Regina Spektor discusses her Russian-Jewish reaction to the refugee ban


Interviewed Jan. 30 on the KCRW-FM show “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” Russian-Jewish indie songstress Regina Spektor described President Donald Trump’s executive order calling for a ban on refugees entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries as “pure insanity.”

“I came here with refugee status. My heart really goes out to all the people that are, this Muslim ban, I think it is just, it feels like pure insanity to me, and I came here as a Russian-Jewish refugee from a country that doesn’t even exist anymore — the Soviet Union,” she said in an interview with “Morning Becomes Eclectic” host Jason Bentley. “But my parents were, at least at that moment in time, we weren’t fleeing because our physical lives were in danger; we were fleeing because there was anti-Semitism and no freedom of religion.”

She continued: “Seeing how much my parents had to give up, how hard it was for them to come to a place without any money and without knowing the language, all the things they had to do to get here, I can’t imagine now, especially as a mother, what it feels like to be a parent of a child and be fleeing for physical safety, for food, for shelter,” she said. “It hurts that things are being done on our behalf as a people that don’t seem to reflect our progressive nature.”

During the interview, she attributed her pessimism about the future of American life under President Trump to, in part, her Russian-Jewish roots.

“I think there is a part of me that’s very much hopeful and then there’s a part of me that’s maybe the Soviet-slash-endless-row-of-generations-of-Jews-who-barely-survived-and-that’s-why-I’m-here kind of part, and it’s very sort of, I don’t know, kind of, suspicious and confused and deflated,” she said.

The conversation began with Bentley asking Spektor about what it was like for Spektor to perform at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Los Angeles. Spektor performed a cover of Jewish icon Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in front of a sea of people on a closed-down street in downtown Los Angeles.

“I wanted to find the right words to express the feeling I was having, so, of course, I went right to a human I really love so much and that’s Bob Dylan, and then I covered ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I felt, I don’t know, it felt really right at that moment,” she told Bentley.

Spektor fled the Soviet Union at the age of 9 as one of 36,114 Jews who immigrated with the help of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the self-described “oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S … founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.”

Spektor, who will perform April 8 in support of her latest album, “Remember Us to Life,” at the Dolby Theatre, was one of several celebrities to appear at women’s marches on Jan. 21 across the country.

The entirety of the 42-minute “Morning Becomes Eclectic” interview and performance with Spektor is available at kcrw.com.

Anita Diamant’s ‘The Boston Girl’: An immigrant’s tale, hanging onto the old ways


From the opening of Anita Diamant’s heartwarming novel, “The Boston Girl,” (Scribner), when Addie Bauman, an 85-year-old grandmother recounts her life story to her granddaughter, I was struck by the similarities between the Jewish cultural beliefs and mores in Boston in 1915, when Addie’s story starts, and in Iran, where I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s.

Mameh, Addie’s mother, complains that Addie is “ruining her eyes from reading.  No one wants to marry a girl with a squint.”  During my teens, I walked around with a perpetual squint because, Who would want to marry a girl who wears glasses?  And don’t even start me on the tsoris bombarded on my head for being an avid reader.  When Addie’s older sister, Betty, attempts to carve an independent life for herself, Mameh stops mentioning Betty’s name in public.  She calls Betty, “A real American … making it sound like a curse.”  After we moved to America, my own father, alav ha-shalom, when faced with an opinion from his children and grandchildren that differed from his own, would shake his head in resignation and sigh,  “This is America, after all,” as if that was enough to explain his family’s transgressions.  When Addie asks her parents if her sister is in love with the man she is about to marry, the answer is, “Not yet … You learn to love someone when you make a life together.”  That’s what I was told, when my parents chose my husband.    

The story of Addie is the story of every immigrant and the difficulties of adapting to and accepting an unfamiliar culture.  Despite being in my twenties when I arrived in this country, I, too, had a hard time conforming as fast as my children expected me to.  I had imported my antiquated beliefs and continued to cling to them, as if embracing the new way might break the last remnants of my frayed relationship with the country I once called home.   So much so, it broke my heart when my daughter moved out of the house before she was married.  I understand Mameh’s anger at Bettie’s unconventional decision to move out of the house.  It does not matter that four of them live in one room.  “Girls were supposed to live with their families until they got married and the only kind of woman who went on her own was a ‘kurveh’.  That’s ‘whore’ in Yiddish.” 

In an intimate and calm voice that contradicts the setting we enter, Addie invites us to eavesdrop on her heart-to-heart with her granddaughter, leading us through significant historical events—the Depression, First and Second World Wars, the flu epidemic, Prohibition, and the burgeoning feminist movement.  She also talks about her life growing up in Boston in a one-room tenement apartment with a father, who found refuge in the neighborhood shul, “where no one yelled at him,” and a rigid mother, whose loss taints her every breath, making it impossible for her to accept anything new.   We learn that Addie’s mother was pregnant when she was forced to immigrate to America.  “Someone accused my father of stealing a silver cup from the church.  In those days, that was the same as a death sentence for a Jew, so he came to America….” The memory of arriving by ship is one of the most moving in the story.

This is a time of sweatshops and child laborers, a time when most colleges do not accept Jews.  A time when it is not common for women to wear pants, revealing a bare shoulder is considered racy, and no one would think of hiring lady lawyers.  Despite all the obstacles and restrictions, Addie, an early feminist, goes to work in a shirt factory and then in a local newspaper, where she eventually writes her own column, not an easy feat.  Love, like everything else in life, does not come easy to Addie, but the ups and downs of that journey, too, are what makes Addie Baum the Boston Girl she becomes. 

In “The Boston Girl,” Anita Diamant, the bestselling author of “The Red Tent,” demonstrates the ease with which she is able to navigate her way from biblical times to the early twentieth century, each historical, familial and cultural detail rendered with attention to detail and authentic accuracy.  

Dora Levy Mossanen is a frequent reviewer for the Jewish Journal. Her latest novel is “Scent of Butterflies,” www.doralevymossanen.com.  

David Stav: the Naftali Bennett of the chief rabbi race?


David Stav, the chief rabbi candidate, had to walk a fine line when he addressed a crowd of Tel Aviv immigrants in English on Sunday.

Stav sent his usual message: Israel is in danger because of a growing divide between Israelis who are halachically Jewish and those who aren’t. The way to close that divide is to make the rabbinate more user-friendly and appealing, which would convince more people to convert and get married in Israel.

But Stav won’t break or change halacha to get that done. He doesn’t support instituting civil marriage in Israel, or other major religious reforms.

“If the question is whether I’ll recognize Reform or Conservative conversions for the implementation of the law of marriage and divorce, the answer is no,” he told attendees of the Tel Aviv International Salon series. “I cannot accept the Jewish identity” of patrilineal Jews, he said, “because Jewish law does not accept this.”

That message might play well to Israelis accustomed to Orthodoxy (only 7 percent of Israeli Jews call themselves Conservative or Reform). It’s a harder sell to Americans accustomed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state.

To appeal to that crowd, Stav sounded the same notes that punctuated a speech Naftali Bennett, the hard-right Jewish Home chairman,  gave to a crowd of Tel Aviv “Anglos” leading up to January’s Knesset election. Both men couched their essentially conservative philosophies in a language of free-market values, eliminating bureaucracy and putting the consumer – or voter – first.

Neither man hid his agenda: Bennett talked about why he resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, and Stav talked about why he opposes giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal footing with the current Orthodox monopoly.

But in both speeches, those respective messages took a back seat to the idea that Israeli bureaucracy is bloated, and that the most important priority should be to increase competition. For Bennett, that meant leading his speech off with heavy criticism of Israel’s housing policy, and getting to the Palestinian issue only later. For Stav, it meant starting with a condemnation of religious coercion, and declaring that the rabbinate “continues to act like a monopoly.”

To fix those problems, Stav recommends putting different local rabbinates in competition with each other regarding obtaining marriage licenses and helping people without the proper documentation prove their Judaism. Bennett, the religious services minister, has also recommended the marriage reform, and backs Stav’s candidacy in the July election.

Stav hopes that Israel’s rabbis will be more professional, more punctual, more sensitive to secular values and friendlier. The crux of the rabbinate’s policy, though, will remain the same.

“I’m flexible with people,” he said. “I’m not flexible with halacha.”

Greek police to investigate Golden Dawn threat to turn immigrants “into soap”


Greek police are investigating the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party after some of its members were filmed threatening to turn immigrants “into soap” and put them in “ovens.”

The investigation announced Wednesday was prompted by the broadcast Tuesday of a program on Britain's Channel 4 News that followed Golden Dawn candidates during last year’s elections. In the program, one of the candidates, Alexandros Plomeratis, makes clear Holocaust references in threatening the many immigrants who live in Athens. “We are ready to turn on the ovens,” he says. “We will turn them into soap but we may get a rash.” Plomaritis, who was not elected to parliament, also threatened to “make lamps from their skins.”

Following the broadcast, the Greek police’s new anti-racism task force said it had submitted the footage to an Athens prosecutor for review.

Golden Dawn said in a statement posted on its website that its members had been illegally filmed and that they had been “joking” with the reporters.

Golden Dawn swept into the Greek Parliament with 19 lawmakers in last year's elections, campaigning on an anti-austerity, anti-immigrant platform that preyed on the fears of Greeks who have seen the country flooded with immigrants amid a terrible recession. Greek and international Jewish groups repeatedly have condemned Golden Dawn as racist and anti-Semitic.

In a single day, Ethiopian immigrants make aliyah—and are thrust into a war zone


The explosion occurred close enough to Stesyahu Alema to shake his apartment, where he sat with his wife and two of his five children.

But he didn’t flinch. None of them did.

“There are a lot of people with me, so I don’t need to worry,” Alema told JTA. “I don’t worry.”

The Alemas were among 91 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, just a day after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense began. The new olim immediately were sent to the Ibim immigrant absorption center, a former aliyah youth village run by the Jewish Agency for Israel about three miles from the Gaza border. Other immigrant absorption centers were full.

During a visit Sunday, two explosions rocked the area in the space of just a few minutes. The first, a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel, had prompted a warning siren, sending the Alema family into the reinforced room that doubled as their children’s bedroom. One of the Alema daughters slept through the echoing impact that followed.

The Alema family knew that bombs were falling all around them, but they didn’t know much about Israel’s 5-day-old operation, not even its name. They didn’t know about the senior Hamas officials that Israel had killed or about the frantic push for a cease-fire that day in Cairo.

What was clear was that their world had been turned upside down, having moved from a subsistent existence in a sleepy town in rural Ethiopia to the epicenter of an escalating conflict. And they knew when the siren sounded to get into the children’s bedroom.

Usually when a planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the Ethiopians go through the same process as any other group of immigrants: They receive some food, temporary identity cards and health insurance, and some cash to see them through the month.

But when the Alemas landed, along with their health insurance, documents and money, they received a security briefing from the Jewish Agency, which helped facilitate their immigration.

Ethiopian families at Ibim this week did not seem preoccupied with the war next door. Children played in a yard outside their apartments, while parents became accustomed to amenities they never had in Ethiopia, like refrigerators and electric stoves. Some had never even slept in beds.

“In Ethiopia, we slept on the floor, on top of each other,” Alema said. His wife, Yikanu, added, “We had no light. We had leeches. That’s why we’re happy here.”

The Ethiopian immigrants didn’t venture far from their apartments in case an alarm sounded and they had to run back inside.

The group also avoided congregating: Instead of a communal Shabbat meal, each family remained in its apartment to eat the traditional meal with flat, thick injara, the pancake-like Ethiopian staple.

“Instead of dealing with them, trying to absorb them, I’m trying to explain the security situation,” said Moshe Bahta, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 and now runs Ibim. “I told them the Arabs want to throw us into the sea and we’re not ready to acquiesce. Since Israel was established, until today, there’s never been quiet — always war.”

Alemnh Yeshuas, another immigrant, said his apartment feels spacious enough, even if he can’t always leave it.

“We have four rooms in our apartment here, running water and a bathroom,” he said. One of his daughters had a faint blue cross tattooed on her forehead.

Bahta said that to give the immigrants a sense of normalcy, he “broadcasts security to them,” always remaining calm — even as rockets land.

“It’s OK to be scared, but don’t lose control,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, but meanwhile we don’t panic. If you go into the reinforced room, nothing will happen.”

Yeshuas said any fear of rockets paled in comparison to the spiritual fulfillment he got from finally living in Israel.

“We’ve dreamed many years of getting to Israel,” he said. “The dream is realized and we’re very happy. I believe in God — God knows.”

Bahta said Ethiopians are used to thinking in terms of survival. “If you have food, good. If not, you die,” he said.

None of them would refuse an opportunity to move to Israel, he said. Many Ethiopians see Israel as a land of plenty and a way out of Africa’s desperate poverty. For many, aliyah is the realization of a lifelong dream.

“Every beginning is hard, but the hardship gets canceled out because of the happiness,” Bahta said. “You realized the dream. What, they shouldn’t come? There’s nothing like that. This will change their lives.”

Israelis arrested, fined for working illegally in Canada


Eleven Israeli citizens were arrested in Canada for allegedly working illegally there.

Their alleged ringleader, Iftash Jacob, was among 10 Israelis who were arrested Dec. 21 in a raid on a home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on kiosks at three shopping malls in the region. Canada Border Services Agency officials arrested an 11th person the next day outside a courthouse.

Jacob was released from custody Dec. 22 after surrendering his passport and posting a $7,500 bond. He must report to the Canada Border Services Agency every week and travel from Toronto to a Halifax court in February to enter a plea.

Eight of the accused—two women and six men – pleaded guilty to working in Canada without authorization, and each was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. They are allowed to stay in the country but not work here.

One of the accused was freed on $1,000 bail and ordered to abide by the same conditions as Jacob.

Border Services claims that Jacob brought foreign workers to Canada illegally and was working without permission himself, the CBC reported.

Earlier this month, Border Services officials arrested 31 people that it said were working illegally at Ottawa-area shopping malls. Most were from Israel.

In WikiLeaks documents released in August, James Cunningham, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said schemes like this are a $1 billion industry. He said young Israelis are promised good pay for selling goods at mall kiosks, but many are forced to work long hours and return home with little money, according to the CBC.

New approach in effort to bring Russian-speaking U.S. Jews into the fold


When David Weinstein went to summer camp many years ago, the Jewish world was animated by the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

In his younger days, Weinstein even visited the Soviet Union once to meet members of the Jewish community there. When he left them, he recalls, he thought he’d never see any of them again.

Today, Weinstein is the director of Camp Tel Yehudah, the national teen leadership camp of Young Judaea, in Barryville, N.Y., and his camp dining room is packed with the American children of some of those Russian Jews he met decades earlier.

But the Russian-speaking children, ages 14 to 18, aren’t regular campers at Tel Yehudah. They’re enrolled in Camp Havurah, a camp-within-a-camp at Tel Yehudah that caters to Jews from families from the former Soviet Union.

While Tel Yehudah’s pluralistic educational curriculum puts more focus on religion, Havurah puts more focus on Russian-American Jewish history and identity. Tel Yehudah campers pray every day, but Havurah campers discuss religion instead. Both tracks also focus on Zionism and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but the Russian track has more structured educational programming than the American track.

“The reasons for a separate track are rational,” said Alona Stavans, educational director at Havurah. “There have been attempts to attract Russian kids to American camps, but they failed.”

The camp-within-a-camp program, now in its third year, is part of a relatively new approach: creating tracks within existing Jewish programming specifically for young people from Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families in America. Even though most of the young people from these families by now are more fluent in English than in Russian, Jewish programmers have found that a cultural chasm still separates them from mainstream American Jews.

The idea is to build on the successes of existing Jewish programs by designing tracks specially tailored for these Jews, rather than creating new and untested programs for them.

“We want summer camp to be as important to the Russian-speaking Jewish community as it is to the larger American community,” Weinstein said.

This novel approach, which has taken hold over the last three or four years, marks a significant departure from the prevailing models for reaching out to Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families: creating completely separate programs focused on teaching them about Judaism, or simply welcoming them into existing programs for American Jews.

Those approaches, say community officials, have not worked well. By and large, they say, Russian Jewish immigrants to this country lack a strong Jewish identity.

“We were Jews by culture, by affiliation, not by religion,” said Marina Belotserkovsky, senior director of Russian communications and community outreach at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Although Jews from post-Soviet immigrant families now make up an estimated 8 percent of the American Jewish population, according to Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, they are far less represented in Jewish programs and institutions.

“Today, we are losing a lot of Jewish identity. I’m looking at my friends and they’re losing it,” said Diane Kabakov, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1993. Her son Daniel is a camper at Havurah. “I would like him to keep his Jewish identity as much as possible,” she said.

Sophia Joseph, a 15-year-old camper at Havurah from New Jersey, immigrated to America from Georgia with her parents in 1999. When her parents sent her to Havurah to “get in touch with Jewish culture,” Sophia said, she was skeptical—“especially of the religious stuff.”

“But everything changed,” she said in an interview. “I love the community and have even come to enjoy prayer. My parents were right. They felt I didn’t appreciate my identity.”

Her mother, Anna Joseph, told JTA her daughter has a stronger Jewish identity now.

“We woke up in the last few years,” said Rabbi Jay Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage Program, a leadership-training institute that is creating a separate track for Jews from Russian immigrant families. “As a community, we did a great job trying to rescue and resettle immigrants in a short period of time. We took care of their immediate needs well, but we did a less impressive job securing the future of Jewish life as they came of age in America.”

The Wexner program has hired a consultant to fine-tune its curriculum for its pilot Russian cohort initiative, which will be taking applications next spring.

The Genesis Philanthropy Group, which promotes strengthening Jewish identity among Russian speakers, is one of the main foundations behind this new approach to Russian Jewish immigrants.

In association with Genesis, the PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to Jewish households, worked with three community centers in Russian-speaking areas to create a pilot free-book program targeting the Russian-speaking community. The program has proved highly successful, and the PJ Library now plans to expand to other Russian-speaking communities and also to begin printing books in Russian.

Likewise, Moishe House, which funds young, community-minded Jews to create a house-based community center for their Jewish peers, worked with Genesis to open its first Russian-speaking Moishe House in Chicago in 2009. Since then, it has opened four more houses in the former Soviet Union, and this year it is planning to open two more Russian-speaking Moishe Houses in the United States.

“Genesis asked us about Russian Moishe Houses, and if I thought it would work,” Moishe House founder and CEO David Cygielman told JTA. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but it seems like it’s worth a try.”

Directors of the Havurah camp, which is also funded by Genesis, say they have struggled over the last three years to strike a balance between being a single camp and creating a special program. At the summer camp, the Russians and Americans spend most mornings together and eat in a shared dining hall, but the Russian immigrant children get separate educational programming.

As they view such programs, some organizational leaders say it is important not to assume that just because something has caught on with the mainstream American Jewish community it will work for the Russian immigrant community as well.

Several campers interviewed by JTA said they liked being apart from the rest of the camp.

It helps, said Havurah program manager Yelena Pogorelsky, herself a Russian immigrant, when you are familiar with common Russian traditions — “when you’re around people who you don’t have to explain yourself to, why you are spitting over your shoulder three times, or sitting quietly before a long trip.”

Sitting with a group of 15-year-old campers, counselor Inna Dykorskaya led a discussion of prayer and Jewish texts, then asked the campers to design their own prayers. When it came time to share them, the campers recited their blessings in English and Russian.

“Everything in life you should do because it is relevant to your life,” Dykorskaya said. “We don’t force you to pray; we ask you to consider and analyze prayer.”

In a few years, Pogorelsky, said, separate Jewish programming for campers like these won’t be necessary anymore.

“In 10 years there won’t be a need,” she said. “The Russian community will be split: It will either be integrated into the larger Jewish community, or secular and unaffiliated.”

Israeli immigrant arrested in Bosnian massacre


An Israeli immigrant from the former Yugoslavia has been arrested for alleged involvement in Bosnian genocide.

Aleksander Cvetkovic, 42, who moved to Israel and obtained citizenship in 2006 with his Jewish wife and their children, is accused of involvement in the 1995 Srebrenicia massacre in which Bosnian Serb forces shot and killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Following Cvetkovic’s arrest Tuesday, Israel’s State Prosecutor’s Office launched extradition proceedings to send him to Bosnia to face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He will remain in prison until the Jerusalem District Court issues a ruling on the extradition request.

The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina requested his extradition last August.

When Africa Comes to Israel


There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Oldest Jewish Immigrant From Iran Arrives in L.A.


After living in Iran for more than a century, witnessing the rise and fall of three kings and the upheaval of an Islamic revolution 30 years ago, 102-year-old Heshmat Elyasian arrived in Los Angeles two months ago with her immediate family to become the oldest Jewish immigrant from Iran to resettle in Los Angeles.

Because of an age-related mental decline, Elyasian was not fully aware that she had resettled in the United States. However, she said she was in good spirits during an interview with The Journal.

“I have some pain in my arms and legs from arthritis, but otherwise, thank God,” she said in her native Persian, while seated in a wheelchair and surrounded by family members at a relative’s home in the Valley.

Elyasian immigrated to the United States with her son, Manouchehr Tabari, and his family with the help of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). According to HIAS records, Elyasian is the oldest refugee they have helped.

“Making the transition to life in America is not easy for many reasons, especially since the Iranian currency is worth so much less when converted to dollars, but we’re grateful to be here,” said 68-year-old Tabari, who was a cinematographer and filmmaker in Iran.

Tabari said the decision for his immediate family to leave Iran was based on his desire to pursue better educational opportunities for his children in the United States. Since extended families typically live together in Iran for many years, it was only natural for Tabari to immigrate with his mother.

“The plane trip here was very difficult for all of us, especially for my mother, because it was for many hours, and they had seated all of us in different parts of the airplane,” said Tabari, who now lives at his niece’s Tarzana home. “We are still trying to get over the exhaustion of the trip and the shocks of this new environment.”

Elyasian’s long life in Iran has not been the easiest, her son explained. After her marriage, her husband, who was a butcher, lost his savings after livestock he had purchased and ritually slaughtered were not kosher due to some impurities. The couple and their six children barely survived while they lived in poor conditions in Tehran’s run-down Jewish ghetto. Her husband was forced to work small and low-paying odd jobs, while she raised their children and also earned a living helping other families with their cooking, sewing and hand-washing their laundry.

“I am the only person in my family that has had formal education, and my mother really sacrificed on my behalf so that I could get an education,” said Tabari, who produced documentary films for television networks in Iran after studying film and drama in New York during the 1960s. “I’ve taken care of her myself ever since my father suddenly died of a heart attack at age 62.”

Iranian Jewish historical scholars said they were excited about Elyasian’s arrival in the United States because of her life experience and the fact that her father was one of a few Jewish musicians to entertain the late Iranian king, Nasser-al-Din Shah Qajar, which could shed new light on how Jews were treated in the king’s court during the early 20th century.

“Life was not easy for Jews living in Iran during the time this woman was born,” said Daniel Tsadik, a professor of Iranian studies at Yeshiva University in New York. “They were typically living in poverty, faced persecution in various cities and their movement was restricted in the country, because they were considered ritually impure by the local Muslim leaders.”

Despite several mattresses and open suitcases stuffed with clothing laid out in her living room, Elyasian’s granddaughter, Soheyla Tabari, said she was excited to welcome her grandmother and uncle’s family to stay with her temporarily until they settle in their new lives in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been telling them to come here for the past 20 years, and we lost some valuable time that we could have really enjoyed together,” Soheyla Tabari said. “But it’s been a great experience for all of us to find each other again — four generations living under one roof.”

Elyasian and her family have already begun the slow process of resettlement with the help of local Jewish agencies. Once Iranian Jewish families reach the United States, the Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles typically are among the first to help these new immigrants.

Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the SIAMAK organization and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help the family with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition. The local Iranian American Jewish Federation has also been involved in helping these new immigrants.

The issue of Jewish immigration from Iran is particularly sensitive for local Iranian Jewish leaders. For the most part, the work of HIAS to help Jews emigrate from Iran since the 1980s has happened under the media radar in order not to embarrass the Iranian government. Community leaders have long feared that any publicity could potentially jeopardize the current flow of Jewish immigration out of Iran. The process of immigration varies for different Iranian Jews and can take anywhere from nine months to several years.

According to HIAS records, since 1979, the organization had aided more than 15,000 Iranian Jewish refugees in immigrating to the United States, nearly half of them to the Los Angeles area.

During 2007, the Chicago-based Christian Jewish nonprofit, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), along with the Jewish Agency in Israel, offered $10,000 per person to encourage Jews to leave Iran and immigrate to Israel. IFCJ officials reported that of the 20,000 Jews still living in Iran, only 125 accepted the offer and immigrated to Israel.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said despite the Iranian regime’s hostility toward Israel and treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, a substantial number of Jews continue to stay in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

“Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime,” Nikbakht said. “Some have converted to Islam or other ‘safer’ religions, such as Christianity, to help them survive.”

For his part, Tabari said he still has a fondness for Iran and hopes to travel back there at a later date to visit with his other family members. Likewise, he said his wife is planning to care for his mother while he is looking for employment in Los Angeles’ film industry.

“I am a very optimistic man and believe strongly that God will help us,” Tabari said. “America is a land of opportunity, and we are hoping for the best here”.

For more about this story and local Iranian Jews, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: www.jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Despite diplomas, Ethiopian Israelis can’t find jobs


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Asaf Negat, 29, made his way to Israel from Ethiopia as an 11-year-old boy and worked hard to find his way in a new land and learn to speak a new language. Eventually, Negat graduated with a business degree from one of the country’s top universities.

However, since completing his studies in the summer of 2006, he has not found work in his field. Unemployed, Negat spends his days trolling the Web sites of banks and investment houses, seeking job openings and sending out resumes.

“It’s not exactly a hopeful situation,” said Negat, whose only job since graduation has been as a counselor at an absorption center for newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants. “It makes people like me feel pessimistic, especially when we look at our younger brothers and sisters who see what we are going through.”

Negat is not alone.

Of the approximately 4,500 Ethiopian Israelis who have earned university degrees, fewer than 15 percent have found work in their professions, according to a recent study. Instead, most end up working temporary public-sector jobs serving the Ethiopian Israeli community, remaining disconnected from the larger professional Israeli workforce.

Working in such jobs, which often are project-based and subject to elimination once funding runs out, these Ethiopian Israelis earn less than other college-educated Israelis. Ethiopian Israeli graduates earn an average of $1,375 a month, compared with $1,925 monthly for their Jewish Israeli peers, according to a joint study of the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

“On the one hand, one wants Ethiopians with academic degrees to help make changes in the community by working within it, but on the other hand, these jobs are not highly paid, often not very stable and don’t have much potential for promotion,” said Sigal Shelach, director of programs for immigrants and minorities at Tevet, a joint government-JDC-Israel employment initiative. “So there is a kind of vicious circle going on.”

Negat’s easy smile vanishes when he speaks of the challenges of breaking into the ranks of the educated Israeli middle class.

“We are the role model for the younger generation,” he said. “But how are they supposed to react when they go from being encouraged by our studies to watching us finish university, only to return back at home, stuck, with no work?”

It’s hardly the fairy-tale landing into the white-collar Israeli workforce many young Ethiopian Israelis imagine for themselves once they make it beyond a host of obstacles to start their university careers.

However, in Israel, where personal connections and unwritten cultural codes are especially strong, Ethiopian Israeli graduates face a significant disadvantage in finding jobs compared with their native-born peers. For one thing, they are less likely to have the professional network of connections a typical Israeli might have to land a job.

“They think they graduate and that will be it, but most of them don’t have help of where to go and what to look for,” said Danny Admesu, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child and now is the director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Usually in Israeli families relatives work in different fields, they have connections and can give advice. You learn not just in university but by meeting people and parents’ contacts. But these people graduate and then don’t know what to do.”

Furthermore, many Israeli employers rely on assessment centers to screen potential job candidates before granting interviews. Some experts say the centers have unintentional cultural biases — for example, asking questions about aggressive decision-making styles and leadership that Ethiopian Israeli job candidates answer much differently than native-born Israelis.

To address that problem, the JDC is piloting a program for more culturally sensitive screening tests.

Compounding matters, many Ethiopian Israelis come from Israel’s periphery — outside the heavily populated center of the country — where jobs are scarce.

There is also the problem of racism, some say.

“We cannot shut our eyes to it and need to talk about it,” said Ranan Hartman, founder and chair of the Ono Academic College, one of a handful of Israeli institutions trying to address the problems facing Ethiopian Israeli graduates. “If we hide from it, it won’t be solved.”

Hartman said the school’s outreach to Ethiopian Israelis, which is supported in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel, aims to achieve nothing less than a revolution in the Ethiopians’ status in Israeli society.

“How do you inform society to respect the Ethiopian community? You do it by creating islands of excellence, and the success stories can then go and break stigmas,” Hartman said.

The college boasts among its Ethiopian graduates the first Ethiopian diplomat and accountant in Israel.

Now in its second year, the program has provided 200 students and graduates with intensive workshops in job searching, management and leadership skills, connected them with mentors and made high-level connections and introductions to help pave their way to interviews and, hopefully, jobs.

Supported by the Jewish Agency and the UJA-Federation of New York, the program coordinates its efforts with the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya and Bank Hapoalim. Yifat Ovadiah, general director of the organization, said its goal is to help place 1,000 Ethiopian graduates in highly sought-after jobs in their fields in the next five to seven years.

“The idea is that 1,000 people can help change perceptions,” Ovadiah said. “By having visibility in places like the country’s largest accounting and law firms, these people will be able to advance and become influential themselves.”

The group taps top Israeli executives — the CEO of Bank Hapoalim is among the group’s volunteers — to spread the word about the program’s high-quality graduates.

Negat is one of this year’s participants. He said the program is his lifeline to finding work.

At a meeting center at Kibbutz Shfaim, Negat joined several others for a workshop where he had a one-on-one counseling session with an experienced businessman. Under the shadow of an oak tree, Danny Heller helped Negat troubleshoot how best to approach employers as he tries to embark on a career in finance.

Heller, also addressed a larger group of business and economics students during the workshop, reminding them of how extraordinary their journeys have been — and to play that up during their next job interview.

“You have incredible life stories,” the businessman told the group. “You went through things most people never had to, and your abilities, the walls you had to break down, are what will bring you to your next job.”

Writer discovers California ‘Gold’ in banking ancestor Isaias Hellman


“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Searching for ways to deal with the current economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could take a cue from Isaias Hellman, banker, capitalist and California visionary. More than once during financial panics in the 19th century, when bank runs were a too-frequent and devastating occurrence, Hellman resorted to a dramatic ploy to restore calm and confidence. He stacked massive towers of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles.

Half a million dollars in plain view “was a tonic,” his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel writes in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press). It was a sight that stopped withdrawals cold and even attracted deposits. Everyone, customers and competitors, seemed to trust Hellman’s faith that better times were ahead.

A grand gesture, his towers of gold represented not only Hellman’s keen sense of the public psyche when hard times arose but his own confidence in the opportunities and resources of California. Hellman was an essential part, according to Dinkelspiel, of the generation that built the economic engines and defined the social institutions of California. In that role and company, Hellman was arguably the single most powerful and influential Jew in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1920.

A fifth-generation Californian and Bay Area journalist, Dinkelspiel grew up with little knowledge of her illustrious ancestor. She discovered in the Hellman papers at the California Historical Society “every reporter’s dream: an unknown story about a critical chapter in the country’s history.”

Sifting through extensive correspondence, ledgers, newspaper clippings and diaries, she realized that Hellman was a titan of his time, “California’s premier financier” when the state shed its isolation and became an economic force.

She soon was on a seven-year quest to re-insert Hellman into California history and expand the record of Jewish immigrant success beyond Levi Strauss (who was just one of several pioneer co-religionists helped by Hellman to build unimaginable fortunes).

Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Still more Mexican than American and with a population of less than 5,000, Los Angeles was home to maybe 150 Jews, almost all merchants who belonged to a handful of extended families. Accompanied by his younger brother, Herman, and with less than $100 between them, Hellman went to work as a clerk in a cousin’s store.

Within a few years, Hellman was buying his own store, developing commercial property in the center of Los Angeles and going into business with men “who considered themselves the problem solvers” of the region. Men such as John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant and former governor of California, were eager to capitalize on the sterling reputation and business acumen of the 29-year-old when Hellman invited them to become shareholders in the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Farmers and Merchants proved to be the city’s first successful financial institution. It also became Hellman’s springboard to a West Coast banking empire that by 1915 had resources totaling more than $100 million. The crown jewel in that empire was the Wells Fargo Nevada Bank.

In 1890, Hellman was tapped to save the Nevada Bank, a San Francisco firm that counted the Southern Pacific Railroad among its biggest customers. When capitalist E.H. Harriman decided to spin off the banking business of Wells Fargo, he approached Hellman to take charge of merging two of the state’s oldest establishments and creating one of the West’s largest financial institutions.

While Hellman had family ties to New York and European capitalists (his brother-in-law was Meyer Lehman of the Lehman Brothers commodity house), the roots of Hellman’s success were in his local connections. He persistently partnered with friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. As his success grew, he promoted California investment opportunities to Lehman Brothers and other prominent Jewish firms in the East and increased the wealth on both coasts.

As an investor, adviser and leader, Hellman extended his success and influence over several other major industries in California. He partnered with Collis and Henry E. Huntington to develop railroads and trolley lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He loaned Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny $500 to purchase the land where they sunk the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles.

Hellman was the largest shareholder in the Los Angeles Water Co., a private firm that developed the city’s water system in the 19th century, and personally sold a $14.5 million bond issue for the Spring Valley Water Co. that supplied San Francisco. Having early in his career invested in vineyards, in 1901 Hellman took control of the California wine industry, standardizing the product and elevating the reputation of the industry around the world. In addition, he developed land all over Los Angeles County, owned property in San Francisco and built a vacation retreat at Lake Tahoe that eventually became a state park.

Hellman’s influence on Los Angeles is still evident today. In an instance where capitalism and philanthropy met, Jewish Hellman, Protestant Ozro Childs and Catholic Downey donated 110 acres to the Methodist founders of USC. The land was in the center of the partners’ subdivision at the southwest edge of the city. They also extended the trolley line they owned from downtown to the new campus.

Their generosity gave potential land buyers a destination and a convenient way to get there. The city had a university, and the partners saw their land triple in value.

Hellman helped create another L.A. institution when he advised Harrison Gray Otis to buy out his partner in the Los Angeles Times and then provided the $18,000 loan required to put the paper in Otis’ hands. Otis’ descendants, the Chandler family, sold the massive media company that evolved for $8 billion in 2000.

Hellman’s leadership went beyond the world of finance and business. When Los Angeles’ first synagogue was built in 1872, he was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He served as a regent of the University of California for more than 30 years and endowed a scholarship fund still supporting students. He took a leading role in the recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy ranged from Catholic orphans to World War I Jewish European refugees.

While unquestionably Hellman achieved the immigrant’s dream of success and acceptance in America, there were times when he was the target of anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-Semitic behavior. He and his companies also were subject to the wrath of unionists and socialists, progressive reformers and even betrayal by family members. His wealth, influence and fame brought both friends and enemies.

In its plain sense, the biography of Hellman is a story of nearly unfettered opportunity to apply one’s skills and realize one’s ambition. The openness of the American frontier stood in stark contrast to the restrictions on livelihood and residency most Jewish Europeans left behind. At a deeper level, Hellman’s story is a reminder that it took skill, ambition and connections to transform that frontier into part of the United States and create a state that today has a gross domestic product larger than all but eight countries in the world.

Jews were notably among the diverse contributors of those necessary ingredients, as they have continued to be, for example, the Stern, Haas and Goldman families in San Francisco and the Factor, Taper, Casden and Lowy families in Los Angeles.

To her credit, Dinkelspiel presents a well-developed and even-handed portrayal of Hellman and his extended family. The biography maintains a solid historical context in which to understand the perspectives, philosophy and values of a gilded-age capitalist. His German-American-Jewish sense of responsibility to family, community, customers, investors, competitors and the future comes through clearly. Through the vehicle of one man and his networks of family, friends and associates, the foundational place in California history of Jewish immigrants generally is illuminated, as well.

Well-researched and highly readable, “Towers of Gold” makes an important contribution to both the history of the Golden State and the history of Jews in America. It is a very strong case for the veracity of the volume’s subtitle — “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” — demonstrating the key role of Hellman in the urban and economic development of California.

It also adds a fresh perspective on the Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who in the mid-19th century joined in the continental expansion of the United States and set down roots in emerging communities. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, frontier California was influenced by “Jewish values and sensibility” in ways unprecedented anywhere else in the nation.

Hellman’s life and accomplishments illustrated that influence, and this biography brings attention to its still-unfolding consequences.

Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and curator for the upcoming Autry National Center exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles.

Melancholy Russian soul flourishing in immigrants


The Russian soul, that hard to define, but deep and informed melancholy, is flourishing in Rego Park, Queens, N.Y.

To the title character in Irina Reyn’s new novel, “What Happened to Anna K” (Touchstone), the velikaia russkaia dusha, Russian soul, transplanted to America might be embodied in the way Russians avoid voicing public praise, rebuke strangers in public and show a fondness for politically incorrect jokes.

Shards of it are locked up even in Anna, who wakes up optimistic to a new day, yet loves to drink, even if it makes her argumentative or depressed afterward and tends to see things in binary mode — as either wonderful or terrible. An overall feeling of doom is never far away.

“The Russian soul had come to claim her, extinguishing all that was sanguine and buoyant, all that was American inside her, leaving only the Siberian Steppes, the crust of black bread, the acerbic aftertaste of marinated herring, the eternal, bleak winter,” Reyn writes.

In an interview, the Moscow-born author, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 7, admits that she, too, has a lingering Russian soul. Her well-written and very enjoyable first novel recasts Tolstoy, as its title suggests, observing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, body and soul.

Reyn said in unaccented English that she began writing some stories and sketches that would become pieces of this novel during graduate school, when she reread “Anna Karenina.” As she was thinking about issues of identity for her characters, of integrating tradition and modernity, she realized that Tolstoy had dealt with some of the same concerns, and her questions overlapped with some of his.

“Once I decided that I was going to draw attention to a dialogue with Tolstoy, the challenge was how far to go with this. I didn’t want to literally transpose his story,” she explains, but, rather, wanted to find moments that would inform her novel. She took care to be sure her novel had its own identity, even while calling attention to this other great work.

Readers don’t need to have read the great Russian classic to appreciate Reyn’s novel. She says that many American readers have turned to Tolstoy after reading “What Happened to Anna K.”

Reyn’s Anna K., who had expected great love for herself and that she would shape great art reflecting her emotional life, “waited patiently for the call of the relevant lovers through her 20s and early 30s.”

Single at 36 and aware that her creative inspiration has yet to materialize, she settles into marriage with a successful Russian businessman. Even at her wedding at a Brighton Beach nightclub, she feels an uneasy desire for something more.

She and her husband move from Rego Park to the Upper East Side of Manhattan; their circle consists of his friends and their wives who speak “a Russian-English patois, Americanizing their Russian, Russifying their English. The women dressed themselves and their men and the result was bright pinks, pinstripes, matching necklaces and earrings, manicures, thick, visible lip liner. Gold was favored over silver, chunky pieces that screamed out for attention.”

Anna K. is drawn into an affair with the boyfriend of her Bukharan cousin — first glimpsed at a train station. With him she can talk about books and ideas, and she likes the notion of being his muse. Her cousin Katia marries Lev, a fellow Bukharan, who’s passionate about French film. But Anna K’s life resembles that of Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.

With humor laced into this story, Reyn explores aging, love and marriage, ethnic identity, the power of tradition and the pull of family and community. This may be the first novel, at least in English, to offer a glimpse into the lives of Bukharan Jews in Queens, where many thousands have settled. This is a community with great devotion to memory, which exerts strong efforts to maintain their religious and cultural traditions.

Katia’s father is so happy to be marrying off his daughter that he promises, on first meeting his son-in-law to be, free haircuts for life. Lev doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he has half a dozen barbers in his own family. Food is described in appealing detail, which may inspire readers to board a subway to Rego Park to try out a Bukharan restaurant.

“I think of myself as a Russian Jewish American writer,” Reyn says.

When she came to the United States from Moscow with her parents in 1981, she knew no English and found herself struggling through third grade in a Brooklyn public school. In the evenings, members of the family would quiz one another on vocabulary using homemade flash cards. By fourth grade, Reyn was the class spelling bee champ and, as her parents would say, soaking up the English language.

Her family moved from Flatbush to Rego Park when she was 9, where they lived among Bukharan families. Later on they moved to Fairlawn, N.J. She attended Rutgers University, and earned a masters in fine arts from Bennington College. Now 34, she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.

Reyn, along with her parents, sister and American husband, recently visited Moscow, and she was doubly struck — by seeing what her life might have been like had they stayed, as they visited family friends still living there, and also by the new wealthy, global and over-the-top Moscow.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

‘Accidental Mexican’ Ilan Stavans probes cultural identity in first play


As an “accidental Mexican” born to an Eastern European family, author and essayist Ilan Stavans has hurdled critics to become one of the nation’s foremost commentators on Latino culture. As a Mexican American, he has written widely on immigration, the clash and fusion of languages and the quest for acceptance.

As a Jewish Mexican American, he has made himself a wrecking ball aimed at the walls — literal and imagined — that make virtual strangers of his varied ethnic roots.

“I’m very interested in borders or the absence thereof,” said Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. “We live in a world where every country is perfectly delineated with lines, where we can have fences or where we can have helicopters and dogs and patrols. To what degree are those borders replicated in our minds? How do we cross a border that is fictional or imaginary, or do we carry them with us forever?”

Cultural identity and the roles people play for the sake of assimilation are themes Stavans probed in his 2005 short story, “The Disappearance,” which follows a Jewish Belgian actor who seemingly fakes his own kidnapping by a neo-Nazi group. Stavans last year partnered with Massachusetts theater group, Double Edge Theatre, to adapt the story into a play, which will premiere at the Skirball Cultural Center Oct. 16-17.

The production marks the first time Stavans has helped adapt one of his works for performance — an endeavor inspired, in part, by the performer he’s known longest.

“It all comes from having seen my father at the theater. He was very influential for me,” said Stavans, who, as a child, watched his father become a popular stage and soap opera star in Mexico City. “I don’t feel that I have cut loose from my past — I feel that my past is still with me. I have spent my entire life as a writer trying to return to it.”

Stavans’ grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Ukraine, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism. They wanted to settle in the United States, but strict immigration quotas pushed them south. Stavans grew up in Copilco, a multiethnic, middle-class enclave in the southern part of Mexico City, and attended a Yiddish-language school.

Being one of a handful of Jewish people in his neighborhood was sometimes difficult.

“On the one hand, it made me feel special and unique, but it also made me feel vulnerable,” Stavans said. “I grew up with a sense of being a minority — that just by accident, I was Mexican. We were Jewish because our ancestors were Jewish, but we were Mexican because someone had put his or her finger on the map and said, ‘We need to escape; let’s go here.'”

Stavans dabbled in filmmaking and theater and began writing novels. He dropped out of college and traveled in Europe and Israel but never felt comfortable calling either place home. Back in Mexico, he got his bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 1984. At age 25, he moved to New York City to pursue the life of an intellectual. But the transition wasn’t easy.

“When I came to this country, I became an altogether different person,” Stavans said. “I was never a Mexican in Mexico; I was a Jew. Upon arriving to the U.S., and particularly to New York City, I somewhat magically ceased to be Jewish. All of a sudden, I became Mexican.”

Amid shifting ethnic labels, Stavans also grappled with the newest piece of his cultural puzzle: being an American. He dove into academics, earning graduate degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. An Amherst professor since 1993, he has, over the years, built a reputation as a prolific writer, lexicographer, translator and cultural analyst.

Throughout his career, Stavans said he has been criticized “a million times” by both Latinos and Jews, who claim he isn’t an authentic enough face for either culture to act as its spokesperson.

“I’m an appetizing target because I’m not your standard Latino or your stereotypical Jew,” he admitted. “But criticism is a source of energy. As long as you present work that is grounded, responsibly structured and aesthetically refined, criticism simply means that the work matters.”

Stavans’ numerous books include “The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People” (1995), the autobiography “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language” (2001), “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (2003) and the newly released “Resurrecting Hebrew” (2008), which chronicles the revival of the language in the late 1800s by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Stavans also edited “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” (1998), “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (2003) and the three-volume “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories” (2005), among others.

His short story, “Morirse Está en Hebreo,” was recently adapted as the 2007 feature film, “My Mexican Shivah,” in which his father, Abraham Stavans, had a role.

Not bad for an exile who didn’t even pick up English until his mid-20s.

“I feel very close to the Jewish diasporic tradition that traverses borders, both with countries and languages,” Stavans said. “There is something within Jews that defies established borders — or maybe that is inspired by them — to break them, to go beyond them. Diaspora is in our blood; it’s the source of our intellectual and spiritual sustenance. We can carry in our books the DNA that will keep that Jewishness alive through the next diaspora.”

The question for Stavans is how that Jewishness might be expressed.

Fictional actor Maarten Soëtendrop glides from stage to stage at the peak of his success in Stavans’ “The Disappearance.”

The Belgian population goes into an uproar when the Jewish actor is kidnapped by a band of neo-Nazis, reappearing 18 days later in an alley, bloody and beaten. But when Soëtendrop — a Holocaust survivor — confesses to plotting the whole scheme, suspicions swirl over his intentions, his past and whether, in a larger sense, Jews can ever find stable footing as perpetual outsiders in foreign cultures.

“I wanted to address the ghosts that Jews carry within themselves when living in a country where we are a minority,” Stavans said. “I wanted to explore the changing nature of Jewish identity — how do we react to the environment? Are we hypocrites because we keep one truth for ourselves and present another truth to society at large?”

The work is based on the true story of a prominent Belgian actor, Jules Croiset, whose self-staged kidnapping Stavans read about in The New York Times in 1988.

The story’s themes of secrecy and betrayal appealed to Stacy Klein, founder and artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, who wanted to collaborate with Stavans after reading some of his material.

Klein invited Stavans to see the Ashfield, Mass., group’s interpretation of “Don Quixote” in 2006. At the beginning of the piece, Stavans recalled, the performers staged a bonfire in which they were burning books.

“They knew I was going to come to that particular performance, and they put on top of that pile of books three or four of my own books,” he said. “I was shocked to see that my books were being burnt right in front of my eyes. It was a very provocative statement. I thought what they were doing was quite interesting and a relationship started.”

Stavans attended several Double Edge rehearsals, sometimes taking part in their improvisations.

“The shaping of the play was very untraditional,” he said. “Rather than the writer sitting in his office and deciding where to start, I gathered everyone in the troupe, read my story and each of the actors began improvising different aspects of the story.”

Not only is Double Edge’s production of “The Disappearance” Stavans’ first theatrical adaptation, but it will also serve as the author’s acting debut — Stavans said he plans to join the cast onstage during select dates in roles he won’t reveal beforehand. “It’s going to be a surprise for the audience,” he said.

After an engagement at the Skirball Cultural Center the show will travel to Legnica, Poland, and New York City.

On Oct. 15, also at the Skirball, Stavans will give a lecture titled, “Who Stole the Statue of Liberty? Immigration in America Today,” in which he will discuss the modern immigration experience.

For tickets or more information, call (877) 722-4849.

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

French philanthropist aid to Iranians comes full circle


Philanthropist Hubert Leven, a French Ashkenazi Jew who recently visited Los Angeles, has ties to the close-knit Iranian Jewish community that go back four generations.

More than 100 years ago, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a nonprofit educational organization his great-grandfather, Narcisse, helped establish with six other French Jews, provided schools throughout Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East for Sephardic Jews. The educational opportunities AIU made available to the thousands of Jews in Iran between 1898 and 1979 forever changed their lives.

The generosity Leven’s ancestor extended to Iranian Jews came full circle when Leven visited Los Angeles this month, seeking financial support from Los Angeles Iranian Jews for his family’s new nonprofit organization in Israel, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation.

“I find it important, as well as natural, for French Jews to have helped Iranian Jews a century and a half ago, as it would be for Iranian Jews to help Russian or Ethiopian Jews,” Leven said in an interview. “Jews have always survived because of this solidarity.”

Leven, the retired head of a brokerage firm, lives in Paris and now devotes himself full time to his foundation, which offers hands-on educational, health and social welfare programs to benefit Israelis, one-third of whom currently live below the poverty line.

“Due to a lack of educational opportunities, there are still many youngsters who are still not able to integrate and become productive Israeli citizens,” Leven said. “It is only natural for those who benefited from the Alliance two or three generations ago to support the same organization, which is still fighting to save those who are at the bottom of the socioeducational ladder.”

For their part, local Iranian Jews were enthusiastic about supporting Leven’s organization, because of the special ties and nostalgia they felt toward the AIU for helping lift them out of their ghettos in Iran.

“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” said Elias Eshaghian, a former AIU school graduate in Iran and current chairman of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.

According to a 1996 book by Iranian Jewish AIU graduates living in the United States, the organization established both boys and girls schools in 11 different — and often remote — cities throughout Iran. Thousands of Jewish children attending AIU schools in Iran were given uniforms, food, inoculations and moral support.

“The schoolteachers of Alliance were not only teachers, but they were saviors, because they gave pride and dignity to Jews,” said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, professor of Judeo-Persian history at UCLA. “The school also protected them from any maltreatment they encountered from the Muslim population.”

Eshaghian, now in his 70s, trained as a French language teacher at the AIU in Paris and returned to Iran, where he taught French, as well as serving as the school’s director in Tehran and other cities.

“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the U.S. are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Among the graduates of AIU schools in Iran is diabetologist Dr. Samuel Rahbar, who works as a research fellow in the department of hematology and bone marrow transplantation at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte. Now in his late 70s, Rahbar is credited with many scientific breakthroughs in treating diabetes.

“Who knows what my life would have been like if I had not attended the Alliance school,” Rahbar said. “The school had a major impact on my life, since I learned French there that was very helpful to me when I entered medical school. And I later became the first Jewish professor at the medical school in Tehran University.”

Eshaghian said that while a number of Iranian Jews in New York and Southern California have long forgotten the aid of AIU, others feel a great deal of gratitude to the organization and are therefore willing to support Leven’s new foundation.

The Merage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Southern California and Denver, headed by the Iranian Jewish Merage family, has donated to Leven’s foundation and helped him forge new ties with the local Iranian Jewish community.elias eshaghian
Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.Photo courtesy of Elias Eshaghian

Briefs: DREAM Act passage pushed, City clears Holocaust Museum hurdle, but one more remains


DREAM Act Passage Pushed

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined last week in a mock graduation to urge Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would enable the estimated 50,000 undocumented students who graduate high school each year to enter college and earn citizenship.

“Abraham was the prototype of an immigrant. More accurately, he can be viewed as the first successful immigrant,” Seth Brysk, executive director of AJC’s Los Angeles office, said at the protest in downtown Los Angeles. “We must give students the opportunity to complete their education, regardless of their immigration status, to pursue higher education, to obtain legal status and to contribute to American society.”

The DREAM Act — short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — has been included in two immigration reform bills but not passed into law. Currently, undocumented students face greater challenges in getting financial aid for college and in-state tuition, as well as uncertain career opportunities. The DREAM Act would allow those who immigrated more than five years ago or when they were 15 or younger to work toward citizenship upon graduating high school; a requirement would be two years of college or military service.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

City Clears Holocaust Museum Hurdle, One More Remains

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is a big step closer to being able to start building its permanent home at Pan Pacific Park.

Four months after the L.A. City Council unanimously approved a 50-year lease for the museum, the paperwork was finally signed in late October. The only hitch is that the city is still waiting to take over title of the state-owned park. But the city and state reached an agreement on the acre of the park where the museum is scheduled to break ground next Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Rememberance Day).

David Michaelson, chief assistant city attorney, said escrow should close by the end of November. The city paid in the ballpark of $30,000 for the title transfer and continues to negotiate regarding the remaining 30-plus acres of the municipally operated park.

— BG

Gillerman Sees Hope for Peace Talks

Daniel Gillerman was rejected by UCLA when he tried to enroll some decades ago, but he finally made it last week when he spoke as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Addressing some 300 students under the auspices of the increasingly active Bruins for Israel, Gillerman had bad news and good news.

On the pessimistic side, Gillerman warned that if the current turmoil in Pakistan degenerates into a takeover of the nation by Islamic extremists, “Israel will face a lethal danger and existential threat.”

Add to that Iran’s development of nuclear technology and weapons, and the cumulative dangers threaten not only Israel and the West, but the Arab world, as well.

“I believe that most Muslims want peace and that Islam as a religion is being held hostage by militant radicals,” he said. “Much of the Muslim world is beginning to wake up to that threat.”

On the brighter side, Gillerman held out some qualified hope for the U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference, due to convene in Annapolis later this month.

“The chances for a convergence of minds have never been better,” he said. “Washington wants results, [Mideast peace envoy] Tony Blair wants results, and Israel, the Palestinians and the Muslim world are ready.”

But to advance the hoped-for results, the Palestinians’ hand must be strengthened through what Gillerman described as his LBL formula — legitimacy, business and leadership.

“The Arab world must give legitimacy to the Palestinian leadership, the international community must boost the Palestinians’ business and economy through a Marshall Plan, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must be strengthened in his leadership role,” Gillerman said.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Shul Organizes Holiday Volunteer Program

Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve and Day can be a lonely time for the elderly, the poor and others at institutions because of short staffing, so Young Israel of Century City has started “Tain Yad” (“lend a hand” in Hebrew), a three-day volunteer effort for Jews to reach out to the community at large. Sponsored by the synagogue and City Councilman Jack Weiss’ office, Tain Yad was the idea of a board member, who suggested it to Rabbi Elazar Muskin. The rabbi asked his 17-year-old daughter Dina to helm it.

Tain Yad has room for some 230 volunteers for one- and two-and-a-half-hour slots at 11 different institutions on the three holidays. (Thanksgiving slots run from 10 a.m to 4 p.m., so there’s still time to prepare the meal.) Volunteers can visit the elderly at hospitals, convalescent homes and nursing homes, drive food on Project Angel Food routes, help at a county fair for the Midnight Mission, paint houses for Hands for Hope or clean up public areas for L.A. Family Housing.

“One of the major ideas in this project is that the non-frum community has given back to L.A. institutions, but the Orthodox community does not participate normally in Big Sunday and the like,” said Dina, referring to Mitzvah Days and other projects that non-Orthodox synagogues organize to help the greater Los Angeles community. “It’s really important for our Orthodox community to get involved also.”

A mandatory training session will be held Wednesday night, Nov. 21, for all volunteers. To sign up, visit www.yicc.org.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Holocaust remembrance — Exodus redux


Sitting by an open screen door, Tante Surcha switches off the television when I walk in. I lean into her recliner to kiss her cheek, and ask how she is feeling after her hip surgery. She gives a shrug and an OK, and eyes the notebook and digital voice recorder I’ve just pulled from my bag and set on the coffee table in the den of her elegantly decorated Beverly Hills home.

Sarah Jacobs (Surcha is the Polish version of Sarah) was married to my grandfather’s first cousin Max, who, along with my great uncle and grandfather, were the only ones from their family to survive the Holocaust.

And while we don’t see each other often, I was surprised to learn from her daughter recently that Tante Surcha was once a passenger aboard the Exodus.
Along with more than 4,500 other Holocaust survivors, Jacobs saw Israel from the deck of the Exodus in July 1947. But she couldn’t disembark, because the British, trying to enforce a strict quota in the Mandate of Palestine, rammed and boarded the rickety ship, killing three passengers and wounding 30. After a long standoff, the passengers were sent back to Germany.

The world uproar that followed is credited with leading to the creation of a sovereign Jewish homeland.

Jacobs’ daughter, Helen Lepor, set up this interview for us so I could learn more about her voyage, and while Jacobs, 82, agreed to let me come, now that I’m here she seems reticent. She doesn’t quite avoid my questions, but her answers are minimalist, and often accompanied by a shrug or a tilt of the head, as if the information is so obvious — or perhaps so painful — as to make the exercise unnecessary.

How were conditions on the ship?

“The facilities were not so good,” she understates in a thick Yiddish accent. “There wasn’t enough water.”

Weren’t you angry that after surviving concentration camp, you were once again being so mistreated?

“Yeah, so nu, that’s life.”

Jacobs isn’t the only survivor having memories plied from her.

Over the last several years, in anticipation of the voyage’s 60th anniversary, survivors of the Exodus have been asked to share their stories in an effort to solidify Exodus’ place in history, before all that is left are the fictionalized and romanticized versions of the 1958 Leon Uris novel or the 1960 Otto Preminger film (and even those are already being forgotten). Among the recent projects are “Exodus 1947,” a 1997 documentary film by Venice resident Elizabeth Rodgers, and a new release of journalist Ruth Gruber’s account of the voyage, “Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation” (October 2007, Union Square Press).

Last week, 300 French Jews re-enacted the voyage, setting sail from Exodus’ original port in the South of France and arriving in Haifa. Unlike Exodus’ real passengers, they disembarked.

The largest of the commemorative events took place on Aug. 1 in Tel Aviv, when 1,500 Exodus passengers and descendants of passengers gathered for a reunion, initiated and organized by Meier Schwarz, a Haganah commander aboard the ship.

Schwarz, an 81-year-old botany professor who pioneered Israel’s hydroponics crop system, enlisted the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to put together a complete list of passengers. A manifest for the ship never existed, since the passengers were trying to smuggle into Israel illegally.

Around 2,100 names have been gathered so far. Many people also submitted memoirs or interviews, and Schwarz published these in Hebrew in “Maapilei Exodus 1947.” (“Maapilim” derives from the Hebrew word for “daring,” and refers to the Jews who ran the British blockade to get into pre-state Israel.)

Schwarz also officially presented to the Knesset “The Scroll of Exodus,” a document of the Exodus survivors.

Schwarz is hoping these events will raise interest among a generation that seems to have forgotten the vital role the ship played in the founding of the state.
“If you go on the street in Israel and ask somebody what happened on the Exodus, most of them say they don’t know what happened,” Schwarz said by phone from his Jerusalem home. “They know the Leon Uris book, and they know the movie, and they all have in mind that was the real story, but the real story was something quite different and more interesting.”

While he is proud that 1,500 people showed up for the reunion — double what organizers expected — he is disappointed that he’s received scant funding for his efforts. Only the Tel Aviv Municipality chipped in for the event.

Jacobs couldn’t make the reunion. Still, she is aware of her journey’s significance, not only in the role it played in creating the state, but in how it determined the course of her life: She landed in Los Angeles in 1950 and didn’t step foot in Israel until 1964.

And even if she is reluctant to let her mind go back in time, her nonchalance disappears and her fuzzy memory clears up when she remembers what happened after the British rammed the ship.

“We went outside, we went up to see Haifa. Everyone was there, and we started to sing ‘Hatikvah,'” Jacobs remembered, her eyes growing intense. “But unfortunately, they didn’t let us off.”

‘I Wanted to Go to Israel’

Like most of the 4,515 passengers, Sarah Jacobs (née Surcha Feder) was a young Holocaust survivor. Before the war, Jacobs had lost both her mother and the grandmother who raised her, and in 1943, when she was 19, she was taken from Sosnowicz, Poland, to a German labor camp. In 1944 she was transferred to a concentration camp, from which she was liberated in 1945. At the age of 21, with all of her immediate family dead, she went to live with her uncle in Germany.

“My uncle said to me and my cousin that we are young girls, we should go to Israel. He gave us the address of my cousin there,” Jacobs says.

New Israel Fund renews local presence after four-year hiatus


“People in Israel are so overloaded by big problems, mainly security but also corruption, that it’s easy to disconnect from dealing with social inequities,” said Ronit Heyd, a young Israeli activist.

Heyd, joined by Ilana Litvak, who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and Nidal Abed El Gafer, a Palestinian lawyer, were in Los Angeles last week as three “connected” Israelis, working to empower their country’s underprivileged and raise the level of civic involvement.

Their presence at a roundtable was sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF), which has just raised its Los Angeles profile by reestablishing a local office, after a four-year hiatus.

Its director is Ellen Barrie Aaronson, long active in the Jewish community and the entertainment industry, most recently as vice president for development at Johnenelly Production, is in the process of setting up the office.

NIF was founded in 1979 to work toward “a more just, equitable and pluralistic state of Israel,” according to its mission statement. NIF helps grass-roots groups, through grants, training and coalition building, to move into the Israeli mainstream. These groups include new immigrants, especially Ethiopians, women’s rights activists, gays, Israeli Arabs and people with disabilities. Since its establishment, NIF has distributed more than $200 million in grants to 800 organizations in Israel.

Shatil (Hebrew for seedling), NIF’s action arm, mentors and trains civic groups to take their fates into their own hands and bring their needs to the attention of government, media and society at large.

In addressing some 80 people at the Beverly Hills Country Club (located in Cheviot Hills), three speakers representing Shatil illustrated their organization’s principles through concrete examples of their work.

Gafer, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University law school, has worked to prevent the demolition of “illegal” Arab homes through court appeals. In another case, he has sought to allow students from inferior Arab schools to attend better Jewish schools.

He has had some success in this “affirmative action” suit, but, he noted, Arab and Jewish students must use the common school playground at separate times.

Heyd worked in northern Israel, heavily shelled during the Lebanon War, when wealthier residents fled south, but the poor stayed behind.

“The Israel government failed to provide shelter and food for those left behind,” Heyd said. “We got grass-roots groups together to demand public hearings on why the government had fouled up.”

Litvak’s main concern is to find ways of boosting Ethiopian and Russian kids, who have great difficulties in keeping up in school.

In a conversation after the meeting, Aviva Sagalovitch Meyer, NIF’s national associate director, said that the Washington, D.C.-based organization has a $25 million annual budget and six branch offices in the United States, four in Israel, and one each in London and Toronto.

Meyer said that about 6 percent of NIF’s general support donors and revenue came from the L. A. area, and she hoped that the establishment of a local office would raise these figures.

Last month, the Ford Foundation renewed a $20 million grant to NIF.

The Los Angeles roundtable was marked by a harmonious atmosphere, in apparent contrast to a similar all-day seminar in New York.

There, according to a JTA report, an Arab speaker, whose organization is supported by NIF, regretted that his fellow Palestinians didn’t take up arms to fight the denial of their rights by “Israeli occupiers.”

Another Israeli Arab, a law professor at Hebrew University, called for a change in Israel’s flag and national anthem.

It is NIF’s support of Arab groups, such as those represented by the two speakers, that raise the hackles of critics. One opponent cited is Gerald Steinberg, director of NGO Monitor, a hawkish pro-Israel watchdog organization.

Referring to the remarks of the two speakers, Steinberg said, “This is not about making Israel a better society; it’s about denying the legitimacy of Israel to exist.”

In response, Larry Garber, NIF’s CEO, said that his organization would continue to fund Arab rights groups, even if they say or do things with which the NIF doesn’t quite agree.

Meyer, NIF’s associate director, added, “When you join a group, not everything is going to be something you like; you support the broad position. You don’t expect to agree with every position.”

Eliezer Ya’ari, who heads NIF’s operations in Israel, said that differences between NIF and its critics come down to a matter of ideology. On one side are those, in Israel and the Diaspora, who see Israel as a Middle Eastern country of all its citizens, as against those more interested in preserving the Jewish nature of the state, even at the expense of democratic principles.

“The challenge in the next 60 years,” he said, “is making Israel a part of the Middle East.”

For more information on the New Israel Fund, call (310) 566-6367. For more information on NIF, e-mail eaaronson@nif.org.

JTA associate editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this article.

Israeli American couples finesse fusion of cultures


“Thou art sanctified unto me with this ring, in the tradition of Moses and Israel,” Eyal Giladi said in Hebrew as he slipped a smooth, unadorned ring onto the finger of his veiled bride, Orit Shachar.

Guests crowding the chuppah on a warm evening in August erupted in vigorous applause and cheers. Young, sharply dressed and already tipsy from the pre-ceremony reception, the guests were mostly unmarried Israeli transplants who had befriended the couple since they arrived in Los Angeles five years ago.

Set in the backyard of their San Fernando Valley home, Giladi and Shachar’s wedding hosted 85 guests, eight of whom were parents and siblings from Israel. The small but boisterous group was not the typical modern Israeli wedding, which often boasts a 400-guest reception.

The couple, whose names have been changed for this article, decided to keep their wedding intimate and in Southern California, rather than travel to Israel for an excessively large ceremony that would include everyone from close relatives to a brother’s co-worker.

“I really didn’t want to be greeting people I’ve never even met at my wedding,” said Giladi, a statuesque man with a long ponytail.

For Israeli immigrants like Giladi, 27, and Shachar, 30, there are a variety of reasons why saying “I do” so far from their birthplace is preferable. Financial and logistical considerations can play a major role in the decision, but another important factor is the immigration status of the couple. Some Israelis work and live in Los Angeles without proper government authorization from the United States.

But even if a couple resolves to hold a wedding ceremony in the Southland, it can be tricky to blend Israeli expectations with American realities.

Shachar always thought she would get married in Israel, even after immigrating to Los Angeles with Giladi in 2002. They briefly considered the possibility, particularly because their parents were pushing for an Israeli wedding.

When Giladi proposed to Shachar on her birthday one year ago, leaving the country wasn’t an option. The couple has actively pursued permanent residency status, but their expired tourist visas would not allow them to return to the United States if they traveled to Israel.

“It made it easy to decide where to get married,” Shachar said. “There was actually nothing to decide. We couldn’t go to Israel. End of discussion.”

It makes perfect sense to event planner Ada Doron, who has been living in the United States for more than 20 years, that so many Israeli immigrants are choosing to get married where they live rather than where they were born and raised.

“They’ve established a new life here. They’ve lost connection with their Israeli friends back home and they’ve made new friends here,” said Doron, the owner of Fleur Creations, a party-planning service. “It’s also more convenient to plan a wedding here. To plan a wedding in Israel, you would need a family member to coordinate everything or you would have to fly there a few times before the wedding. Who has the money to do that?”

If the possibility exists that an Israeli couple might return to Israel, they want to make sure their marriage will be recognized by the Jewish state. In order for the unions to be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a marriage between Jews must be officiated by an Orthodox rabbi. Dozens of Israeli couples looking for an Orthodox rabbi find their way each year to Rabbi Amitai Yemini, director of the Chabad Israel Center on Robertson Boulevard.

In addition to officiating at the ceremony, Rabbi Yemini assists Israeli couples with tasks unique to their situation, such as registering their marriage with Israel’s Ministry of the Interior and the rabbinate.

A Los Angeles County marriage license has no residence or citizenship status requirements. A bride and groom must present proof-of-identity and age documents, such as a driver’s license or passport, according to the Los Angeles County’s Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Web site. However, the county will also accept a birth certificate and accompanying photo ID, even if it’s in another language, as long as there is an accompanying English translation prepared by a certified translator.

The Chabad Israel Center also helps couples by easing the red tape guests from Israel might face when applying for a conditional temporary visa to the United States. A wedding invitation and a letter from the Chabad Israel Center can often expedite the process, Yemini said.

Giladi and Shachar, who found a rabbi through an Orthodox friend, said the problems they encountered in planning their wedding were not necessarily of the variety a rabbi could help them with. Instead, the differences between Israeli and American wedding cultures provided a few stumbling blocks for the couple.

For instance, outdoor weddings are popular in Israel, and there are many gardens and similar sites to choose from that have kosher amenities. But in Los Angeles, most outdoor locations don’t feature a kosher kitchen — a requirement of Orthodox rabbis who officiate at weddings.

In Israel, wedding venues are typically one-stop shops with a rental price that includes decorations, food and entertainment. Here, the couple had to look for each of these services individually.

Perhaps the most daunting difference of all, at least for Shachar, was the style of wedding gowns.

“There is no comparison,” she said. “Wedding dresses in Israel are so unique and so elaborate.”

She described the latest trend of two-piece dresses with a flowing skirt that can be removed after the ceremony and replaced with a more fitted, dance-friendly bottom.

Shachar ultimately found a dress, but was surprised to find out that most Americans buy their dresses. In Israel, brides rent a gown.

Giladi said the decision to have a small wedding had nothing to do with cost. The couple spent what the average American spends on a wedding, about $30,000. While they saved money by having the celebration at home, they splurged on elaborate decorations, high-end kosher catering and abundant spirits.

Against the advice of their wedding planner, Giladi and Shachar bought enough alcohol for a traditional Israeli party with several-hundred guests. Long before the police arrived after 1 a.m., Giladi actually sent a few friends out to get more alcohol.

‘Live from Tehran’


It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m at the studios of KIRN — a Persian-language AM radio station on Barham Boulevard near Universal Studios. I’m a guest on a program called “Live From Hollywood.”

The host/producer, Suzi Khatami, is an Iranian woman who, like me, left the old country — long before the revolution — opted for exile and is happy about it. Earlier this evening, she has had on the show an Oscar-nominated Iranian actress who has just finished making (what else?) “The Kite Runner,” followed by an award-winning Iranian documentary filmmaker who has spent five years in very exotic places shooting a movie about the life of the Iranian poet Rumi. The show’s technician is a young Iranian man; he has the television monitor tuned (without sound) to CNN, where Iranian-born reporter Christiane Amanpour is interviewing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This may be “Live From Hollywood,” but we might as well be in Tehran.

On the air, Suzi and I talk about books and writing and the places where stories originate. She wants to know how I can write about a country I haven’t seen in 30 years — that I left when I was barely a teenager and cannot go back to for security reasons — how I remember so much of the landscape and the people, so many details of our lives there. I fumble with the response — something about the subconscious mind and how it retains so much during one’s formative years — but I’m more interested on what’s happening on CNN than in my own interview. When we go off the air for a commercial break, I ask the technician if he’s followed Ahmadinejad’s travels through the United States. He lights up.

“Of course I have,” he says, shaking his head in dismay. “That weasel conquered Columbia University. He had the students cheering for him, jeering their own president. It was a fiasco; he went in as the bad guy and came out as the victim. Imagine Columbia’s president making the weasel look good.”

The technician is not saying anything I haven’t already heard, but something about the way he talks strikes me as odd. It reminds me of the way Iranians used to talk about their leaders when I lived there — that mixture of resentment and awe (resentment for the way the country was run; awe for the fact that it was run at all, that anyone had managed to overcome the impossible circumstances, the challenges we faced from inside and out) that begrudging, spiteful admiration one feels for a worthy adversary. Even his choice of words, calling Ahmadinejad a weasel — is singularly Iranian.

Back on the air, I watch him throw switches and talk on his cell phone as he follows the images on CNN. He moves briskly, with confidence, I can do all this and much more just give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. He has the demeanor of someone who is accustomed to staying on his toes all the time, who doesn’t take success for granted. He doesn’t have the jaded quality, the I’m tired when I get up in the morning air of so many Iranian men who have lived in the West for a good while.

At the next break, I ask him how long ago he left Iran.

“Four years.”

“Is that all?” Suzi exclaims. “You left only four years ago?”

Suzi’s reaction is understandable: These days, it’s rare to meet an Iranian who hasn’t been living abroad for at least a decade. But for me, it makes perfect sense, defines what I’ve sensed but could not quite put my fingers on: He’s more Iranian, still, than Iranian American. He works quickly, half a dozen tasks at once, because that’s how people work in Iran. He thinks of Ahmadinejad not in general terms, as a lunatic who is a threat to international peace (which is how the rest of us old-timers think of him), but as a lunatic whose actions and decisions have a direct influence over the individual’s daily life. He’s disappointed at the performance of Columbia’s president because he still believes, as we all did back in Iran, that the head of such a mighty institution would easily overpower a working-class former mayor of a Middle Eastern city who goes around with an unshaved beard and whose idea of formal attire is a zip-up windbreaker with dirty cuffs.

“Yup,” the technician nods. “And I go back all the time to visit. But I don’t think I’ll ever live there again. I think I’m going to stay in Los Angeles. I almost like it here.”

At 9 p.m., the show over, we shake hands and say goodbye. I tell him that Los Angeles is an acquired taste; it grows on you till you can’t live anywhere else. I say I envy other Iranians who, as of late, have been able to travel back and forth freely and without apparent threat from the regime’s police and judicial system. I couldn’t do that because of the books I’ve written. He nods pensively. Right when I turn around to leave he says, “They’re still there, you know.”

I don’t understand.

“The places you write about in the book,” he explains, “Sorrento Café, the park on Pahlavi Avenue, the Square of the Pearl Canon — they’re all there, just like you describe them.”

I look at him then and think how strange, that this young man has seen — can still go back and see — all the places that, for me, have long been only images on a distant plain. How my memories, so old they are nearly indistinguishable from my imagination, are actual places — real and concrete and tangible — to people like him. Later, as I drive past Universal Studios to get to the freeway, I think of Sorrento Cafe, and of the character I’ve created and sent to sit on its terrace in Tehran — a man I’ve named “The Opera Singer” because that’s what he wants to do in life, though he can’t sing and has never been to the opera. He sits in the cafe every afternoon, sipping iced coffee and reading government propaganda in yesterday’s newspaper as he waits to be discovered by a person of influence. He stays till dark when the waiters chase him away, watches the sun set over the city before he leaves. Below him the street chokes with traffic, old city buses hiss and sigh and exhale dozens of working-class men every time they come to a stop, dark-eyed young women throw one last glance at the lovers they have met on the sly, away from the eyes of their parents, in the narrow, shady back streets surrounding their school, squeeze into orange taxis and pray they will not be spotted by someone they know.

How strange, I think, to be told that the fairy-tale places I have invented really exist — that they look the same as I’ve described them, are populated by living characters I had thought existed only on my page.


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.

Briefs: Timerman says it’s not his father’s Argentina, Delshad backs off Beverly Hills Iranian dives


A Different Argentina for Timerman and Jews

Ambassador Hector Timerman assured a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders at a black-tie dinner last month that the Argentina he represents is not his father’s Argentina. For Timerman, now his country’s consul general in New York, the comparison was a literal one.

Exactly 30 years ago, his father, Jacobo Timerman, was kidnapped and tortured by the ruling military junta and imprisoned for 30 months.

His crime as publisher of the newspaper La Opinion was to attack the human rights violations by the junta during its “Dirty War” against internal opponents. His transgressions were especially heinous, in the eyes of the junta, because Timerman was a Jew. So now the son’s very presence and rank testifies to the change in Argentina. To reinforce the point, the evening’s host, Jorge Lapsenson, Argentina’s consul general in Los Angeles, is also Jewish.

In an interview during his recent visit, Timerman said that the Argentinean Jewish community of 250,000 remained one of the strongest in the Diaspora after “suffering a lot during the military dictatorship,” which ruled from 1976 to 1983.

By contrast, the country’s current president, Nestor Kirchner, has “expressed his strong admiration for Israel and the Jewish community,” Timerman said, as has his wife, Sen. Cristina Kirchner, widely expected to succeed her husband in October’s election.

The Journal asked Timerman about a report issued recently by the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Argentina (DAIA), the country’s Jewish umbrella group, which documented a rise of 40 percent in anti-Semitic incidents, from 373 in 2005 to 586 in 2006.

While acknowledging the increase, Timerman said that almost all the incidents consisted of graffiti and swastika daubings, were unorganized, and seemed in line with a rise in anti-Semitism throughout much of the world. He added that unlike the situation in Europe, the incidents were perpetrated largely by skinheads, not by radicalized young Muslims. “There is no hostility between Jews and Muslims in Argentina, and we enjoy good relations,” Timerman said. He also said it was important to him, as an Argentinean and as a Jew, that the report by a Jewish organization also highlighted discrimination against other minority groups, including Chinese, Koreans, Bolivians, Gypsies, Muslims and gays.

One remaining open wound is the bombing 13 years ago of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which left 86 dead and 300 wounded. The drawn-out investigation is continuing, but the perpetrators, believed to be Iranian agents, have not been brought to justice, nor have the terrorists who blew up the Israeli embassy in the Argentinean capital in 1992.

Argentina was one of the first nations to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, and the Jewish state has been enriched by two waves of aliyah in the past 40 years, said Timerman.

The first was spurred by the targeting of young Jewish men during the junta’s rule, and the second, in 2001, by the collapse of the Argentine economy. Timerman estimated that about 70,000 former Argentine now live in Israel.

Hector Timerman himself has carried on his father’s legacy as a journalist, co-founder of Human Rights Watch, and board member of the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience.

Participating in the event at the residence of Consul General Lapsenson were Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and leaders of local Jewish organizations, which have maintained close ties with their counterparts in Argentina over the years and have been in the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism and discrimination.

The honorees were the American Jewish Committee, represented by Bruce Ramer and Sherry Weinman, Anti-Defamation League and director Amanda Susskind, Simon Wiesenthal Center and associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and president John Fishel, and B’nai B’rith International.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Delshad Shelves Plans for Iran Divestment in Beverly Hills

Following his State of the City address at Graystone Mansion in Beverly Hills on Aug. 30, Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, an Iranian Jew, said the city will not pursue an additional divestment measure for city savings accounts..

“After doing the research, we discovered that a divestment bill is not needed because all of the city savings accounts are invested in Treasury bills and not stocks,” Delshad said.

In July the City approved of plans for a measure requiring city employee pension funds to divest millions of dollars in investments with companies doing business with Iran. On July 12, the Beverly Hills City Council had approved a resolution supporting California Assembly Bill 221, the statewide legislation, which would require state pension funds to divest an estimated $24 billion in investments from more than 280 companies doing business with Iran. That bill has received wide support from local Iranians of various faiths and was unanimously approved by the California State Assembly in early June. State officials who introduced the bill said they expect it will be signed into law by late September.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Legislature Passes ADL-Sponsored Immigrants Resolution

The California State Assembly last week passed a resolution, already adopted by the Senate, that urges federal, state and local government officials to protect the human rights of immigrants and denounce xenophobia in public policy.

The non-binding resolution, authored by Assemblyman lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), is based on a declaration drafted by the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and adopted by the Los Angeles City Council last December. The effort grew out of the ADL’s Latino Jewish Roundtable and was supported by, among other organizations, the local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“Without negating the need for safe and secure borders, nor aligning ourselves with partisan politics on the issue, ADL stands strong in the desire to support basic human rights and fair treatment of immigrants,” regional director Amanda Susskind said in a statement.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

The wrong Zionist response to refugees


It’s hard to escape the impression that the Olmert government is being humane to the refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region for appearance’s sake only. I say this because the government is being amazingly cruel to the refugees from southern Sudan, who are far more numerous than the Darfurians, and who escaped a genocide that took many, many more lives than the one going on in Darfur.

The genocide in Darfur is just better known. The genocide in Darfur has also been taken up as a cause by American Jewish organizations. If Israel expelled the few hundred refugees here from Darfur, it would be a public relations catastrophe. But if Israel expels the 1,000 or so refugees here from southern Sudan, who cares?

Like the Darfurians, the refugees from southern Sudan saw their villages burned and their families slaughtered by Arab terrorosts. Like the Darfurians, they escaped north to Egypt, where they endured years of anti-black racism, brutality and feudal exploitation before crossing Sinai and straggling over the border into Israel.

Some don’t make it; they get shot to death by Egyptian soldiers in Sinai or, if they give themselves up, get beaten viciously.

The refugees began arriving here in 2004 and, until now, the government has refrained from sending them back to Egypt because Egypt didn’t want them, and because Egypt might deport them back to Sudan, where they faced death at the hands of the government or its genocidal marauders.

But now everything’s changed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has agreed to take back the Sudanese refugees and pledged not to deport them back home. So the Israeli government is going to take Mubarak up on his offer.

“For the first few days, the Egyptians will give us a big welcome, and then, when no one’s paying attention anymore, the security forces will do whatever they want to us and no one will know. We’ll either be killed or put in jail for the rest of our lives,” says “George,” a young southern Sudanese survivor who spent nearly a year in Israeli prisons before being allowed to work in the Eilat hotels.

There are hundreds of Sudanese refugees working there with him, all technically under house arrest.

“Everybody is really worried,” he says.

Egypt treats black Africans like garbage, like slaves, and shoots them when they try to escape. Now Egypt is considered by Israel a fit destination for these black Africans, all of whom have been through a holocaust of their own.

I’m waiting for the Israel lobby in the United States to tell Olmert he can’t do this. I’m also waiting for the pro-Israel evangelical Christian organizations to pressure Olmert to change his mind. Of the nearly 1,200 Sudanese refugees here, about 700 are Christians, according to Sigal Rozen, head of Hotline for Migrant Workers, the main Israeli NGO helping these people.

All, or virtually all, of the 700 Christians — “George” being one of them — are from southern Sudan, not Darfur, so they’re on the list of deportees. Israel, which gets the most extraordinary support from the multiracial world of evangelical Christianity, is now going to send 700 Christians back to a Muslim country that persecuted them because they’re black, and that might even send them back to another Muslim country that committed genocide against them because they’re black and Christian.

There’s no debate that something has to be done to stop the increasing flow of refugees, Sudanese and others, crossing the border into Israel. We obviously can’t have an “open door” policy — there are millions of Sudanese refugees living miserably in Egypt.

But the question is: Can we afford to take in more than the estimated 200-400 who originate in Darfur, and I think the answer is yes. I think we can afford to take in at least a few-thousand Sudanese refugees – southerners and Darfurians, Christians and Muslims. The Israeli hotel operators in Eilat say they’re the finest people, hard-working and extremely eager to improve their education, which was stunted by the genocide(s) in their homeland. These people risked their lives to come to this country, they’re grateful as can be to Israel for taking them in, and in the Israeli-Arab conflict, they’re about as pro-Israel (and anti-Arab) as anyone anywhere.

But I know I’m in a very small minority on this issue. Israelis think this country should only be for Jews, that Israel should worry about Jewish refugees only, except for maybe a few Vietnamese boat people and Darfurians. Otherwise, the overwhelming consensus is that there are too many non-Jews in this country already, the demographic bogeyman is going to get us, and besides, these Sudanese will never be more than the wretched of the Israeli earth, they’ll never be accepted, they’re better off somewhere else.

This is a distortion of Zionism, this is turning the ideology of a Jewish state into the ideology of a Jewish separatist state. The Law of Return says any Jew can become an Israeli citizen, but Israelis think it also says that no non-Jew can become an Israeli citizen, and the Law of Return says no such thing. If the Sudanese could never hope to be accepted in Israel, never allowed to become more than menial laborers on the furthest margins of society, whose fault is that — theirs or ours? Instead of “protecting” them from our xenophobia, why don’t we just become less xenophobic?

If Israel goes ahead and sends 1,000 southern Sudanese refugees back to live under the Pharaoh, after what they went through in Sudan, then once and for all we Jews ought to get off our high horse about how “the world stood silent” when we needed help.

Israelis fear anti-Semitism imported from Russia


Ari Ackerman, a student from Switzerland, was walking home along the Tel Aviv beach after a late-night swim when he and a friend were jumped by a gang singing Nazi songs and displaying swastika tattoos.

The perpetrators, a group of Russian-speaking teenagers, eventually ran off. Ackerman and his friend, their faces bruised and bloodied, set off to the closest police station only to have their case shrugged off.

“Israel is a country that faces the same problems any other country faces,” Ackerman said, trying to make sense of what he experienced. “There is a phenomenon of neo-Nazism, even if it is fringe, but to acknowledge it is to go against the country’s own narrative.”

In recent years, sporadic acts of anti-Semitism have hit Israel, most of them carried out by disaffected immigrant youths from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Although the youths came to Israel under the Law of Return, they are among those who identify not as Jews but as ethnic Russians. Under Israel’s Law of Return, a cornerstone of Israel’s identity as a haven for all Jews, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent is permitted to immigrate and be granted citizenship.

Experts say the perpetrators of such acts feel rebuffed and marginalized by Israeli society, so they turn their furor into the same anti-Semitism with which they may have been tormented in their countries of birth.

Recent incidents occurred at a school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where its mezuzahs were torn down and burned. About three months ago, a club for Russian-speaking immigrant veterans of World War II was desecrated with swastikas.

Zalman Gilichinsky, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova, started a center for victims of anti-Semitic attacks or harassment.

“Neo-Nazism is the same development they see in Russia and they transplant it here,” he said, referring to the youth.

Gilichinsky said he has been frustrated by what he sees as the relative lack of seriousness with which Israel has taken the issue.

Knesset hearings, however, have been held, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption says it is working to reach the type of disconnected young immigrants who might be drawn to committing such acts. Officials also stress that the numbers involved in such activities are very few and not at all representative of most young immigrants from the FSU.

Gilichinsky claims Israel is embarrassed by the issue, which he said stems from too many non-Jews being allowed into Israel under the Law of Return.

“Israel wants to maintain its image as a refuge from anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, so they don’t want to publicize anything that would go against that image,” he said.

Gilichinsky said that according to the calls his center receives, there are almost daily incidents. They are exacerbated, he said, by connections forged online between young immigrants here and their counterparts in the FSU through neo-Nazi Web sites and chat rooms.

Arieh Turkiments, an immigrant from Vilna, is among those who contacted the organization after he was slapped in the face by another immigrant and cursed for being a Jew. He was standing outside a Jerusalem yeshiva, where he had been attending classes on Judaism.

“It is a terrible feeling here in the Land of Israel that we have to hear such insults,” Turkiments’ wife, Maria, said. “The reality is that it is sometimes worse being here than in the Diaspora.”

Maria Turkiments herself took issue with the Law of Return.

“It lets all sorts of people in who should not be here,” she said.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director-general of the Jewish People Policy Institute think tank, downplayed notions that Israel might be facing anything close to a phenomenon when it comes to imported anti-Semitism.

“It’s not really significant. This is a fringe issue,” Bar-Yosef said. “When you have major waves of aliyah, you are going to have members of families of Jews who are not Jewish.”
Part of the problem, he said, “comes from suffering the trauma of moving from one place to another.”

“It should be monitored and anti-Semitic acts should be dealt with everywhere, but it is not a real problem in Israel,” Bar-Yosef said, arguing that most immigrants from the FSU integrate well into Israeli society.

Sara Cohen, director of social services at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, said those youth at risk either do not see themselves as Jews or are not considered Jewish.

“These are youth with a confused identity,” Cohen said. “In Russia they are called Jews and in Israel they are called goyim. Part of the confusion over identity can lead them to feel disconnected.”

The ministry sponsors several programs to help immigrant youth at risk feel more integrated into Israeli society.

Roughly one-quarter of immigrants who have come to Israel since the major wave of immigration began from the FSU in the early 1990s are not considered Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law. In Israel, only Orthodox conversions are considered valid.

Alex Selsky, a Jewish Agency for Israel spokesman for the Russian language media who emigrated from Russia in 1993, said if Israel accepted Reform and Conservative conversions, many more immigrants from the FSU would try to convert. He said Jewish education courses such as Nativ, sponsored jointly by the Jewish Agency and the army, are one way young immigrant soldiers from the FSU are forging a stronger connection to both Israel and their Jewish heritage.

David Zelventsky runs a museum at an immigrant club in Hadera about Jews who fought for the Red Army during World War II. He said much still needs to be done to tackle anti-Semitism around the world, including in Israel. It was hard for him to see the swastikas and slurs against Jews spray-painted on the center’s walls, but he was not necessarily surprised.

“I’ve seen many things in my lifetime,” said Zelventsky, whose father was a World War II veteran. “What I know is that it is too early to lay down arms in the battle against anti-Semitism.”

An inadvertent gift


Maya Nahor learned she wasn’t Jewish from an Israeli bureaucrat.

Three years later, as she tells the story, she still cries.

She was 19 years old and had just arrived in Tel Aviv from Spain, having left her family behind for the first time. She was alone in a country that she’d dreamed of as a haven.

And up until that moment, the State of Israel had reached out to her with remarkable kindness and generosity — allowing her to begin to make aliyah by providing transportation to leave home and financial help to start a new life.

Nahor was escaping a bad situation: Her parents were poor; their Madrid neighborhood was infested with drugs and hatred. They were the only Jews in the area, and their neighbors — both Muslim and Christian — taunted them. Her father was stabbed during an anti-Semitic attack.

Nahor’s father is an artist and musician, her mother a nurse. Her father was born in Israel, her mother in Germany. The oldest of three girls, Nahor attended a Jewish day school before her two sisters were born and her parents could no longer afford the tuition. When she transferred to public school, she had her first dose of anti-Semitism.

“I didn’t feel different,” she told me the other day, sitting in the offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, where she’d come to share her story with a group of philanthropists. But it came up when she refused to eat a pork lunch. She was about 12. “I said, ‘I don’t eat this, I’m Jewish,’ and from that day forward I was sad I said that,” she remembered.

In public, Nahor did her best to fit in, but at home she was happy to be herself. She and her father regularly attended synagogue on Shabbat. She said she never really questioned why her mother didn’t join them.

Eventually, the ugliness at school made her flee — she went to a boarding school where, she said, “I decided not to be Jewish.” But it didn’t feel right: “I was missing my family; I was missing my grandmother’s hamentaschen. I wanted to find myself. I talked to God every day of my life, and he sent me a message.”

Nahor dreamt of taking an airplane to a far distant place. Her father told her she was dreaming of Israel; he said, “You need to make aliyah.”

It seemed so easy. She went to the Jewish Agency office in Madrid, and the woman who helped her was the mother of a girl from her day school. She got a free ticket to Israel, and she took with her a sealed letter of support from her rabbi.

But it was that letter that stopped the magic, if not the process. According to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent — male or female — can become an Israeli citizen.

But you have to have a Jewish mother, or have gone through an Orthodox conversion under the guidance of an Orthodox rabbi, to get the full rights of citizenship of Jews — to be able to marry in Israel, for example.

The letter revealed that Nahor’s mother wasn’t Jewish, so the bureaucrat told Nahor that her identity card would say she was German, because that was what her mother was. Not Jewish. Not even Spanish.

“Who do you think you are to tell me this?” Nahor remembers asking the woman.

She didn’t know halacha or the rules of matrilineal descent; she never had questioned her identity. Nahor called her parents in Spain, feeling betrayed. Her parents calmed her, encouraged her to continue to embrace Israel, to convert if she wanted, and to find her way.

Returning to Spain wasn’t an option; she didn’t have a ticket back, and it was clear there was more opportunity for her in Israel than back home.

To be raised as a Jew and to learn that you’re not in the eyes of Israel is a painful experience, but it is not uncommon among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Europe and Africa; the Jewish Agency Web site states that it has brought more than 1 million new immigrants to Israel since 1989 and a quarter of those are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Nahor stayed. She studied Hebrew at an ulpan and then moved to Eilat for a time, to work as a waitress. She was searching.

“I saw people my age in the army,” she said. “I wanted an education, and I learned that I could get one in the army.” So she joined, even though her two best friends back in Madrid “thought I was crazy.”

On March 14, 2005, this pretty, naive young girl became a truck driver in the air force, carried a gun and signed up for a program for new immigrant soldiers called the Nativ Jewish Identity Program, founded in 2001, which offers an intensive track to conversion. For several weeks, while still on active service, from morning to night soldiers like Nahor can take classes in the Bible, Zionism and the State of Israel, philosophy and Jewish practice.

After one month of the program, they go back to soldiering, to have some time to think about their path. If they choose to continue, they go on to take two seminars, with more thinking time in between. If they continue throughout the program, they can go to a beit din and become halachically Jewish.

The Jewish Agency’s most recent statistics say that more than 5,800 soldiers have participated in the program, and more than 1,000 have completed conversion. Soldiers who are halachically Jewish who want to learn more about their heritage also can join the program.

When I first met Nahor in Jerusalem in May 2006, she was still in the program, and she seemed sad as she told her story. Her life didn’t get easier after that: She completed her conversion in August 2006, just as war was breaking out. She told me on her visit to Los Angeles that she’d had a boyfriend, Yohan Zervib, who’d made aliyah from France and whom she’d met in Nativ. Her voice dropped as she described the mission he was sent on, into Lebanon, into a house believed to hold a weapons cache.

Sacco, Vanzetti and the Not-So-Great United States


Every generation or so, America goes through emotional convulsions, when fear of foreign and domestic enemies erodes the nation’s sense of tolerance and its respect for civil liberties.

The 1950s witch hunts of the McCarthy era were preceded by the Red scare of the 1920s, when millions of people and their government became convinced that wild-eyed Communists, anarchists and assorted aliens were about to overthrow the American way of life.

Symbolic of the decade was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose long imprisonment and ultimate execution became a cause célébre. The case triggered worldwide protests and cemented in many minds a picture of the United States as ruled by heartless capitalists bent on oppressing the working man.

Exactly 80 years after the Italian immigrants were sentenced to death in Boston on April 9, 1927, a documentary on the trial that shook the world is opening in American theaters.

In the frontlines of the fight to save the two anarchists were American Jews, who could readily identify with the two workers from a foreign land and their radical ideas.

Felix Frankfurter, then a young Harvard law professor and later Supreme Court justice, argued passionately for the men’s innocence. Over the years, Jewish writers and artists kept the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti alive, among them Ben Shahn, who produced a series of 23 paintings of the men and their trial in the early 1930s.

The ordeal of Sacco, “a good shoemaker,” and Vanzetti, “a poor fish peddler,” in the latter’s words, began after the 1920 murder and robbery of two factory employees who were carrying a large payroll.

It was not a good time to be an anarchist, especially after the movement’s radical wing had carried out a series of high-profile assassinations in Europe and of President William McKinley in the United States.

A few weeks after the crime, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and found guilty after a two-week jury trial. Over a seven-year period, the two men were held in prison and their appeals rejected, even after a third man confessed to the murder.

A blue-ribbon panel of three men, including the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T., upheld the original verdict and the two immigrants were executed Aug. 23, 1927.

The film, “Sacco and Vanzetti,” skillfully uses archival footage, artwork, music, poetry and film clips to trace the legal and political aspects of the case, and the emotions it aroused. Actors John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub read excerpts from the moving letters the two men wrote during their seven-year imprisonment, including one of Vanzetti’s last letters to his son.

“If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men,” he wrote. “I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident.”

Filmmaker Paul Miller, who spent four years and a great deal of borrowed money to create the documentary, points to his own Jewish background as a catalyst in his effort.

“My own grandfather came to Boston as an immigrant, and like many Jewish and Italian newcomers, was brutalized by the cops,” Miller said during a phone interview. “My father was born in the Boston Jewish ghetto, and my mother couldn’t go to college because of the quota system.”

Miller, 45, was born in Canoga Park but now lives in New York.

“To many people, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was a life-changing experience, which opened their eyes to many uncomfortable truths about the United States,” he said.

Even after 80 years, the trial and its verdict are still being debated and analyzed. One study concludes that Sacco, at least, was guilty of the crime.

Miller leaves no doubt of his own sympathies and his film’s relevance to our days.

“As in the Red scare of Sacco and Vanzetti’s time, present-day Americans have allowed fear and jingoism to erode our civil liberties, scapegoat immigrants and compromise our judicial system,” he said.

“Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. “Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information on the film, visit www.firstrunfeatures.com or www.willowpondfilms.com.

Scary ‘Monster House’ comes direct from the basement


When Gil Kenan received a call from Robert Zemeckis in 2002, “I freaked out. I kind of flailed my arms and legs,” he said.

This Sunday, Feb. 25, Kenan’s feature directorial debut, “Monster House,” a Zemeckis/Steven Spielberg production, will vie for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards ceremony.

But back in 2002, the Israeli American Kenan was 26 and a graduate of UCLA’s film school with just one student short to his name. He had made his 10-minute short — about a house that comes alive — in the kitchen of his Pico-Robertson apartment, as eviction notices came and went on his front door.

Although the film had won the prestigious UCLA Spotlight Award, Kenan was understandably “shocked” when Zemeckis called with an offer to direct a movie — this one about a more monstrous anthropomorphic dwelling.

After Kenan had finished freaking out, he says his “Israeli chutzpah” kicked in and he arrived at his first “House” meeting with sketches he had drawn of the titular mansion, including cockeyed window eyes and a sagging porch mouth. He also had ideas to transform the original screenplay, which had called for the house’s elderly owner, Mr. Nebbercracker, to die and animate the house. Instead, Kenan suggested a new character — Nebbercracker’s wife — a former circus performer who dies in a freak accident and becomes the Monster House.Kenan was virtually hired on the spot.

He says his chutzpah continued to sustain him through “House’s” three-year motion-capture animation shoot, which he likens to “the ultimate film school” with Zemeckis and Spielberg.

For the film’s characters and design, Kenan at times drew on his own childhood memories of creepy houses and neighbors. When he lived in Ramat Gan, he says there was a dark, shuttered house across the street from his family’s apartment; a weird woman sometimes shouted from within.

When Kenan’s family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, an elderly custodian terrified the children who lived in his Los Angeles apartment building.

“This guy hated his wife, he hated children, sound and movement, and whenever one of those things encroached on his peace he’d let us know by smashing his cane,” Kenan recalled. “If we left any of our toys outside, he’d take them and we’d never see them again.”

The fictional Mr. Nebbercracker also confiscates toys — and looks more than a bit like that cranky custodian.

“I designed the character with the same sagging pants on a withered body, the same exaggerated and veiny hands,” Kenan said.

He adds that the greatest challenge was achieving the correct tone for “House,” which he wanted to “be scary enough not to coddle kids but not so much that they need counseling.” The result is a dark fairy tale with a happy ending, like something out of the Brothers Grimm.

Kenan feels like he’s living his own Hollywood fairy tale.

“I’m still pinching myself,” he said.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. on ABC.

Russian Singer Goes From Defector to Cantor


“I was born in the 1960s into a typical Soviet Jewish family,” says Svetlana Portnyansky. “We never went to synagogue, never were religious. At family events at home, we sang Jewish songs sometimes, but we’d close all the doors to make sure no one heard us.”

Given Portnyansky’s non-Jewish upbringing, it’s odd that this interview is taking place at Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, where she’s the cantor. How did she go from being a popular singer in the Soviet Union to a defector who had to leave her family behind, to a cantor at a shul in Orange County?

Like just about everything else in Portnyansky’s life, the answer has to do with music. Her father was “a musician at heart” who made a living as an industrial engineer in Moscow. “He taught me piano,” she says. “I grew up with music and absorbed it in my soul. I knew that I was born to be a professional singer. So I went to the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduated with honors and became a singer who specializes in Jewish songs.”

After graduating, she was invited to sing at the Moscow Jewish Theater. This was in the late 1980s, during Perestroika, and it was the theater’s grand reopening after having been closed for 40 years.

“I sang a solo concert,” Portnyansky says, “and my musical career took off. I became a public figure, sang on nationwide radio and television. It was wonderful to be popular, but it was also dangerous: I received threatening letters saying things like, ‘Jews are supposed to be in Israel. Go home! This is our country!'”

Portnyansky felt it was time to leave. “I didn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. I couldn’t see how I was going to live that way, being threatened. Besides, I’d always wanted to go to America.”

Ever since she was a little girl, she says, she dreamed of coming to the United States. “My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade.”
The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.

“My musicians and I got theatrical exchange visas. I knew I was going to defect. I talked it over with my family. I said to them, ‘It’s our only chance. I have to take it now.’ They understood. They blessed me.” Portnyansky was in her mid-20s then, with a 4-year-old son who stayed in Moscow with her husband and her parents.

“In the U.S. we had some very successful concerts, East Coast to West Coast. The tour lasted two months. When it was over, I told my musicians I would go back [to the Soviet Union], but not just yet. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going back.”

She defected, and during those first few months in New York it was very difficult not being with her family. But she had some money, and she had friends who let her stay in their place. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she says. “I called my family very often. It was also a period of concern, whether I would make the right choices. I was determined not to do certain things, like wash dishes or sing at a restaurant.”

After much thought, she decided to pursue a second Jewish musical track, one that paralleled her pop singing career: She would study to become a cantor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In order to become a legal resident of the United States, she contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and told them that she could not go back to the Soviet Union. She showed them the threatening letters she’d received. HIAS took up her case.

During the months she was in New York without her family, Portnyansky got word that her father had died in Moscow. She couldn’t risk going to the funeral. “I didn’t have the green card,” she says. “I was afraid I might not be permitted to come back to the United States.”

But in early 1992, Portnyansky’s family found a way to join her: Her husband, son and mother came to the United States on tourist visas. They moved to Southern California, where Portnyansky gave birth to a second son and continued her cantorial studies.

During the early 1990s, though she was not yet a legal resident, HIAS’s advocacy bore results: She was permitted to work in the U.S. She gave “jazzy, cabaret-style” concerts; and, after completing her liturgical training, she started to work as a cantor. “I was busy at that time,” she says. “My only problem was that I couldn’t leave the United States.”

Getting her green card took more than five years. She later found out that the process had been delayed because her file had been lost. After Portnyansky became a legal resident in 1996, her first trip was to Israel. Since then she’s continued her dual career: cantor in Newport Beach … and

Living and Working [Il]legally in America — It’s Not Just for Latinos Anymore


Hardly a day goes by without some news about them — the undocumented. Congress debates the issue of how to handle them, and pundits argue even as the number of illegal immigrants grows. Supposedly, there are more than 12 million of them in the United States. Thinking about them, we tend to see the shadowy figures on this week’s cover: Mexicans or Central Americans scurrying across the road at night, abandoned by their coyote in the desert dust. They pick our fruit, cut our lawns and bus our dishes. But what does illegal immigration have to do with us?

More than you might think. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), during 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were deported or about to be deported. If that many Israelis were caught, it stands to reason that there are many thousands more — in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the United States — who have not yet been located by authorities. And we know from interviews we conducted that — besides Israelis — there are many Jews from Latin America and elsewhere who also fall into this category.

Morris Ardoin, who handles media relations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), said that he knows of no way to determine how many Jews are in the United States without a valid visa or working in contravention of the law. “Making a guess on that would be a shot in the dark,” he said. “Like asking how many stars in the sky.”

Maybe there aren’t quite as many as there are stars in the sky, but there are undoubtedly many thousands of illegal Jewish aliens throughout the United States and in Los Angeles, and they have their own stories to tell. The following are three very different stories of the Jewish experience of illegal immigration.

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President


Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

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