, self-identification as “upper class” increased from 10 percent to 20 percent, self-identification as being “above average” in income level increased from 41 percent to 51 percent, and self-evaluation as having been raised in an “above-average income” home sky-rocketed from 24 percent to 52 percent. According to every measure of success since the 1970s, the trends are consistent and favorable.

Jews are a forceful presence in academia — not only on faculties and in student bodies, but also in the highest levels of administration (from Williams to UCLA to Harvard). Jewish studies centers have proliferated and numerous non-Jews take classes with them. Jews in the corporate arena have headed not only DuPont but also Bank of America and too many other Fortune 100s to name. In the political world there are two Jews on the Supreme Court, two female Jewish senators from California, and more than a minyan in the Senate. There have been Jewish governors in states from Vermont (Kunin) to Hawaii (Lingle) and an Orthodox Jew was a major party nominee for vice president of the United States with virtually no negative questions being raised about his religious affiliation.

My career as a professional in the L.A. Jewish community has spanned almost 30 years. Over those decades, as a participant in Jewish community leadership, I watched and celebrated the transformation of the reality of Jewish life while also observing the community’s self-perception gradually, if reluctantly, keep pace — almost as if acknowledging that positive news would bring about its end (e.g., invoking the evil eye, ayn horeh). But reluctant though it may be, there has been a dramatic shift in status and self-perception, and that shift has radically altered how we relate to other ethnic groups and to our own leadership.

In order to understand the shift that has occurred, it might be illuminating to trace what has happened over the past 30 years and to look at where the community and its leadership are now and where we should go next.

Jews and blacks. Jews and Latinos. Jews and Muslims. To be a Jew in Los Angeles is to be in constant relationship with the other ethnicities and religious groups that make up the complex fabric of the city.

It is also crucial to realize that, despite the dark exhortations of some of our East Coast leaders, the outlook for American Jewry here is bright and sunny.

When I joined the staff of the local Anti-Defamation League office in 1975 as its western states counsel, the community was focused on the security of Israel and the increasing economic clout of the Arab world, the impact of the Arab boycott of Israel overseas and, domestically, the rise of “Third World” antagonists on college campuses, the continued vitality of the Ku Klux Klan and various right-wing extremist groups that were enjoying a rebirth.

Jews were insecure about their incipient rise in America’s corporate structure, which was reflected in the enormous amount of attention accorded Irving Shapiro’s becoming the chairman of DuPont in 1973 — the first Jew to head a Fortune 100 company. It hadn’t been all that long since the civil rights laws of the 1960s initiated the transformation of the corporate suite. The doors that had been opened a decade earlier resulted in a Jew being elevated to CEO of one of America’s blue-chip companies, a powerfully symbolic and significant milestone for the American Jewish community.

Because of our still-lingering level of discomfort at the time, we retained a certain level of defensiveness. An off-color remark on a late-night talk show, a dim-witted sitcom episode, or a politician or preacher’s errant comments became targets for swift and unambiguous condemnation. Very few slights were too minor to be ignored or allowed to go unanswered. We were, after all, a disadvantaged minority with a tortured history of discrimination that was only beginning to harvest the fruits of a free and open society. We were still in the shadow of the Holocaust and hadn’t yet adjusted to our dramatically improving status.

The insecurity that prevailed in the 1970s and ’80s frequently colored our dialogues with other groups. Whether black-Jewish or Latino-Jewish interactions, those relations seemed to be shaped by the memories of the “grand coalitions” formed during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s and animated by the notion that as an aggrieved minority we needed allies for protection against potential bigotry and hate from the white Christian majority. Frankness and recognition of frequently divergent interests were often sublimated in favor of efforts to sustain a united front.

During those years, the community leadership’s efforts at “outreach” often ran counter to what Jews perceived as their real, everyday concerns. In Los Angeles, no single issue demonstrated the gulf between what the Jewish “Joe six-pack” wanted and what leadership pursued than that of public-school busing. Jewish organizations, virtually unanimously, endorsed the transfer of tens of thousands of kids across Los Angeles, while the parents of kids in public schools were divided — at best — and permanently alienated from their community organizations — at worst.

Avoid an Oops in Shooting Your Video


Little Rachel takes her first steps — but your camcorder battery dies before you get the shot.

Your family reunion includes Grandma Shirley, whom you haven’t seen in 15 years and, frankly, may never see again. You interview her on video, but when you sit down later to watch it, the sound is so bad you can’t understand a single word.

At my brother’s bar mitzvah, a family member showed up late with the video equipment, set up the camera and forgot to push record.

Whether you’re trying to capture a wedding, b’nai mitzvah or 50th anniversary celebration, the day will come and go whether you’re ready for it or not. Unless you’re prepared, the opportunity to capture family history can easily slip through your fingers.

Losing such precious moments can be depressing. But with a little advance planning, attention to detail and some practice, you can shoot home videos your family will kvell about for years to come. Here are some tips:

1. Don’t forget to push record. Once you push “record,” confirm that you are recording. Every video camera features a recording indicator, typically located in the viewfinder or the view screen. As you get ready to focus on your subject, the first thing you should do is look in the viewfinder or on the screen and note whether the recording indicator is on.

2. Charge your batteries. This is one of the most common mistakes. The battery that came with your video camera will not last longer than one hour. In addition, after a few years, rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge well. Even buy an extra battery pack or two, charge them and have them on hand in case your primary battery loses its charge.

3. Focus on sound. Bad sound is often the biggest killer of home videos. Are you only using the standard built-in microphone? Be conscious of its limited range. If you’re recording someone nearby, try to get as close to the person as possible. If you’re at a gala event and someone is using a microphone, try to get close to the electronic amplification speaker.

4. Stabilize your shot. All modern video camcorders have a stabilization option. Turning this option on will improve your shots tremendously. I require my professional videographers, who shoot everything from wedding videos to commercials, to turn this option on.

5. Use both hands. Shaky camera work can give friends and family headaches. Do not hold the camera in one hand, stretching your arm out in front of you. Instead, hold the camcorder with both hands, and hold the camera against your body. For even greater stabilization, lean your back against a wall.

6. Forget the zoom. Don’t use the zoom. Instead of constantly zooming in for closeups and then zooming out for wider shots, try holding the camera against your body, framing your shot like a still photograph. To get closer to the image, simply walk closer, using your body as a large stabilization weight. To get a wider shot, simply walk backward — but be careful.

7. Look in two places at once. This is a more advanced move. Learn to keep one eye watching your camcorder’s viewfinder or screen and the other eye looking outside the field of the screen to see what person or object may soon be coming into your frame. This allows you to anticipate and prepare your camera move.

8. Learn from your mistakes. Take some time out a few days before an event and shoot some practice footage. Spend a few minutes reviewing a short piece of it, and note how you could improve.

Also, don’t save the camera for special events. Keep practicing your video skills by recording everyday family moments. After all, you don’t want to be scrambling for footage 10 years from now, when you want to create a video montage of your child to show during a bar or bat mitzvah.

David Notowitz is owner of Notowitz Productions, a video production company that specializes in corporate videos, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. His Web site is

Out of the Shadows


It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.

Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.

I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.

Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.

Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.

“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.

See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.

Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.

Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”

In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.

He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.

He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.

His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.

Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.

Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Face It: Judaism Is Not Hip


This Rosh Hashanah I am praying to escape the tyranny of hip. Hip is infiltrating Jewish life like a migrating plume of acrid smoke meandering its way through our collective body and soul.

I know hip well. I know its insidious nature. I have seen its effect and its damage. I was surrounded by hip. I was taken in by hip. I yearned for hip. I searched for hip. I saw people’s lives and identities consumed by hip. Twenty years of my professional life were spent in the palaces of hip.

I was an advertising agency copywriter and creative director. I was trained to be one of the manufacturers of hip. I would sit in offices and create hip, and then watch all those people lust after the creations. I reveled in hip.

And then one day, it all came crashing down.

There was no earth-shattering event. It was just a moment of realization.

In the ad biz, you win awards for creating hip images. That’s all hip is. An image. A fleeting image. You can’t really describe hip. You can’t put your finger on what it is. What’s hip today is not hip tomorrow. You often here people say, “She’s the hippest person around.”

What does that mean? Nothing.

Absolutely nothing. When I happily left the ad agency business, I used to tell people, “It’s the ultimate liberation. I no longer have to direct my energies into the shallow, ridiculous waters of hip.”

I found salvation from hip in the Jewish world. It was a world of content. Meaning. Real connections to people, the earth, the heavens. It gave me roots into the universe in a way hip could never do.

It was such a refreshing departure from where I had been that I was determined to bring my professional skills into the Jewish world — as well as into other nonprofit organizations.

For years, it allowed me to escape even hearing the word “hip.” Then, hip began to seep out into a few Jewish crevices and corners.

Today, hip is everywhere in the Jewish organizational world. Federations want to be hip. Hillels want to be hip. Israel wants to be hip. Chabad wants to be hip. Aish HaTorah wants to be hip. Synagogues want to be hip. Day schools want to be hip. Jewish publications want to be hip. And the Jewish foundation world is clamoring to create and fund hip.

It used to be that Hollywood was going to be the magic bullet that would save the Jewish organizational world. Now Hollywood has been replaced by hip. At least Hollywood was concrete. It meant a person. Spielberg. Streisand. Seinfeld. But can someone please define or concretize hip?

What is this all about? If Judaism’s image — its brand — has become tarnished, is hip going to save it? Is this the point to which we involved Jews have arrived?

Hip is powerful. As a marketer of Jewish life, I am watching our leaders grapple and bow down to its power.

I am not denying that we have a problem in Jewish life with the products we offer and the images we create. Most are lackluster at best.

But if we think that hip is the solution, we are demeaning the essence of Judaism. We are trivializing its soul. We are convoluting Judaism as much as “haimish” has convoluted it for the past few generations.

Haimish was always an excuse for not being professional. As long as the organization was haimish, it believed it had fulfilled its mission.

Much the same mistake is happening with hip. If the organization is hip, if the offering is perceived as hip, then today the organization believes it is fulfilling its mission.

Hip is not about meaning. Hip is not about depth. Hip is not about the soul. Hip is not about connection to human beings and the world.

Hip is about shallow. Hip is about self-absorption. Hip is about today, this minute. Hip is not about the past and it is certainly not about the future.

This Rosh Hashanah, Jewish organizations need to realize that Judaism is not hip. It’s never going to be hip. It is not supposed to be hip. Judaism has too much depth to ever be hip. Judaism must be perceived as the antidote to hip. The products Judaism offers must be the escape from shallow hip. They must be the refuge, the other road, the real thing.

If we believe that the Jewish masses are looking for hip, there are plenty of places they can fill that need. They can go to the Gap. Now, that’s hip.

During the coming High Holidays, grant us justice and kindness. V’hoshiyainu — save us … from the tyranny of hip.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

AIPAC — Let the Sun Shine In


By most measures, last week’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was a success.

The sessions were substantive and well-led; the speakers top-rank. The large number of under-40 delegates suggested the organization’s future is strong.

Despite the continuing federal investigation into the activities of two recently fired AIPAC officials, a record number of top politicians showed up to pay homage and to connect with the big givers in the corridors of the Washington Convention Center. Rumors about AIPAC’s diminished clout appear premature.

But on one issue, AIPAC keeps repeating past mistakes. The organization remains more closed to outsiders than any other in Jewish life, feeding suspicions that it is up to no good. And that perception could come home to roost if, as Israeli newspapers have reported, the two ex-employees are soon charged under the Espionage Act.

There’s a history here.

Years ago, one of the recently fired employees etched AIPAC’s reputation in stone when he said “a lobby is like a night flower; it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

A schizophrenic AIPAC seems to cherish that image even as it seeks public acknowledgement of its many accomplishments.

AIPAC’s top professionals are less available to the press than those of any other Jewish group; its members are warned that the press is an adversary to be avoided.

The policy is carried to ridiculous extremes. Asked for impressions of last week’s conference, one delegate said “we have a policy, you have to talk to our press person.”

This person was not being asked if AIPAC trafficked in classified documents; the question was more about whether she and her colleagues were having a good time and learning a lot. But even that was apparently too much openness for AIPAC.

AIPAC’s closed-door policy creates a mood of hostility and suspicion that provides endless ammunition for critics and inevitably finds its way into news stories. If you detect a slight note of glee in some of the reporting on AIPAC’s recent woes, it’s not unrelated to the frustration so many reporters experience in dealing with AIPAC.

It also means AIPAC often doesn’t get credit for its accomplishments — something that clearly irks the group’s leaders, but apparently not enough to open the doors a crack.

Other Jewish organizations have become skilled at working closely with reporters — providing access to their top staffers, issue specialists and lay leaders, giving regular “background” briefings on issues and encouraging a give-and-take relationship with journalists.

Sometimes that means exposing their warts, but on balance these organizations enjoy far better press coverage — not because happy reporters want to reward their policies, but simply because those policies let reporters do their jobs.

This isn’t a slam on AIPAC’s press people, who are just following policies laid down by those at the top of the organizational food chain, where anti-media hostility is most intense.

But in 2005, AIPAC’s carefully cultivated night-flower image could blossom into real damage to the group’s political standing if the federal investigation and any resulting court cases take a few wrong turns.

AIPAC leaders claim, and there’s no reason to doubt them, that the group is not a target of the federal investigators who are looking into leaked classified documents.

But if its former officials are charged under the Espionage Act, the cloud over AIPAC is likely to darken as troubling questions of management and accountability are raised. The group will face a new level of scrutiny as current and former officials testify under oath.

And then, its distrustful relations with the press and its secretive image may compound any damage — not legally, but in terms of image.

AIPAC leaders understand the power of image, which is why they work so hard to get a massive turnout of top-rank politicians at the annual policy conference. Nothing says “power” as emphatically as a hall packed with members of Congress.

AIPAC may not have done anything illegal, but the image of a lobby group with employees involved in something that will inevitably be reported as spying can’t help but damage its reputation and its standing with the politicians who are its bread and butter. The group’s troubled relations with the press and its longstanding secretiveness will make it harder to limit the damage.

That would be a disaster for the Jewish community and for Israel. For all its faults — and every organization has them — AIPAC remains the indispensable engine behind the pro-Israel movement in this country. Its lobbying is the most important factor in the almost wall-to-wall support for Israel in Congress; no other group can pick up the slack if AIPAC’s standing is harmed.

The current crisis suggests the need for some hard-headed self-examination by AIPAC leaders. And one item on their agenda should be the group’s relations with the outside world.

 

Maybe it’s time to pluck the night flower and let the sun shine in.

Who Wants to Be Israel’s Ambassador?


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Quiet on the set,” shouts a production assistant, and silence falls over the fake marble floor of a studio designed to look like a conference room in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.

As a makeup artist dabs more powder on the forehead of Yaakov Perry, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, the contestants on Israel’s hit reality show, “The Ambassador,” adjust their dark, tailored suits, clutch leather attache cases and eye each other nervously.

The cameras roll and Nahman Shai, the thin, bespectacled former Israeli army spokesman who is one of the show’s three judges, looks up and says in a voice as serious as war, “It’s time to decide.”

The time has come to vote another contestant off of the show, which features 14 young Israelis competing to be chosen as the best person to promote Israel’s image abroad. The show taps into Israel’s desire to be better understood on the international stage, and to replace the army generals and stiff government spokesmen on CNN’s screens with engaging, telegenic young people who might more easily win sympathy for Israel’s side in its conflict with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

Shai notes that Israel has been defending its right to exist since the state was born. “The Ambassador” has brought that task into the living rooms of Israelis, who for the first time are discussing such questions as how Israel should best explain its decision to build the security fence to the world at large.

On each slickly produced episode, the contestants are presented with a different challenge, ranging from debating the Israel-Arab conflict before an audience of Cambridge University students to meeting with real-life ambassadors to conducting television interviews with French and Arab journalists.

In between the serious parts, there are also reminders that this is reality television after all, with all the requisite backbiting, scheming and personality politics.

The contestants, all between 24 and 30 years old, include lawyers, business students, an Ethiopian immigrant and both religious and secular Jews. Selected from a pool of thousands of applicants, they are attractive and well-spoken in both Hebrew and English.

Like Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” at the end of every episode of “The Ambassador,” the panel of judges kicks another contestant off the show. The winner will be rewarded with a yearlong job at Israel at Heart, a New York-based organization that promotes Israel’s image.

“You watch the way Israel is seen around the world and it hurts,” said Joey Low, the American millionaire who founded Israel at Heart, explaining why he agreed to the producer’s request that he provide the prize.

Yael Ben-Dov, 27, one of the show’s finalists, acknowledged the difficulty of explaining to the world images that seem to show Israel as the aggressor.

“We need to let people see the whole picture, to let people know the facts before they judge us,” Ben-Dov said.

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American Red Cross Seeks Image Rehab


Howard Parmet is on a mission.

Parmet, community outreach consultant for the American Red Cross (ARC) of Greater Los Angeles, wants to build bridges to a Jewish community that has largely shunned the organization because of a belief that it is anti-Israeli at best and anti-Semitic at worst. Parmet wants to rehabilitate the organization’s image, dispel misperceptions and recruit legions of local Jewish volunteers.

He has his work cut out for him.

For more than 50 years, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the ARC’s parent, has excluded Israel from the world body while counting among its members Iran, Syria and other countries considered by many as state sponsors of terror.

The low esteem in which many local Jews hold the International Red Cross has colored their perception of the ARC, even though it has proven far more friendly to Israel. Because of those suspicions, Parmet said, the L.A. Red Cross has only a handful of Jewish volunteers, attracts little Jewish financial support and has but a single Jew on its 39-member board. Few, if any, Southland synagogues, Jewish day schools or Jewish community centers have made themselves available to the Red Cross as shelters in the event of an emergency.

Parmet, who worked in Jewish organizations for 32 years before accepting the newly created Jewish outreach position, aims to change all that. The former executive director for the American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI), Pacific Southwest region — the fundraising wing of the Magen David Adom, (MDA) Israel’s emergency response and disaster service — said his first order of business was to dispel “misinformation” about the ARC. Toward that end, Parmet has run a series of ads in the Jewish media, including The Journal, to underscore ARC’s close ties with MDA.

“You may have heard otherwise, but during the period when the Jewish community makes a point of examining relationships, the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles wants you to know the facts about our relationship,” a full-page ad that ran in The Journal in Sept. 17 said. “…We wanted you to know that we are the best friend the Magen David Adom has.”

Indeed, the ARC unilaterally recognized MDA as a Red Cross sister society in 1989. A year later, the ARC established the national Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center, which has documented the fates of 9,000 missing Jews and reunited more than 1,200 family members. The ARC has also withheld $25 million in administrative dues since 1999 to the International Red Cross to protest the world body’s continued exclusion of MDA.

“The American Red Cross should not be punished. It does great work in the United States and is the MDA’s greatest champion in the international forum,” said Susan Heller Pinto, director for Middle East and International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York. “Still, there are a lot of misperceptions out there…. We won’t be satisfied until the MDA becomes a full-member of the International Red Cross.”

In his six months on the job, Parmet has assembled a committee of prominent Jews to improve the local Red Cross’ standing in the community. The group, which includes Rabbis Harvey Fields and Robert Gan, president of the Board of Rabbis, holds its first meeting Oct. 27. Eventually, Parmet said he envisions local temples and Jewish organizations offering the community CPR, first-aid classes and other training in their facilities, as well as opening them up to the public in emergencies such as fires and earthquakes.

Eric Book, a member of the local Red Cross’ new Jewish committee, said he thought Parmet could succeed where others have failed. Book, a past regional president of ARMDI who worked alongside Parmet for several years, said his former colleague had the expertise, knowledge and ties to the local community to rehabilitate the U.S. Red Cross’ image and garner Jewish support.

Book said Parmet proved himself an able executive at ARMDI, winning kudos for his creativity and effectiveness. He said Parmet helped put together golf tournaments at El Caballero Country Club that raised thousands for ARMDI; he produced a cable television program that promoted awareness about the organization, and Parmet helped win approval to place a MDA ambulance at the Zimmer Children’s Museum to educate young people about MDA’s importance.

In his first five years at ARMDI, Parmet said he helped boost fundraising by 400 percent. Over his 14-year tenure, he said he developed a broad range of relationships with Jewish philanthropists, synagogues and Jewish day schools, ties he hopes to leverage in his new position with the local Red Cross.

Parmet will need all the help he can muster to rehabilitate the L.A.-agency, even if its attitude toward MDA is far more enlightened than its parent’s.

During World War II, the International Red Cross failed to rescue or assist Jews in Nazi concentration camps, although the organization knew of the atrocities, experts said. The international body has barred Israel’s admittance on the grounds that the MDA uses a religious symbol, a red Shield of David, as its official emblem, even though the Red Cross employs the cross and Islamic crescent. Like the United Nations, the International Red Cross has attacked Israel, most recently for the construction of its security barrier, while remaining largely silent about suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on the Jewish state.

Despite the negative view many Jews have about the International Red Cross, Parmet said he thought his work would make a difference for the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

“This is a slow process of building a relationship and developing trust and spreading information,” Parmet said. “It’s going to take a significant amount of time, but it’s going to be done.”

Sampling the Simchas


“Iavoid cliches,” artist Mark Podwal said of his “A Sweet Year” exhibit.

His witty, poetic new show at the Skirball Cultural Center, subtitled “A Taste of the Jewish Holidays,” instead offers food for thought. &’9;

“Rosh Hashana” depicts a Torah topped by colossal crimson rimonim, or ornaments (“rimon” also means pomegranate, a traditional sweet new year food). A Passover piece presents Pharaoh’s face as a horseradish, not just because slavery was bitter but because Midrash describes Pharaoh as bitter.

“Hanukkah” features pink dreidels blossoming from an olive branch, suggesting the oil that miraculously burned for eight days and nights.

Every picture tells more than a story: “Podwal is very interested in his work as visual Midrash,” said Nancy Berman, the Skirball’s museum director emeritus. “It’s Jewish learning through the medium of art,” associate curator Tal Gozani said.

In a phone interview from Manhattan, the 59-year-old artist recalled that his studious approach began early. At 12, he said, an inspiring Jewish camp experience led him to transfer from a Yiddish shul to a Conservative Hebrew school. As an artist, he’s often immersed himself in research to illustrate works by authors such as Eli Wiesel or to complete drawings for The New York Times.

To create “A Sweet Year,” which is also a 2003 children’s book (Doubleday, $12.95) he read up on ritual and legends linking the sacred and the scrumptious.

An I. B. Singer story informs his Sukkot image, a fruity solar system in the night sky. A gargantuan slice of cheesecake represents Mount Sinai for the dairy-heavy Shavuot.

Eastern European challah designs inspired the painting that most stumped Podwal: the one for the fast day, Yom Kippur. “Before the fast begins, challah, the bread for holidays, is eaten,” his accompanying text states. “Instead of being braided, as for the Sabbath, it is made into special shapes. A ladder made of bread helps prayers reach heaven. A bread key opens heaven’s gate.”

For Podwal, the key was finding imaginative ways to transmit Judaism: “I invent juxtapositions that create an element of surprise, which is how to escape clichés,” he said.

The show runs Aug. 18-Oct. 31 at the Skirball’s Ruby Gallery. Podwal will lead a children’s art workshop and an artist’s talk on Oct. 3. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.

The Haunting of the Weird


Diane Arbus, acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, thought photographs were the ultimate enigma.

“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Arbus was a pampered Jewish princess turned chronicler of the weird. That she, of all photographers, would characterize photographs as secretive is somewhat paradoxical. Her most famous images have a startling directness about them. The photographs pull back the curtain on a surreptitious underbelly of people that are not “like us.” They expose the sideshow of society, compelling the viewer to confront things that he or she might be embarrassed of and would prefer to not see.

But the directness is deceptive. The images force us to look, but reveal nothing of what we are looking at. Why does the wife in “A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, New York City” (1966) look like a drag queen impersonating Elizabeth Taylor? Why does the son in that same image look cross-eyed and deranged — is he mugging for the camera, or is his face always like that? And why does the father’s lack of pizzazz seem so horrifying in that context? An Arbus photograph might show, but it never tells.

On Feb. 29, the first major Arbus retrospective since 1972 will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Diane Arbus, Revelations” consists of nearly 200 of the artist’s most significant photographs. The exhibition will also display her contact sheets, cameras, letters and notebooks, to give some indication of Arbus’ working methods and intellectual influences. The exhibition — and the accompanying book of the same name that her daughter, Doon, put together — are the most complete presentation of Arbus’ work and life ever assembled.

“She was really an extraordinary photographer,” said Robert Flick, a photographer who also teaches photography at USC. “What is extraordinary about her is that she seems to know where she can place herself to be at just the right distance from her subjects. [The distance and framing] is always one of intimacy, even when she is looking hard at something.”

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 in Manhattan to wealthy Jewish parents who owned upscale clothing stores. Judaism was not the most central aspect of the Nemerovs life, but it was an important identifying feature for them. Part of the “gilded ghetto” — a clique of wealthy Jews who lived uptown, the Nemerovs sent their children to Sunday school, and they celebrated the holidays. When Diane’s sister, Renee, announced that she wanted to marry a non-Jew, her parents tried to buy him off.

Arbus called her JAPy upbringing “irrational” and “unreal,” and later, through her work, she tried to distance herself from it — to find the world that was the antithesis of the one she came from.

Arbus started out as a fashion photographer, working with her husband, Allan Arbus, shooting department store newspaper ads and fashion features for glossy magazines. Later in 1956, when her marriage broke up, Arbus started taking photographs on her own. She became a portrait photographer, and prowled the streets of New York and New Jersey hunting for the subjects that could evince the startling quality that typified so much of her work.

Jewishness was not endemic to Arbus’ work, but nor was it unfamiliar to it. Arbus photographed Jewish matrons in an attempt to study, as Patricia Bosworth puts it in “Diane Arbus, a Biography” (Norton, 1995), “The relationship between role-playing and cultural identity.”

In 1963, Arbus shot “A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C” — the middle-aged duo garishly beaming for the camera, insulated from the world in their bourgeois happiness. One of Arbus’ canonical images is of a Jew. “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y” is the photograph of Eddie Carmel, who was 8 feet tall and weighed 495 pounds. Carmel was Arbus’ photographic subject for 10 years, but this photograph alone manages to encapsulate the horror of Carmel’s difference. In it, Carmel’s parents look up at him as if they are distant from their progeny and afraid and bewildered of his size. With his cane, his hunch, the sheepish hand in the pocket, Carmel, too, seems unsure of how he got that way and what the purpose of his size really is.

Arbus’ fascination with the oddities of society fulfilled her artistic drive, but it did little to quell her inner emotional turmoil. Toward the end of her life, Arbus became very depressed. In 1971, at the age of 48, she slit her wrists. She left behind a plethora of images that, even 30 years after her death, still maintain that elusive quality that she infused them with.

“Diane Arbus, Revelations” opens on Feb. 29 at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To purchase
tickets, call (877) 522-6255 or visit www.lacma.org .

Future Uncertain for Five Iranian Jews


The release from prison of five Iranian Jews last week was
due not to a change of heart by the regime in Tehran, but to a political
calculation that Iran’s international image needs burnishing, observers say.
And clouding the relief of the Jews’ relatives and advocates is concern that
the men could be rearrested at any time or subjected to other forms of
harassment, at the whim of the authorities.

At the same time, U.S.-based advocates for the Jews are
reminding the community that another 11 Iranian Jewish men remain unaccounted
for after disappearing while allegedly trying to cross Iran’s border illegally
in the early 1990s.

The past days have seen conflicting statements as to whether
the five have been released permanently. Over the weekend, media reports
circulated that the five had been released permanently after being pardoned by
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By Monday, however, word emerged
from Iranian officials that there had been no such pardon and that the
prisoners had only been released on a 10-day “holiday.”

The ambiguity fits Iran’s traditional treatment of its
Jewish prisoners. But the question remains: Are the five free for good, or
could they be returned to prison?

“It could go either way, depending on the whim of the
Iranian government,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which had
lobbied on behalf of the Iranian Jews.

“This is why we’ve been warning: People should be judicious
in their public statements. Just as Iran granted their release, they can revoke
it. It’s a constant test.”

When Iranian officials said this week that no pardon had
been granted, Tehran may have been reacting to media coverage of the release.
Media reports had attributed cynical motives to the release and quoted certain
activists who sounded self-congratulatory.

The quintet released Feb. 19 after four years in prison were
merchant Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, who had been sentenced to 13 years in
prison; university English instructor Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13
years; Hebrew teacher Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; perfume
merchant Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and shopkeeper Farhad Saleh,
33, who had received an eight-year sentence.

An array of factors appear to have influenced Iran’s
decision to release the five men, who had been imprisoned with eight others on
charges of spying for Israel.

Israel has steadfastly denied that the men were its spies.

The ongoing skirmishes between the hard-line clerics who run
Iran and their more moderate rivals likely played a role in the latest
releases, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy, a think tank. Clawson also cited pressure from the European
Union, a major trading partner with Iran, which said human rights abuses were
hindering an expansion of economic ties. The release came on the heels of the
hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a
traditional time for rulers to demonstrate magnanimity, Clawson noted.

“I’m sure the Iranians will try to take credit for this in
their negotiations” with the European Union, Clawson said. “But that’s quite
unwarranted; they made these people do hard time. It’s only magnanimous if you
compare it to what the hard-line judiciary could have done.”

Numerous Iranian officials had threatened the Jews with
execution, a penalty that Tehran reportedly has meted out to 17 Jews accused of
espionage since the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

While pressure from the Europeans and the United Nations
over human rights may have played a role, so, too, may Washington’s
saber-rattling against Iraq, North Korea and Iran, which President Bush dubbed
the “axis of evil.”

“I think Iran, after several years of not paying attention
to international pressure, is now taking public steps to improve its image
abroad because they may not want to be a target of the war on terrorism the
U.S. has launched,” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based
Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.

At the same time, Dayanim said, “This is not taking place in
a vacuum; this is a little piece of a much larger picture.”

He noted, for example, that Iran recently lifted the death
sentence on a leading dissident who had called publicly for separation of
mosque and state.

Regardless of the speculation, “it’s hard to assess what
motivates the Iranians in general,” Hoenlein said.

U.S. advocates tried to judge when it would be wise to
publicly assail Iran for its perceived show trial and forced confessions, and
when to settle for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Of late, advocates have opted
for diplomacy.

More moderate Iranian officials recognized that the
imprisonment of the Jews “was an injustice that cost Iran heavily in its
international image,” and they “were looking for a way out,” Hoenlein said.

Along with the uncertainty over whether Iranian officials
view the latest releases as permanent or temporary, it is unclear whether
relatives of the five men could join them if they are allowed to emigrate, or
what persecution might be in store for family members who remain behind. Such
factors underscore the precarious existence of the 20,000 to 25,000 Jews who
remain in Iran, down from a peak of about 100,000 at the time of the
revolution.

“At any moment, they may rearrest these people” if they see
or read any critical statement by advocates, Dayanim said.

The Iranian authorities have made it clear that they can
“use any excuse, any criticism that you make, and put these people back in
jail. Which is why I have not criticized the government,” he said.

“I think the steps that they’ve taken are positive.”

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid


The Republicans ran on terrorism and the Democrats ran on the economy. The Republicans won.

This election result — beyond a tribute to Bush’s courage in risking his reputation by campaigning hard for his men and women — is the latest illustration of a trend throughout the world. Candidates who focus on the economy, particularly from center and left parties, end up losing elections, while those who orient their campaigns around values issues usually prevail.

In France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Norway, Denmark and a host of other countries, the candidates who stressed non-economic issues won, while those whose slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid” lost — even as the global recession mired their national economies in relative stagnation.

Voters have learned that the political process has little control over the economy. In 1992, Bill Clinton could power his campaign to the White House by focusing “like a laser beam” on the economy. But no longer. Now voters realize what they did not understand then: That the U.S. economy is buffeted by global markets, central banks and international financiers. If you want to see anybody about the economy in Washington, D.C., get your picture taken at the White House and then go meet with Alan Greenspan.

The defeat of the Democrats and the almost unprecedented boost for the president’s party in a midterm election should put to death, once and for all, economically centered campaigns. When one party or the other tries to use a slumping economy to its advantage, it is shooting blanks with the voters.

The second big reason for the Democratic debacle was the contrasting images of the two parties in the last week of combat. For the Republicans, the image was of a fighting young president, taking to the country to defend his administration and to protect the nation at a time of peril. For the Democrats, the poster boy was former Vice President Walter Mondale — the headline of the last week. Represented by an elderly, spent force, the party seemed to renege on the repositioning of the ’90s as it embraced a tax-and-spend liberal, never popular even in his heyday. Mondale not only cost the Democrats the seat in Minnesota, he may well have played a role in presenting an unacceptable image for the party nationally.

On issues, the Democrats went to the well once too often, trying to squeeze one more victory out of the shopworn issues of prescription drugs for the elderly, HMO regulation and protection of Social Security. This constellation of issues got the Democratic Senate candidates through the Monica election of 1998 and the Bush victory of 2000, but they had run out of gas by 2002. Voters know that both parties embrace variants of solutions to these problems and that only partisan gridlock is holding up their adoption, so they don’t see them as cutting edge or hot buttons any longer.

Finally, the dominant sentiment to emerge from Sept. 11 was a demand by the public for an end to partisan infighting. The constant bickering in Washington wore thin when America was under attack. It’s OK for Mom and Dad to fight all the time, but not when the rent is overdue and the eviction notice is on the door. This sentiment for national unity overshadowed the traditional demand for checks and balances that dominates voter decisions in off-year elections. Less interested in restraining presidential power than in ending the running partisan feud in Washington, the voters decided to empower their president to solve their problems.

But, beyond all of these reasons lies the often overlooked personal charisma of President Bush. He got fewer votes than Gore in 2000 and his victory was tainted. But in 2002, he removed that taint and demonstrated a depth and breadth of national appeal that confounded his critics and left the rest of us awed. He gambled big. He won big. He had guts and he pulled the elections out.

Dick Morris, the author of “Power Plays: Win or Lose” (Regan Books, $25.95), is a former political consultant to President Bill Clinton, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mexican President Vincente Fox and other political figures.

An Issue of Image


With image almost as important in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle as the actual fighting on the ground, American Jewish activists note with approval the strides Israel’s public relations machine has made.

Criticism of Israel’s PR response to the violent Palestinian uprising rose earlier this year, until Israel hired two New York public relations firms. Jewish philanthropists even proposed creating a permanent, Israel-specific PR agency.

Today, though, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and its embassies are using e-mail and the Internet to disseminate facts and opinion more quickly and efficiently.

Smooth-talking spokesmen like Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general in New York, take to the airwaves with greater frequency to make Israel’s case.

Spokeswomen like Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, the daughter of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, gradually are elbowing aside the gruff, English-challenged generals who often have been charged with taking Israel’s message to the world.

Still, shortcomings persist, and errors are committed.

Take the Aug. 1 assault on Hamas headquarters in Nablus.

It took several hours after the world media began beaming images of the Israeli helicopter attack — which killed six Hamas members, plus two Palestinian children — before the Israel Defense Force issued a doozy of a statement:

"The Palestinian establishment media is devoting her main broadcasting from the morning to intensive dealing to the assassination in Nabulas (sic) and increasing in significant way the dosage and the sort of the incitement broadcasting, the media also started to broadcast national songs in very high frequency."

In the process, the release misspelled the name of the targeted city; used the "assassination" terminology that Israeli leaders have gone to great pains to avoid; and neglected to offer condolences for the innocent blood spilled.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," Ra’anan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s foreign press spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post. "I will make sure it doesn’t happen again."

The pro-Palestinian sympathy the incident stirred highlights Israel’s failure to convince the world that its assault on terrorist groups like Hamas is justified, Jewish observers say.

Palestinian propaganda efforts aside, it also underscores the need for quick-thinking, English-speaking Israeli experts in hasbarah — a Hebrew term that means explanation or propaganda — who are able to spin a given situation before the Palestinians and the world media define it for them.

Changes must be made soon, observers say.

Recently, the hasbarah campaign waged by Israeli officials and their U.S. advocates has been thrown another curveball — efforts challenging the conventional wisdom of what happened at and after the Camp David summit in July 2000.

In response, Israel’s American defenders have swung into action.

Pundits and analysts are churning out articles and e-mails.

In the Aug. 13 edition of U.S. News & World Report, publisher Mortimer Zuckerman — the new chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — opens his piece "A Surfeit of Cynicism" with the following question and answer: "How much longer will the violence persist in the Middle East? As long as lies are believed and responsibility is evaded."

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak himself has recently appeared on television, in opinion pages, and given both a think-tank speech and a New York Times interview to reiterate his version of events.

Other U.S. Jewish leaders say they are redoubling efforts to arm grass- roots activists with fresh "talking points" to lobby opinion-shapers such as journalists and politicians.

Studies indicate that Americans — both Jews and non-Jews — have less and less knowledge and understanding of historical context, both in general and about the Middle East conflict specifically.

"No one is suggesting that Barak and [Bill] Clinton were flawless, but to say they’ve all made mistakes doesn’t mean they’re equally culpable," said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "The Palestinians are fundamentally responsible for the violence, they made the decision to respond with violence rather than negotiations, and everything over the past 10 months starts from there."

Nevertheless, activists appear resigned to the fact that Israel always will face an uphill PR battle in what appears to much of the world to be a David vs. Goliath struggle.

Despite the Palestinians’ widespread use of guns, mortars and other weapons, television images continue to portray Palestinian civilians confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Also, American journalistic style and the news cycle dictate that the freshest information leads a story. In the case of the Mideast, that usually means that the Israeli action comes first, followed by mention of the Palestinian attack that — reportedly, the stories point out — provoked it.

Still, some Israelis, like Pinkas, express confidence that "the truth" will win out.

The revisionist history "is not credible, it’s not believable," Pinkas said. "There’s the truth, and everything else is interpretation. The truth is about the forest; revisionism is about dissecting the trees."

Being Perfect


Consider the lyrics of Cheryl Wheeler’s song “Unworthy”:

“I’m unworthy — and no matter what I’m doing I should certainly be doing something else.

And it’s selfish, to be thinking I’m unworthy. All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.

I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.

I should let someone teach me to run Windows and learn French that I can read and write and speak.

I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents from third grade until last week.

And I should spend more time playing with my dog and much less money on this needless junk I buy.

I should send correspondence back to everyone who’s written, phoned or faxed since junior high.

I should sit with a therapist until I understand the way I felt back in my mom.

I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, and work harder at getting along.

I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille and sign language and how to change my oil.

I should go where the situation’s desperate and build and plant and trudge and tote and toil.

I’m unworthy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to feel worthy. Most of us expect an awful lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from our children. They’re pushed, coached, tutored and tested to the point that they feel loved for their performance, not their essence. We expect a lot of our parents and spouses, who, after all, do the best they can, just like we do. Yet we have such a hard time forgiving them their human frailties. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for being human, too.

Stand in line at the supermarket and look at the magazine covers. Then look at the people looking at the magazine covers; comparing themselves, their bodies, their lives, to those described in the glossy pages. Imagine what middle-aged men are thinking when they read about “dot com” kids — young men and women in their 20’s worth tens of millions.

L.A. ranks number one in cosmetic surgery and has the neat distinction of having the highest number of parents springing for breast implants as high school graduation presents so that their daughters can go off to college with “enhanced self-esteem.” We live in a city that manufactures and upholds superhuman images of perfection, raising the standard of what it means to be worthy — to its most ridiculous.

The Torah knew better; all of its heroes are imperfect. Abraham is a lousy father and husband but he’s called “the friend of God.” Jacob plays favorites with his sons. Joseph is arrogant. Moses loses his temper. Virtually every family in the Torah is dysfunctional. When God creates the world it’s called “good,” not perfect, just “good.” For God, good is good enough. God does not expect us to be perfect.

The rabbis make it clear through the special name and Torah reading assigned to this Shabbat. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. On it, we read one of the weirdest stories in the entire Torah. It has to do with when a person feels contaminated by something he has done wrong and is therefore unworthy of coming into God’s presence. That person can cleanse and purify himself by undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer. A cow with completely red skin, without a single discolored hair or blemish is sacrificed and its ashes made into a paste that is applied to the person to purify him.

What’s this bizarre ritual really about? Here’s what one rabbi thinks. “The Red Heifer represents perfection. It is slaughtered to make the point that perfection has no place in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven, not on earth.”

Despite what we might surmise standing in line at the supermarket, L.A. and the rest of the world is for those of us with imperfections. God does not expect us to be God. God does not expect us to be perfect human beings. God only expects us to be humane.

The writer Anne Lamott put it this way: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said, ‘Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.'”

To Anne Lamott, to Cheryl Wheeler, to all of us who feel unworthy, our ancestors speak across a thousand generations this Shabbat Parah; slaughtering perfection and grinding it to a pulp. Reminding us that friendship, prayer, conscience and honesty might not be perfect, but they’re good, and good is good enough.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House, Inc.

Torah Portion


You can’t miss her. All over town, huge billboards advertise not cigarettes, automobiles or banking services but the image of a scantily clad young woman, with the caption “Angelyne.” Her image is a caricature of male fantasies. What was once confined to the back pages of so-called “men’s magazines,” now decorates the public thoroughfare. From street level, it’s virtually impossible to miss her — her gigantic voluptuousness measured not in inches but in yards.

But having grown immune to every conceivable urban aberration, I hardly notice anymore. It was my son who paid attention: “Abba, who is that lady, Angelyne, and why is she on that billboard? What is she selling?” Good question. Why is this lady all over town? What do you tell a child about this phenomenon?

Well, kids, in our culture, and especially in this city, being famous is dearly valued. Fame conveys validation, fulfilling a deep need to be recognized. Celebrity is ontology — you’re not anyone until you’re on TV. “Is that someone?” I ask my wife, pointing to a lesser-known character actor sitting across us in a restaurant.

Most of all, fame is immortality. There are people so terribly anxious that their lives will amount to nothing — people who worry that they will live and die and leave no trace of themselves in the world, their lives touching no one, accomplishing nothing, making no difference — they fear no one will ever know that they lived. Somehow, being famous relieves them of this terror of oblivion.

For most, such as star athletes, actors, authors or musicians, fame is earned through the contribution of some talent or gift. Then, there are people who become famous accidentally (see Kato Kaelin) or those who are famous for no reason at all (Oprah Winfrey and Regis Philbin come to mind). Saddest of all, there are people so desperate to be known that they will do anything, even buy up billboards, just to be famous for a few moments. They will do anything to gain fame because only in fame will they ever feel important and real.

“Maybe she’s trying to make friends,” says my young daughter. Indeed. What an image to set before a little girl — a woman who buys her place in the world with peroxide and silicone. Evidence again that, for such a sophisticated culture, our appreciation and mastery of the mysterious power of sexuality remains so crude.

Of course, it’s not just Angelyne. The equation of a woman’s worth with the measure of her bust is a common American tale. It just seems to have gotten worse lately. Consider the phenomenon of the “supermodel.” Once an anonymous mannequin for the display of clothing, now they’ve become cultural heroes. For doing what? I want my daughter to emulate Golda Meir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she’s constantly confronted with Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer.

For a culture that has come so far in liberating women from all that bound them for centuries, we have yet so far to go. Women today govern nations, manage major corporations, direct scientific missions to Mars. But the leading consumer product in 1990s America remains the “wonder bra.”

In this week’s haftarah, the section of the Prophets that’s read along with the weekly Torah portion, the prophet Jeremiah receives his calling. He is only 17 and looking for the mission and measure of his life. In what will he find success and fulfillment? Fame, wealth, power all beckon. But the word of God comes to him: “See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms; to uproot and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” He resists. The career of the prophet will make him anathema to his community and people — the anti-celebrity. But God will not be put off. What is celebrity, compared with the sacred work of speaking God’s word? In the shadow of the holy task of mending God’s world, the pursuit of fame brings only hopelessness and futility. And if you don’t believe Jeremiah, just ask Angelyne.


Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.