Who is a Jew, anyway?

Perhaps nobody who reads book reviews in The Jewish Journal would ever ask herself or himself, “Am I a Jew?” Perhaps the act of reading The Jewish Journal answers the question. After all, would somebody unsure of her or his Judaism seek out such a publication? On the other hand, maybe seekers are attracted to The Jewish Journal looking for clues, if not definitive answers.

Probably even sophisticated demographics available to the publisher of The Jewish Journal cannot reveal definitively what percentage of the readers are devout and what percentage are uncertain about their religious identity.

The conundrum I have posed in those opening sentences reflects the book being reviewed here, “Am I a Jew? Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself” by Theodore Ross (Hudson Street Press, $25.95).

Theodore Ross, a journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y., is unsure at the beginning of the book whether he considers himself Jewish. Spoiler alert: By the end of the book, Ross is still uncertain. Perhaps the value is in the quest, because the question is ultimately unanswerable for lots and lots of spiritual folks with at least a tad of Jewish heritage.

Ross is a writer comfortable with humor, much of it grounded in self-deprecation. Writing effective humor is a rare gift. Devout Jews might not appreciate the author’s light touch, as when he shares what he calls an “old joke, which goes “The history of Judaism can be summed up in nine words: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

Deep in his brain, though, Ross knows the answer to the question raised by the title matters—maybe to the point of life or death. As he notes in a telling sentence, the title question might sound silly, “except millions have lost their lives depending on their response.” That is an obvious allusion to Nazi Germany, but its meaning goes way beyond two or three decades of recent European history.

So, who is this guy Ross (apparently born Theodore Rosenzweig), an author who dares write a book that some readers will surely find unforgivably irreverent? Well, let’s listen to him, in the opening paragraph of the book:

“I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small [Mississippi] town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also required me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to…For the years of my childhood in Mississippi, I lived a minor sort of double life: fake Christian in Mississippi and secular Jew in Manhattan, where I returned for holidays and summer break.”

To an extent, Ross in retrospect defends his mother’s subterfuge, noting her perhaps legitimate concern that a Mississippi town “would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish.”

As the Hebrew and Yiddish speakers among Ross’ ancestors died, the younger generations professed a faith that was no faith, “but rather a culture, a sensibility, a form of humor, an array of tastes, a canon of literature, a philosophy of work and education.”

As Ross reached adulthood, he thought any issues stemming from his faux conversion had disappeared. He occasionally wrote about Jews, just as he wrote about many other topics. He felt no stake in those stories.

Then subtle changes crept in. “I began to realize just how uncomfortable I [had become] with most practitioners of my birth religion,” Ross confesses. I worr[ied] that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder[ed] why I would want their acceptance in the first place.”

The result of the subtle changes: “a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.” Hence, Ross felt compelled to look into his mind, and try to figure out the answer to what became to question of the book’s title.

Ross explains some of his personal confusion by suggesting Judaism seems to sow such confusion: “Do you speak Hebrew? Great if you do, but if you don’t you can still be a Jew. Were you bar mitzvahed? Nice (such a good boy!) but plenty of Jews weren’t. Kosher, not kosher; kosher at home; kosher only if there are no Catholics around; kosher except for bacon , except for shrimp, except for cheeseburgers, only on the good china, never in school, never when it’s embarrassing.”

During his quest as set out in the book, Ross seeks to understand differing varieties of Jewry in New Mexico, in Kansas City (on both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the river), and, of course, in the myriad boroughs of New York City as well as the precincts of Israel. The journeys are capably told and filled with interesting research into the varied religion called Judaism.

All that said, the exploration by Ross is most interesting when he travels inside his mind. “I have asked the question,” Ross writes in closing. “I will continue to do so. That will have to be enough.”

Steve Weinberg, a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications, is the author of eight nonfiction books. 

High Holy Days: Books for children and teens

“Oh No, Jonah!”

by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Jago (Kar-Ben: $7.95)Oh no, Jonah!

Those parents and teachers looking for a new twist on the story of Jonah (read yearly on Yom Kippur) need look no more. This latest version from children’s author Tilda Balsley sticks to the biblical text but is appropriate for very young children. The clever rhymes demand to be read out loud, such as after Jonah suggests that the frightened fisherman throw him into the sea: “Immediately, the weather cleared. / But things were worse than Jonah feared / ‘I wish I hadn’t volunteered.’ ” The vibrant, bold illustrations are truly stunning, and the artist’s interpretation of a huge, bright orange fish is probably more accurate than the usual depictions of whales. “A giant fish swam to his side / And stared at him all google-eyed. / Its mouth, humongous, opened wide / and, CHOMP! / He found himself inside.” Entertaining fun with a biblical message of forgiveness that is surely important to remember during the High Holy Days.

“It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah”

by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, illustrated by Laurel Molk (Jewish Lights: $18.99)

If your kids haven’t heard of Mitzvah Meerkat and all his animal friends, then it’s time to introduce them to this delightfully illustrated picture book. The authors were inspired by a well-known Talmud teaching relating the importance of various good deeds, such as honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping the needy, bringing peace between people  and more. The lively animal characters joyously perform many mitzvot that children can easily relate to, and the clever layout helps parents introduce the Jewish concepts of performing good deeds in an age-appropriate manner. The title refers to the rhythmic refrain that can be chanted for fun by kids during a story-time session, but the whimsical pen-and-ink watercolor drawings are the highlight of this engaging way to introduce children to acts of loving kindness. Thankfully not preachy or otherwise didactic, the lessons are cute and contemporary.  (The sheep are knitting scarves, the monkeys play on monkey bars, etc.) This is an excellent book for the preschool classroom, but the cuteness factor of the animals’ antics will ensure that parents at home will also get lots of pleasure in learning great Jewish values and passing them on to future generations.

“The Apple Tree’s Discovery” 

by Peninnah Schram and Rachayl Eckstein Davis, illustrated by Wendy W. Lee (Kar-Ben: $7.95)

Well-known author and storyteller Peninnah Schram reminds us in her afterword to this charming fable: “To find the star in the apple, you must turn it on its side and cut it in half. We must look hard to find the beautiful star in each of us, and sometimes it just takes a change of direction.” When a little apple tree notices that stars in the sky appear to be hanging from branches of the taller oak trees, she asks God to grant her wish to also have stars. Although God notes that her “fragrant blossoms fill the air” and her “branches offer a resting place for birds” she covets only what others have. But when God causes a wind to blow and suddenly her delicious apples hit the ground, they split open, exposing the beautiful star within. This sweet parable about appreciating God’s gifts and understanding our own uniqueness is a universal tale. It will be particularly memorable if you remember to read it before you slice those Rosh Hashanah apples — by turning them on their sides and finding that elusive star.

“Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids”

by Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights: $15.99)

Did you know God gave us superpowers? This inspirational guide/journal for kids (ages 8-12) shows us how “our God shares God’s powers with us so we can make our lives better and the lives of others better. When we learn how to use God’s superpowers, we become God’s partners — God’s superheroes — on earth.” Even though it sounds moralistic, it isn’t. In fact, it looks like fun. The paperback volume sets up prominent Jewish educator Ron Wolfson as a friendly uncle who asks you thought-provoking questions and lets you write down all your answers in your book. This book is a kids’ version of Wolfson’s 2006 adult book, “God’s To-Do List — 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth.” Divided into 10 chapters such as “Rest,” “Care,” “Give” or “Forgive,” it can serve as a young person’s means of truly understanding the ways he or she can bring goodness into our world. Wolfson is remarkably at ease with the sort of unaffected language that will appeal to young people. The book is attractively designed, the stories within are engaging, and the child’s urge to write in it will be irresistible. 

“Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens”

edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights: $24.99) Text messages

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin (author of “Putting God on the Guest List”) wants young people to know that the Torah is about their lives — even if they are teenagers. “Every passage of Torah has the potential to be someone’s personal story and teaching — and that definitely includes you as a teenager,” he writes. Rabbi Salkin serves as editor of this volume and he has gathered insights into each of the 54 Torah portions from more than 100 Jews of all denominations. Most are rabbis, but other contributors are well-known educators, authors or community leaders. Some of the names that would be familiar to Angelenos would be Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, Chazzan Danny Maseng, Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ron Wolfson, Ruth Messinger, Rabbi Spike Anderson, Rabbi Zoë Klein, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi William Cutter, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Joel Lurie Grishaver, Rabbi Denise Eger and Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz. Each short, two- to three-page essay is written in an engaging teen-centered style, such as one by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, which opens the discussion of Parshat Miketz with this line: “How do you know whom to trust and what is true? In Miketz, Pharaoh faces that problem.” Of course this is a wonderful resource for bar mitzvah students, but it can also serve as the first go-to book for families who enjoy sharing Torah insights at Shabbat or holiday meals.

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

The illusion of a solution

Of all the incendiary books that have been written about Israel over the last year or so, none is quite as fiery as “Israel: The Will to Prevail” by Danny Danon (Palgrave Macmillan: $26).

Danon is a young activist in the Likud Party and serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset. He agrees with the various critics and commentators on the left on only a single point: “We are now at a critical juncture in our brief but momentous history,” Danon writes, “and our very survival is once again at stake.” Unlike Peter Beinart or Jeremy Ben-Ami, however, Danon rejects the notion that the United States (or, by implication, American Jews) is entitled to tell Israel how to conduct its affairs.  

“Israel must take firm hold of its own destiny, with a ready willingness to act decisively on its own behalf,” he insists. “[H]istory shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are not only better for Israel but for world peace as a whole.”

Lest anyone mistake his political colors, however, Danon pointedly insists on using the words “Jewish communities” and “residents of these communities” in place of “settlers” and “settlements.” The West Bank, of course, is referred to as Judea and Samaria. “The Jewish people’s claim to Israel,” he writes, “is older and stronger than any other people’s in the history of the world.” Indeed, Danon presents his fierce little book as nothing less than “a road map for Jewish victory — achieved with or without backing from her allies.” 

Danon insists that it is in the strategic best interest of the United States to support Israel, by which he plainly means the hard-line policies of Likud. “It’s an unfortunate fact that Israel has grown more distant from the United States,” he writes, “and I believe this puts both our countries in peril.” And he cites President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as advocates of what he calls “the growing acceptance in the United States and abroad of a left-wing, so-called progressive position on Israel” and “a one-sided view of Palestinian aspirations.”

“Discomforting behavior continues to come from the White House, which makes Israelis wonder whether the United States is really on our side,” Danon writes, “and strengthens the case that we must be confident to take matters, when necessary, in our own hands despite world or U.S. opinion.”

Nowadays, of course, the demarcation between left and right is blurry. Who, after all, would disagree with Danon’s assertion that “Israel’s experience with Gaza demonstrates the folly of those who say that the only pathway to peace involves handing over our land to the Palestinians.” Yet Danon also insists on salting his prose with fighting words — “our land” is a phrase that simply ignores the fundamental question of where the boundary is to be drawn between Arabs and Jews. Even when he claims that he “actively welcome[s] a healthy debate on the subject of Israel and the United States,” it is hard to discern where “healthy debate” leaves off and “criticism that demonizes Israel” begins.

The conclusion he reaches is that Israel cannot afford to take the risk of a compromise with the Palestinians: “Over and over again,” he complains, “Israelis are exhorted to concede more and more, while the Arabs are only asked to stop incitement and killing.” And, crucially, he argues that “any manufactured claim to a Palestinian state” is trumped by the inevitability that “such an entity would be a serious and ongoing threat for Israel.”

Danon calls instead for “a three-state solution,” an antique approach to peace-making in the Middle East that would assign sovereignty over the Palestinians to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Clearly, his plan is not likely to succeed, and I suspect that’s the real reason why he advocates it: “Before we can make the three-state solution a reality,” he warns, Israel must be afforded “real recognition” by the existing states, and “Israel must take on and defeat those who are against us — Hamas, Hezbollah, and others.” 

“Israel: The Will to Prevail” leaves me in   exactly the same place I found myself after reading books by his adversaries in the progressive wing of Zionism — it’s a locked room in which the doors and windows are only a trompe l’oeil on solid walls. How Israel and the Jewish people are to extricate themselves from our unhappy predicament remains unexplained.

Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht.

Berlin Cantata: Distinct voices

A cantata is a musical composition typically composed of solos, duets, and other forms for voice, sung with instrumental accompaniment. Thus framed, the title of Jeffrey Lewis’s latest novel, “Berlin Cantata” (Haus, $15, ISBN 978-1-907822-43-8), aligns nicely with the book’s structure, since nearly every chapter is presented as a monologue voiced by one of 13 characters.

The book’s narrative present takes place in the early 1990s, in the city and environs of Berlin, with a considerable focus on a certain house in the country. But if the city’s Third Reich history continues to influence the lives of Lewis’s characters many decades later, so does the postwar and recent Cold War past, with an emphasis on the legacy of East German communism.

Again, the chief linking element is the country house, whose ownership shifted from Jews to Nazis to Communists, who utilized it as an East German Writers Union retreat. The tale that Lewis spins therefore involves layers of possession and reclamation, with a chain of events set in motion by Holly Anholt, the American daughter of the house’s pre-Holocaust Jewish owners. This plot raises a mix of moral questions. Whose claims and rights trump those of others? Which compromises and tactics are acceptable, and to whom? And what is owed the people who play bit parts in the drama of others’ lives? As one German character, whom we meet fairly late in the book, notes of Holly: “I understand that she wants the whole story. But why? At whose expense?”

Among Berlin Cantata’s most interesting aspects is its inclusion of an oft-neglected population: Jews who continued to live in Europe—and Germany—after the Holocaust. We are reminded, too, of the presence and influence of Jews of Russian/Soviet origin in Berlin. We come face-to-face with the expansion of Jewish life in the city after communism’s collapse. All of this is encapsulated in Holly’s thoughts when she arrives in the city at the conclusion of Yom Kippur: “I was bewildered. A city without Jews that had all these Jews in it, or this many anyway, enough to make a party of plastic cups and wine out of jugs in an apartment that if you squinted might have been on the West Side of Manhattan up by Columbia. Remnant Jews, secret GDR Jews, a few Soviet Jews. Jews who’d fled and come back with the victors, Jews who were lost mandarins now, Jews who’d believed in the universality of man and maybe still did.”

Lewis also impresses with his ability to create distinct voices for each of first-person “soloists,” although some readers may find it challenging to track each character’s identity and history in this intricate matrix, especially with the quick and frequent shifts from one character’s voice to another.  One can’t help wishing to hear even more from some of them, even when, as in the case of Dorothea Anholt, the very first character we meet, the plot turns demand certain silences. And who can fail but be caught by the frankness of David Fürst, a Jewish character who doesn’t quite espouse klal yisrael:

“My rough reaction to all the Jews arriving from Russia was, get out of here, this is my turf. Go home, go to Israel, to to New York, what’s wrong with you? Of course, I knew the many reasons why they came here. In Israel you’d have to serve in the army and there were many other inconveniences, including the possibility of being bombed on a bus. America had more restrictive immigration laws and less socialistic political arrangements….To go by our [German] government, it actually wanted its Jews back. Well, it couldn’t have its Jews back, of course, but it could have substitute Jews….My objection was entirely personal. For years I had made a nice living, thank you, being the lonesome Jew in the land of the murderers, describing the hills and valleys, making my accommodations, being ironic like crazy, fitting in, doing well or well enough. These new immigrants were turning me into a commonplace. If things went on like this for ten more years, Berlin would be a normal city, Jew-wise and otherwise.”

In the end, the extent to which the Berlin of Lewis’s novel has become a “normal city” may be one of the most tantalizing questions of all. Certainly, it is a question likely to elicit an array of responses.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which is a 2012 American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. Web: www.erikadreifus.com

Mickey Cohen’s colorful life of crime

Meyer Harris Cohen was born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia, immigrated with his family to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and reached Los Angeles’ Jewish point of entry in Boyle Heights in 1915. Up to this point, the spare details of his biography are unremarkable. But Meyer was later nicknamed “Mickey,” and his name still echoes with the larger-than-life reputation he acquired on the mean streets of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s.

“By the end of the 1930s, the view from the top of Hollywood Hills seemed unlimited,” Tere Tereba writes in her rich, lively and fascinating biography, “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster” (ECW Press: $16.95), an account that owes something to the hard-boiled prose of James Ellroy while, at the same time, dealing in hard facts rather than superheated fiction. Not unlike an Ellroy novel, I could not put “Mickey Cohen” down.

Starting out as a newsboy at the age of 6 — young Mickey hawked copies of the Los Angeles Record at the corner of Brooklyn and Soto — he did not learn to read and write or add and subtract until he was nearly 30. He was no more successful in his brief career as a featherweight boxer. But when he became a “shtarker” — a Yiddish term used in the underworld to describe an enforcer — Cohen’s freelance activities as a pimp, a bookie and a specialist in “muscle jobs” caught the attention of mob bosses in Cleveland and Chicago. He was eventually summoned to the Hollywood YMCA to meet Benjamin Siegel, the emissary in charge of the L.A. rackets who was invariably called Ben, rather than Bugsy, to his face. “You little son of a bitch,” Siegel said to the defiant and unruly young thug. “You reflect my younger days.”

Cohen, in fact, was an upwardly mobile mobster with a canny sense of self-invention. “I just wanted to be myself — Mickey,” Cohen later boasted to screenwriter Ben Hecht at a time when the mobster had already become a celebrity in his own right and an active member of the Hollywood demimonde. “Winning a street fight, knockin’ over a score, having money to buy the best hats — I lived for them moments.” But Hecht himself saw through the self-effacement: “Young Cohen was a gangster from his toes up.”

Cohen acquired a glamorous wife and a series of ever more impressive apartments and homes in the best neighborhoods on the Westside. “Bugsy Siegel had made a mensch out of him,” writes Tereba, “and during the process Cohen grew from ambitious thug to cunning racketeer.” When Siegel was murdered by his own disaffected partners-in-crime in 1947, Mickey Cohen “took over from Benny right away,” as Cohen himself bragged, “on instructions from the people back east.”

Tereba is both a fashion designer and a journalist, and that helps explain why her eye falls on details that have escaped other biographers. Cohen opened a haberdashery on Sunset Boulevard to serve as the headquarters of his criminal operations, but the expensive merchandise on display was not merely stage dressing. “To make the proper impression and keep the tailor shop busy, Cohen’s top men dressed like fashion plates,” Tereba writes.

Cohen’s fleet of Cadillac sedans “were always navy blue, spotless, and flashing with chrome,” with souped-up engines and hidden compartments where guns and cash could be hidden. His Brentwood home featured a soda fountain where Cohen — who shunned alcohol, tobacco and drugs — liked to make hot-fudge sundaes. His beloved pet bulldog, Toughie, slept in a miniature version of Mickey’s own bed, under monogrammed bedding. The cedar-paneled closets were filled with custom-tailored suits, “some with hidden holsters built into the left shoulder linings.”  Hundreds of shirts, shorts, socks, suspenders and handkerchiefs were arranged in meticulous order.

“Secretly overwhelmed by profound and deeply rooted phobias, Mickey Cohen was terrified of germs,” the author explains. “Showering and changing outfits several times a day, Mickey wore clothes a few times and gave them away. He scrubbed his hands every few minutes and touched no surface unless protected by tissues. Every day the bookkeeper replenished his bankroll with clean, crisp bills.”

The shtarker from Boyle Heights now socialized with Hollywood moguls and stars. “Whenever Judy Garland had problems with her husbands,” Tereba writes, “she went to Mickey Cohen.” He hired a tutor to polish up his manners and his vocabulary, and decorated his home with a wholly unread library of leather-bound volumes. But when Ben Hecht recruited Cohen to support the Revisionist cause during the 1940s — a notion that appealed to Cohen because he admired “Jews fighting ‘like racket guys’ to establish their homeland” — a committee of prominent Jewish leaders, including Wilshire Boulevard’s Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin and Louis B. Mayer, threatened to agitate for his imprisonment, or so Cohen claimed.

Nor were they his only adversaries. Cohen was threatened both by rival mobsters and by law enforcement agencies, and he saw them as active co-conspirators in an effort to bring him down. He survived a bombing at his Brentwood home and then appealed to his neighbors, who saw his presence in the neighborhood as “a continuous and increasing hazard to life and property.” “Mickey Cohen,” he boasted of himself, “has no intention of joining the cast of Hollywood has-beens.”

Like his longtime hero, Al Capone, Mickey Cohen finally fell afoul of the IRS on tax charges. “I got less money,” he quipped, “than when I was selling papers.” By the time he was back on the street in 1955, he was “the last remnant of an era when gangsters talked out of the side of their mouths and boasted perfect manicures.” He started calling himself “Michael,” and he opened a greenhouse where reporters watched in astonishment as he puttered with the begonias. A year later, Mickey was dead. Thanks to Tere Tereba, however, his uniquely American life story is not wholly lost to us.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

A son and his Jewish mother

A pervasive Jewish mythology has always idealized the mother-son relationship.  But Proust knew better.  Shortly after his mother’s death, he wrote an article in Le Figaro about a man who bludgeoned his mother to death and attempted to speculate what might have ignited this man’s descent into madness.  Proust discussed the crippling dependence and blurred poisonous boundaries that sometimes overtake mothers and sons.

“If we knew how to see in a loved body the slow work of destruction wrought by the painful tenderness that animates it,” he warned, “how to see the withered eyes, the previously indomitable black hair now defeated like the rest and going white, the hardened arteries, the blocked kidneys, the strained heart, the defeated appetite for life, the slow, heavy walk, the mind whose hopes were once invincible not knowing that it has nothing left to hope for, gaiety itself dried up forever, that innate and seemingly immortal gaiety, which kept such pleasant company with sadness-perhaps the person who could see that….like Henri van Blarenberghe when he had finished off his mother with dagger blows, would retreat from the horror of his life, and throw himself on a gun to die straight away…” 

Much of this toxic cocktail of love and hate and guilt-infused passive-aggressiveness is present in Albert Cohen’s 1954 masterpiece “Book of My Mother” (Archipelago Books, $15), now available in an English translation by his wife, Bella Cohen.  His nonfiction narrative chronicles his late-life torment about his own mother, Louise Cohen, who died of a heart attack in 1943, only four days after 5,000 SS troops entered Marseilles.

Cohen arrived with his parents in Marseilles while still a little boy.  The family came from Corfu and spoke only a Judeo-Venetian dialect.  His father was an uneducated merchant who struggled to make ends meet.  After Cohen’s mother died, his father was able to hide in the south of France for the remainder of the Second World War.  Father and son met only once after the war, and then never again.  Cohen’s emotional universe was always mama; even during those years when all he could think about was how far away he could get from her.  His book brings forth beautifully wrought searing passages of memory that haunt him as he confronts his own looming mortality.  He remembers how neglectful he was of her, and how ashamed, particularly in front of his new elite friends. 

Cohen left his childhood home in Marseilles for Geneva as a young man and began an impressive career as a writer and a diplomat.  He managed to escape France in 1940 for London where he continued his pursuits.  His best-known novel, which has received international acclaim, is a 934-page novel called “Belle du Seignur,” which is autobiographically based.  It tells the story of a tortured, ambivalent Jew named Solal, who works for the League of Nations.  Solal attempts to stop the annihilation of his people and, facing failure, he commits suicide in utter despair.  Many critics have commented that laced throughout all of Cohen’s impressive body of work is an extended philosophical argument of sorts about the merits and drawbacks of being a Jew. 

It is impossible not to be moved by Cohen’s struggle to come to terms with the enormity of his mother’s loss, or perhaps really to make peace with his own transgressions.  The fierce battle that plays out on these wondrous pages are sometimes hampered by his bloated prose, unintentional perhaps, but glaring.  An overly adored only son of his parent’s stale arranged marriage, Cohen can seem obtuse when it comes to imagining his mother’s feelings or thoughts at any given time.  She remains in death a prop to his misgivings—all shadow and reflection.  The author winces when remembering how she once sold for him her beloved pearls, the ones she wore on the Sabbath, to help him pay debts he had sloppily incurred.  He describes the narcissistic bubble in which his younger self lived, writing, “I took, wild that I was and wreathed in sunlight and not much concerned for my mother, for I had fine dazzling teeth and I was the loving lover of this pretty girl and that fine lass and so on without end…I took the banknotes, and I did not know, for I was a son, that those meager large sums were a sacrifice offered up by mother on the altar of motherhood.”

Cohen was obsessed from a young age with fitting in and getting ahead.  He built an altar of sorts to his beloved France in his childhood bedroom that was filled with candles and mirrors and pictures of Racine and La Fontaine and Jules Verne and Napoleon.  He decorated his shrine with tiny handmade French flags.  But this didn’t prevent him from seeing how his family was seen by others. He writes sadly “We were social nobodies, completely isolated, cut off from the world outside.”  He wanted out.  And he made it.

But the older Cohen seems now preoccupied with the costs of his escape.  He remembers his mother’s visits to him in Geneva and his cruelty to her.  He recalls how she would attempt not to embarrass him, to “curb her Oriental gestures and smooth her accent, half Marseilles and half Balkan, under a confused murmur that was meant to sound Parisian…”  Pushing himself further back into their shared past, he remembers another incident that was more distasteful.  He describes his shame at her overly reverent behavior towards their family doctor which he describes with a mocking bitterness claiming “I can still see her peasant-like respect for the doctor, a bombastic fool…I can still see her fervent admiration as she watched him listen to my chest with his head which reeked of eau-de cologne, after she handed him the brand new towel to which he had a divine right.  How scrupulously she observed the magic requirement of a towel for the examination.  I can see her now walking on tiptoe so as not to disturb him while, radiating genius, he took my pulse, and still exuding genius, consulted the fine watch of his hand…” 

Cohen seems to be begging us to forgive him and sometimes his overflowing apologies begin to grate.  We believe he is sorry and we know he is suffering but we are less certain he would behave differently if given a second chance.  He shares with us his fantasy of reuniting with her and imagines that if somehow she were still alive the two of them might somehow find a way to go off together and live apart from the rest of the world.  He claims he longs once again to hear her “endless heartrending or ludicrous tales of the ghetto where I was born,” insisting that he wants to “go back to that ghetto and live there surrounded by rabbis like bearded ladies-live that loving, passionate, quibbling, slightly negroid and crazy life.”  But it is not the life he has lived and we don’t really believe him. 

What we do believe is that there is an agonized undercurrent bristling beneath his prose that is filled with ambiguity about his own Jewish identity.  Cohen wrote this book only a decade after the Holocaust and his mother’s death, and we can hear him grappling with the binds of Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world.  For Albert Cohen, who died in 1982, Jewishness seems to have only been synonymous with catastrophe.  It appears he was unable to draw sustenance from its rituals and traditions and God was never present.  In one of the saddest but most telling passages he confesses that the only consolation he has in his mother’s death is the certainty that she will never be hurt again.  He writes provocatively “In her graveyard, she is no longer a Jewess with eyes on the defensive, carnally denying guilt, a Jewess with her mouth gaping in obscure stupefaction, the legacy of fear and waiting.  The eyes of living Jews are always afraid.”

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

A guide to becoming Jewish

Jennifer S. Hanin was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man.  Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is the distinguished spiritual leader of Kehillat Israel, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world and a landmark on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades. Together, they are the authors of “Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion” (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95), which they describe as a “gutsy guide to entering the tribe.”

An insistent lightheartedness and more than a few comic moments enliven “Becoming Jewish,” starting with a jokey preface by comedian Bob Saget: “I was circumcised. Thank God by a professional. That is not something you want done by a novice.” The authors, too, are full of banter. “Conversion is a serious business,” writes Hanin, “but it doesn’t mean you need to down two pots of coffee to wade through it.”

The authors assume they are addressing a prospective convert to Judaism. “While achieving your conversion isn’t as a gut wrenching as auditioning for “American Idol” (though the bimah may feel every bit like a stage), it does require discipline and dedication.”  But I suspect that a good many Jewish spouses and partners will be reading the book over the shoulders of their beloveds, if only because, as the authors point out, the motivation for conversion is often the prospect of marriage or the responsibilities of raising children in a mixed marriage.

Indeed, Jewish readers will be surprised and enlightened by some of the details of the conversion process.  They point out, for example, that the process of conversion begins with the rabbi who instructs and prepares the convert, but it ends with a ruling by a bet din.  Even here, however, the authors offer a joke to lighten the moment: “You would have to present a deep conflict for them to have reservations about rubberstamping your conversion,” they write about the bet din,  “like wearing a kaffiyeh, crossing yourself, or whipping out a BLT.”

Reuben and Hanin describe the conversion process with both sweep and precision. It begins with the selection of a rabbi who will conduct the conversion and ends with a dip in the mikveh.  Along the way, they discuss the implications of adult circumcision, the choice of a Jewish name, the study of Hebrew, the celebration of Shabbat and the holy days, the keeping of kashrut, the challenges and responsibilities of raising Jewish children and the other rituals and observances of Jewish life.

The authors also invite us to ponder what Judaism is, what it demands of us, and what makes someone a Jew.  They sum up Judaism as a matter of “believing, belonging, and behaving.” But they point out that belief is probably the least crucial element in contemporary Judaism outside the highly observant denominations.

“[B]eing part of an ancient and extended spiritual family of Jews…forms our primary sense of religious identity,” they explain. “This is why so many nonobservant Jews are still passionate about being Jewish.” And, for that reason, “believing takes a backseat to belonging and behaving when it comes to Jewish identity.”

They also deal with the unique issues of conversion with sensitivity and compassion. “Becoming Jewish doesn’t mean amputating your past,” they write. “You can be secure enough in your own Jewish identity to experience sacred, moving moments that other religious traditions evoke. This is definitely a case in which you can go home again, and if you want to share your parents’ holiday or any other relatives’ celebration, feel free.”

I expect that more than a few copies of “Becoming Jewish” will be purchased by Jews and handed to non-Jews in order to open a conversation about conversion.  Indeed, it seems that the authors expected and intended the book to serve that function. But I am also convinced that the Jewish men and women who open and read the book will connect with traditions that they have forgotten or perhaps never knew at all.  In that sense, the book offers a path into Judaism for both the Jew by birth and the Jew by choice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.

‘Sweet Like Sugar’ gently chronicles gay man’s search for Jewish identity

Like Benji Steiner, the protagonist in his touching new novel, “Sweet Like Sugar,” Wayne Hoffman was born both gay and Jewish. But unlike Benji Steiner, a 26-year-old graphic designer prone to dating pretty boys and church-going Christians, Hoffman has not, he says, spent countless hours with an elderly Orthodox rabbi who would have a heart attack if he knew what he did in the bedroom.

Such is the premise of Hoffman’s follow-up to “Hard,” his racy first novel, which chronicled gay life in New York at a turning point in the AIDS crisis. “Sweet Like Sugar,” as G-rated a story as the title suggests, instead chronicles the unexpected, and at times awkward, friendship between Benji and an ailing octogenarian rabbi, Jacob Zuckerman, whose Jewish bookstore abuts Benji’s office in a suburban shopping center outside Washington, D.C.

Hoffman, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and, like Benji, celebrated his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue, found the inspiration for the book at his own version of the shopping mall: a midtown Manhattan office building that housed both the English and Yiddish editions of the Forward newspaper. A former managing editor of the Forward, and my boss when I was a reporter there, Hoffman had an inviting couch in his office overlooking 33rd Street. One afternoon in 2006, a black-clad, white-bearded man who worked at the Yiddish Forward, or Forverts, located on the other side of the floor — though culturally, it may as well have been on the other side of the planet — showed up in Hoffman’s office looking ill. The editor who escorted him asked if the old man could rest on Hoffman’s couch, and thus was born the opening scene of “Sweet Like Sugar.”

“Here we are, sharing an intimate moment. He’s sick on my couch, five feet from me, I don’t know his name, we haven’t spoken a word, and I realize I don’t even know if he speaks English,” says Hoffman, who is now deputy editor of Nextbook Press. “What if he woke up? What would we say? If he rolled over and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Wayne, I’m a gay, atheist leftist,’ that could be a lot to handle.”

That conversation never occurred, but in its stead came a lively, if predictable, novel about one young gay man’s search for Jewish identity. Laden with pop-cultural references and flashbacks to the humiliations of an American Jewish childhood, including sexual harassment at a Jewish summer camp and trips to Florida to visit Grandma — not to mention dates who whisper to Benji, “I want you to be my bagel boy” — “Sweet Like Sugar” opens up a conversation about the intersections between gay and Jewish identity, and how Jews on opposite sides of the political spectrum can come to terms with differences when confronted with another’s humanity.

When the fictitious Rabbi Zuckerman, a recent widower who works too hard, falls asleep on Benji’s couch, Benji offers him a ride home, and a tender friendship ensues. As Benji navigates a bad-luck streak with men and wonders if he’ll ever find his bashert, the rabbi opens up to him about his beloved wife, simultaneously reigniting Benji’s lapsed interest in Judaism. By the end of the book, Benji has come out to the rabbi — briefly compromising their friendship — and discovers that despite the rabbi’s pious appearance, he, too, has not always followed the letter of Jewish law. What doesn’t happen is a big hug fest, wherein the rabbi realizes that he’s been interpreting Leviticus all wrong, and decides that two men making love is actually kosher.

“The rabbi never changes his mind,” Hoffman says. “The rabbi doesn’t suddenly march in the gay pride parade. What the rabbi does is realize that in all sorts of ways, he’s already open to the fact that not all Jews believe exactly what he does, but they’re still Jews.”

And this, Hoffman says, is what he hopes people will take from the book.

“What I’m trying to do is reach people who may or may not agree with everything my characters say but are at least willing to listen. It’s not about being in denial and pretending things are fine, it’s about how to be in the community together with other people who do not share all of your values.”

Wayne Hoffman will read from “Sweet Like Sugar” on Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books & Café in Echo Park, and on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in the Westside Pavilion. Wayne Hoffman will read from “Sweet Like Sugar” on Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Stories Books & Cafe, 1716 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, (213) 413-3733. He will also read on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in the Westside Pavilion shopping mall, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-3138.

Jewish themes abound among book award finalists

Jewish themes abound among National Book Critics Circle award finalists.

Among the five fiction finalists are Israeli author David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” and “Comedy in a Minor Key,” by Hans Keilson, a German-born Jew now living in the Netherlands.

The awards will be handed out in New York on March 10.

“The two books complement each other, as Keilson tells the story of a young Dutch couple hiding a Jewish boy during World War II and Grossman flashes forward to contemporary Israel, where a woman whose son is in the army refuses to wait at home for bad news and instead hikes in the Galilee,” National Book Critics Circle vice president Barbara Hoffert wrote recently on her blog.

Another finalist is Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” a family drama that treats, among other contemporary themes, Jews in the neoconservative movement.

Israeli author Tom Segev’s biography of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, “The Lives and Legends,” is among five biography finalists.

Among the five autobiography finalists are Kai Bird’s “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978,” about a childhood spent as the child of a U.S. diplomat in divided Jerusalem, and “Hitch-22,” in which essayist Christopher Hitchens discusses his discovery in adulthood that his mother was Jewish.

The National Book Critics Circle, comprising 600 reviewers, was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel.

Ozick, Beckerman take top book awards

Cynthia Ozick and Gal Beckerman are among the winners of the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards.

The awards, which were announced Tuesday, are given out annually by the Jewish Book Council to honor the best in American Jewish writing.

Ozick, a novelist and essayist, won a Lifetime Achievement Award for her many works of fiction and criticism.

Beckerman, a journalist, was honored with the Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award for “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: the Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” his account of efforts to obtain freedom for Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Philanthropist Harold Grinspoon won a special IMPACT award for creating the PJ Library Program, which provides nearly 70,000 Jewish children’s books free each month to families with young children.

Other winners include: “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, which took top honors in the American Jewish Studies category; Martin Fletcher’s “Walking Israel” in the Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice category; and David Grossman for Fiction for his translated novel “To the End of the Land.”

Also, Ruth Harris, the Biography award for “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century”’ David B. Ruderman, the History award for “Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History”; and the team of Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence Hoffman and Ari Kelman, who were recognized in the Education and Jewish Identity field for “Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary.”

The best Anthology and Collections entrant was “The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion and Culture” edited by Judith Baskin and Kenneth Seeskin.

Hillel Halkin’s look at “Yehuda Halevi” won for Sephardic Culture, and Pauline Wengeroff was honored in the Women’s Studies category for “Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, vol. one.”

The awards will be presented March 9 in New York. A complete list of finalists is available here.

The Jewish Book Council has been giving out the National Jewish Book Awards since 1948.

The city of lights at its darkest hour

Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sightseeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the führer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans” and former cultural correspondent for The New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour. He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” Riding muses. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” Jean-Paul Sartre said many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” Riding writes, “the options — and dilemmas — faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.” Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain. Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ ” and P.G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theater. The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.” Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.” One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” French writer Jean Cocteau wrote in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account. Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.” Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

L.A.’s Jewish Community Library Likely to Move

A coalition of Jewish Community Library supporters say leaders at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have spurned their efforts to create an independent library and to stop a proposed merger with the American Jewish University.

Since March 2008, leaders of Federation, which funds the library through the Bureau of Jewish Education, and AJU have been exploring a merger of the 30,000-volume collection at the Jewish Community Library with AJU’s 115,000-volume library at the Mulholland Drive campus. AJU plans to expand its library facilities in the next few years and to open the library up to the community.

BJE leaders say the merger is the only way to keep the collection public, since Federation has been steadily reducing its funding for the library, which draws about 2,000 patrons a year to its third floor suite in Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

BJE will not request funding to run the library for the 2010 fiscal year, BJE executive director Gil Graff told The Journal.

But library supporters say AJU shouldn’t be the collection’s only option. They have formulated a plan that would set the library on an independent course, to open a freestanding, centrally located facility, possibly with satellite facilities, that would increase community access to the library. They are not asking for funding from Federation – just to entrust it with the collection.

The supporters say a merger with AJU would sacrifice the library’s identity as a community resource.

“I just don’t think an academic library that sits on top of a hill, over a freeway, which you can’t even see from the street, which few people ever go to is the place to put a community library,” said Sherrill Kushner, an attorney who is heading up Save the Jewish Library, which also includes Orange County’s Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie.

But Federation officials say this plan is just another version of a 2006 plan that was already analyzed and rejected by a BJE task force set up to determine the library’s future. In 2008, that task force recommended pursuing the possibility of a merger with AJU. Those talks have been under way since June 2008.

Issues on the table include what to do with duplicate volumes, which could be placed in other libraries or institutions where the community could have access to them, Graff said. Still unclear is what would happen to the Slavin children’s library. Graff says BJE will not be asking for funding for that entity in 2010, either.

Eliezrie and Kushner say Federation leaders seem sold on the AJU plan, and they have had a hard time getting anyone to discuss their approach. While Federation vice president Beryl Geber said she is planning to meet with Eliezrie, Eliezrie said 10 days worth of emails to Geber, Graff and Federation President John Fishel have not yielded indication that a meeting will take place.

“The library should be an independent oasis for everyone,” said Eliezrie, who as Chabad’s liaison to United Jewish Communities is well seasoned in working with Federation. “I’ve been shocked that they won’t even talk about it. Let everyone meet and argue and hear what we have to say.”

Graff expressed pessimism about the ability of the grassroots effort would be able to take on the responsibility for the community collection with no facility, supporters or infrastructure to manage a library in place.

“It’s not clear to me that this is something as attractive as an entity with a history of 60 years and a campus,” he said, referring to AJU.

Kushner counters that it is difficult to fundraise without any indication that they could have access to the collection. The BJE and Federation will jointly decide whether the AJU merger will go through, and then the Federation’s Education Pillar will decide whether the new entity would get funding, and how much. Under a new structure put into place in Federation last year, Federation agencies do not get any entitlements and any non-profit can apply for funding – including AJU or an independent library.

The idea that AJU could get funding for absorbing the community collection is appalling to Abigail Yasgur, who resigned from her position as Jewish Community Library director in protest to the merger.

“Giving the library to the AJU serves only the interests of the AJU and the Federation, but not the interests of the people.  The arrangement serves the AJU by enlarging its collection. (While the specifics of the Federation-AJU arrangement remain unknown, should the Federation also decide to give funds to the AJU to take the Library, that would be scandalous,)” she wrote in an editorial submitted to the Jewish Journal. “The arrangement serves the Jewish Federation by lowering or eliminating the cost of running the library, which it has borne in major part.  But the losers in this deal, which has not been subjected to public scrutiny, are you and me and everyone else who seeks a Library that serves the people.”

Geber disagrees. She says the merger will give more people more access.

“What we are talking about is not the disappearance, but the expansion of the Jewish Community Library, and it relocation,” Geber said. “It means an expansion in the possible number of hours it is open, in the number of volumes, in the space it will have. These are all things it can’t do here.”

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It’s not about a plan

“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site momlogic.com—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

Books: Land of ‘Golden’ dreams and tarnished identities

When Jews at the turn of the last century wistfully spoke of the goldene medina (golden country), they meant just one place: America. The phrase evoked images of a land of “freedom, justice, opportunity — and protection against pogroms,” wrote Leo Rosten in his 1968 classic, “The Joys of Yiddish.” But when “spoken in irony or sarcasm,” he added, the goldene medina also came to signify “a miraculous hope that ends in disappointment.”

Which makes the title of Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, “Golden Country” (Scribner, 2006), especially apt. In her intricately plotted story, Gilmore deftly weaves fact into fiction as she traces the fortunes of three intertwined families of Jewish immigrants in early 20th century New York. The result is a compelling portrait of hopes, both realized and dashed, that explores questions of identity, self-invention, women’s roles and the definition of success.

Embracing American culture in all its fluidity, the Brodsky, Bloom and Verdonik families navigate the tantalizing opportunities and surprising limitations of their new land. Solomon Brodsky escapes his shtetl-like neighborhood of Williamsburg by way of the mob, causing a keen sense of shame in his mother and younger brother, Joseph. Hardworking, dutiful Joseph ekes out a living selling household cleaning products door-to-door, but catapults to success when he invents the first cleaner miscible in both oil and water (which he calls Essoil, in tribute to his wife, Esther).

Neighbor and landsman Pauline Verdonik yearns to join Solomon in his new life of luxury; when she becomes his wife, she shares his success and exile from their families. Pauline’s less glamorous, resourceful and plucky sister, Francis, marries the brilliant Vladimir Zworykin (another transplanted landsman), who later invents the foundation technology for television. Francis’ long-held dream of stardom is first realized and then limited by her husband’s invention, as she becomes the first star of Essoil’s TV commercials.

Fellow immigrant Sarah Rosen Bloom is less lucky. Her theatrical ambitions are quickly defeated and she descends into alcoholism, even as her husband, Seymour, moves from salesman to gangster (under Solomon’s wing) to Broadway musical producer — miraculously surviving the transition back into “legitimate” business.

Moving back and forth in time, revealing deep ties strained by years of disappointment and resentment, Gilmore’s story unfolds as an explication of why a marriage in the following generation — between Miriam Brodsky and David Bloom — is an emotional landmine for all.

While “Golden Country” is undeniably a Jewish story, Gilmore’s characters move in decidedly secular worlds: theater, inventions, sales, crime. Like many immigrants before and since, these families seem to have shed all trappings of their religion when they set foot on Ellis Island (save for one shiva minyan that occurs late in the story).

Gilmore relates to her own Jewishness in much the same way. The writer, whose work has appeared in anthologies — including the upcoming “How to Spell Chanukah,” due out this fall — grew up outside Washington, D.C. Although she attended religious school, Gilmore didn’t have a bat mitzvah and characterizes her childhood home as “not very religious.”

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Gilmore felt she “was probably the least religious person there, at least from this country.” She became fascinated by “what made people Jewish…. I’d always felt 1,000 percent Jewish, but it obviously wasn’t religious,” she said.

While in graduate school at Cornell University, Gilmore saw her experience mirrored in many of the books she read in Jewish American fiction classes. Pursuing her master’s of fine arts degree and teaching courses of her own design, Gilmore’s academic work merged with long-held interests as she studied the myriad ways Jewish identity was being defined in America — through ethnicity, culture, humor, even stereotypes.

“I wanted to deal with those tropes — money, noses, intellect — that are typically ‘Jewish,'” Gilmore said. In addition, “everyone in my family was Jewish, and I was always fascinated with their stories.”

Gilmore enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents when she was growing up, and was “especially interested in their experiences as immigrants in America,” she said. After the death of her maternal grandmother, with whom she’d been very close, the family discovered years’ worth of scrapbooks and diaries.

“My grandmother had been this amazing, hilarious storyteller,” Gilmore said, and the writings she left behind captured her vibrant spirit. She had kept meticulous records of her daily life and thoughts, including details of her courtship with Gilmore’s grandfather, Sid. “Every day they went out, she’d mark with a star. Some days, three stars. I never found out exactly what that meant,” Gilmore said teasingly.

The intimacy of her grandmother’s diaries helped Gilmore create the female voices in her novel.

“I loved their inner lives,” she said, and she wanted to show how they struggled with desire and ambition, even if they had been largely thwarted.

But while she “originally had written a lot from [the women’s] point of view,” over time Gilmore felt she needed to take out some of their self-expression “because of the time period they lived in.” Ultimately, Gilmore said, “I knew that seeing their lives through their son’s or husband’s perspectives was more appropriate.”

Among her grandmother’s effects, the family also found a self-published book titled, “Just the Two of Us.” It had been written by the widow of the man (a distant relation, as it turned out) who invented the household cleaner Lestoil, which became the inspiration for the novel’s Essoil. Like Gilmore’s grandmother, this woman wrote about her romance with her husband, but she also wrote about how they’d come to America from Eastern Europe, invented a time-saving household product and become rich.

“I became interested in how that generation came over and invented things that people used in everyday ways — Sweet N’ Low, depilatory cream [invented by a rabbi in Portland, Maine] — things that changed our everyday lives,” Gilmore said.

She had also long been fascinated by questions of success and failure, of how we define those terms and how they in turn define us.

What’s Up for 2007?

YeLAdim will be mixing it up next year with more movies, books, music and TV reviews than ever before. If you have a review you’ve written (or want to write) or have heard of something that you want us to know about, e-mail kids@jewishjournal.com. You’ll be famous, and your parents and grandparents will have something to hang on their fridge.

See ya in 2007!!!

On Oct. 30, students ages 4-12 from local schools including Hawthorne, Stephen S. Wise, Pressman, Maimonides and Hillel participated in the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles’ third annual Lego Bible Scene Creation event.

Leading honors go to Daniel Pereg and Jacob Zeitzew for their interpretation of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, above, and Raphael Elspas for his menorah. All participants received certificates and prizes, including books and munchies gift cards.

Hope for the New Year

Fourth-graders Avi Berman and Jordan Stern, along with their classmates at Sinai Akiba, created these poems about Israel:

“Peace,” by Avi Berman

Children praying
Hand in hand.
Praying for peace
In all of Israel’s land.
As soldiers stand
In the night.
Keeping Israel
From a fight.

“My Prayer for Israel,” by Jordan Stern

I hope Israel will have peace.
No homeless people or robbers.
Lots of space for kids to play.
And praying for soldiers every day.
Peace for Israel is like flying in the sky.
It doesn’t matter how high, how high.
Peace for Israel is like riding a boat,
While you’re trying to stay afloat.

Books: The middle-American way of death

“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom (Hyperion, $21.95)

At the beginning of “For One More Day,” Mitch Albom’s latest sermon on life, death and the realms beyond, fallen baseball star Charles “Chick” Benetto attempts suicide. One white light later, he finds himself reunited and running errands with his dead mother, Posey. Think of it as The One Person You Meet in Limbo. Out two weeks and already atop the bestseller list, the novel is also conveniently available at Starbucks, along with a bookmark-sized reading guide, as if Albom needed a PR boost to secure his spot as America’s foremost lay leader. The tragedy isn’t that Albom’s a sappy novelist, it’s that his message is so insistently universal as to be nearly meaningless.

I first encountered Albom the way many readers outside of Detroit did — not through his sports columns, but through his 1997 bestseller, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” a memoir of his life-changing reunion with Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor dying of ALS. I saw the movie, Oprah Winfrey’s 1999 ABC adaptation, first; I even got misty-eyed when Hank Azaria’s Mitch, collapsing in a puddle of tears, admitted to Jack Lemmon’s Morrie, “I don’t want you to die.” But that wasn’t embarrassing enough. I went out and bought the book, and encouraged my parents to read it, too.

That was before Albom wrote another bestseller, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” about a humble carnival maintenance worker who leaves this mortal coil for the psycho-spiritual coaching of the afterlife. The very title warned of treacly, middle-American, middlebrow morality, and, while purportedly a novel, it was sized and shaped to resemble “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

The differences cut deeper than genre distinctions. Looking back, it’s not hard to see what I liked about “Tuesdays With Morrie”: Albom’s warm portrait of Morrie himself. Raised on the Lower East Side by a Russian émigré turned furrier, sneaking off to synagogue to pray for his mother, teaching Martin Buber and Erik Erikson, holding a “living funeral” after learning of his disease, Morrie was a figure both familiar and unexpected, a model grandfather, funny, wise, hokey and infinitely huggable.

“The Five People You Meet in Heaven” has no such anchor, only an inert cipher divorced from any distinct religion or culture, carelessly sapped of a soul. Albom dedicates the novel to his uncle Edward Beitchman, “who gave me my first concept of heaven,” and sure enough, the novel’s amiable Everyman is named Eddie. We check in just as he checks out — killed, trying to save a little girl from a fluke carnival ride accident — but, fear not, Albom can’t write 10 pages without a flashback. In one, a 17-year-old Eddie sits in his Pitkin Avenue apartment with two recently arrived Romanian cousins who’ve fled war-torn Europe — shorthand, it seems, for Holocaust refugees. But then Eddie’s brother Joe announces that Eddie’s met a girl. “Does she go to church?” someone asks. Turns out Eddie’s family isn’t Jewish, no matter what those Romanian refugees are doing this side of the Atlantic.

For all of his apparent investment in the spiritual enlightenment of his characters and readers, Albom himself is remarkably evasive when it comes to religion. When a reporter for the Boston Globe questioned Albom about making Eddie Catholic, and creating a “goyish” heaven, Albom told him, “You are reading way too much into it,” and “It’s really a fable. I didn’t write this to have religious overtones.” Which makes all that talk about God and the afterlife what — filler? Just because Albom’s Jewish, of course, doesn’t require him to write Jewish characters, or a Jewish heaven, but he could at least try to pick one back story and stick to it.

Religion gets even shoddier treatment in “For One More Day,” despite Albom’s efforts to nail it down. Early on Chick tells us, “My mother was French Protestant, and my father was Italian Catholic, and their union was an excess of God, guilt and sauce,” and proceeds to recall lots of sitcom-style disagreements about baptisms, wearing baseball cleats in “God’s House,” and whether that painting of Jesus belongs outside the bathroom. But even that veneer begins to wear.
At Chick’s mother’s funeral, a minister hands him a shovel. “I was to toss dirt onto my mother’s coffin,” Chick recalls, explaining she “had witnessed this custom at Jewish funerals and had requested it for her own.” The reasoning is mildly ludicrous, and conspicuously defensive. “I could hear my father chiding her, saying, ‘ Posey, I swear, you make it up as you go along.'” Of course, it’s not Posey who invents as she goes — it’s Albom.

The time has come to really jerk our tears, and he just can’t help but fall back on the rituals of his own culture — why doesn’t Chick just say Kaddish already?

Why Albom insists on making his characters Christians, when he seems to have no better grounding in Christianity than a casual follower of “Seventh Heaven,” is up for debate, but the cynic in me suspects it’s mostly a matter of marketing — a perception that vaguely Christian characters will have a more universal appeal than vaguely Jewish ones. How else can you even explain an absurd name like Chick Benetto?

It’s tempting to call Albom’s characters Conversos, but that suggests Albom thinks the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity actually matter. Really, what are Albom’s characters if not Judeo-Christian mythical creatures of the American melting pot, linked by a loosely defined set of values? It’s a tradition lambasted as a lie by Harold Bloom and fully adopted by Kinky Friedman, a sure sign of its marketing potential.

The lessons of “For One More Day” aren’t, after all, so controversial: nothing can ever replace a mother’s love, there’s always time to make amends, family matters more than fame. If you’ve read “Tuesdays With Morrie,” or ever watched a movie on Lifetime, you’ve probably heard this all before. But without a moral center like Morrie, those teachings come off as pandering, saccharine self-help, a low pitch to the middle-American, working-class readers with whom Albom aims to sympathize.

What’s saddest about Albom’s novels is they might be half-decent if he would just quit running away and embrace his obvious calling as a Jewish writer. It wouldn’t make his lessons more surprising, his prose less plodding, or his premises less juvenile — give some comatose tennis player an afternoon with his great aunt, for all I care — but at least the messengers wouldn’t be so muddled.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – Author-Baker Rises to Bimah — at Last

Joanne Rocklin is obsessed with food. On her 60th birthday, she began summarizing her life with the essentials: “I love to cook. I love to eat.”

But it’s her passion for writing that has enabled her to come to terms with her life and her faith. The author of 20 children’s books, including her renowned “Strudel Stories” (Delacorte, 1999), is about to complete a chapter in her own life that many young Jews today take for granted. Rocklin wraps up two years of studies with Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ adult b’nai mitzvah program when she ascends to the bimah for her bat mitzvah on June 24. As she delivers her d’var Torah, she will share with the congregation the ways her past life connects with the discoveries she’s made about her Jewish self.

Although Rocklin is a clinical psychologist by training, her desire to write proved disruptive early in her professional life. The opposing tugs of two careers left her feeling unable to immerse herself fully in either profession. Factor in a divorce and the death of her mother, and it’s easy to understand why Rocklin craved the serious life changes symbolized by her upcoming bat mitzvah.

“I look Jewish, I eat Jewish. I felt Jewish, but I didn’t know anything about my background,” Rocklin said.

Her search for a congregation led her to Temple Emanuel, where Rabbi Laura Geller encouraged Rocklin to learn the liturgy by singing in the choir of the New Emanuel Minyan. With husband Gerry Nelson, whom she’d met through a personal ad in The Jewish Journal, she also joined a couples havurah built around discussions over potluck meals. During one havurah get-together, Rocklin demonstrated her newly developing challah-baking prowess.

But even before she discovered Temple Emanuel, the kind of study that leads to career achievement was always central to Rocklin’s life. As a young woman in Montreal, Rocklin studied to become an elementary school teacher. After moving to California in 1976 with her first husband and two sons, she studied for a doctorate in clinical psychology and soon established a practice focusing on the needs of children and families.

Yet a love for writing continued to gnaw at her. Before long, she was juggling family responsibilities, turning out children’s books in the morning and seeing patients in the afternoon. When divorce left her a single parent who needed to earn a living, a high-octane lifestyle became all the more essential.

Soon after Rocklin and Nelson married, he persuaded her to ease back on her workaholic tendencies. So she followed her heart and became a full-time writer.

The inspiration for “Strudel Stories” struck one day while Rocklin was browsing through Joan Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America.” She spotted a reference to a Vermont woman who baked strudel with her children and grandchildren, sharing family stories while pounding and stretching the dough. The anecdote led Rocklin to invent a tale of three kitchens — one in czarist Russia, one in Brooklyn after World War II and one in present-day Los Angeles — in which strudel is made and stories are shared. Within this framework, Rocklin delicately introduced her young readers to Yiddish bubbemeises, Russian pogroms, the aftermath of the Holocaust and Jackie Robinson, as well as the joys of cooking with family.

Not long after the publication of “Strudel Stories,” Rocklin’s mother died. In her grief, she decided to make some changes. Rocklin told her husband it was time to move out of their condo and into a house. She also wanted a dog and a vegetable garden — and she wanted to join a synagogue.

Her b’nai mitzvah classmates include 14 women in various stages of life, from a young newlywed to an 83-year-old grandmother. They’ve studied Torah trope with Cantor Yonah Kliger, pored over the words of the sacred text with assistant Cantor Judy Greenfeld and rabbinic intern Pearl Berzansky, and even gone for a ritual dip at the University of Judaism’s mikvah to prepare for their upcoming rite of passage.

It’s only recently — since discovering the pleasures of Torah study for its own sake — that Rocklin said her workaholic side has truly relaxed itself.

In contrast to her former self, Rocklin no longer feels that a garden is a waste of time unless it produces vegetables. Instead of pouring all her energies into her writing career, she’s also embracing dawdling, taking tea with friends and playing with her cats. She’s begun a regular monthly volunteer stint at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center along with her golden retriever, Zoe, fulfilling the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick).

Last November, all of Rocklin’s new life lessons were put to the test when some suspicious spots were found on her lungs. There was a six-week period during which she made the rounds of labs and doctors’ offices, trying not to be overwhelmed by her glimpse of “another world … the world of the sick and dying,” she said.

When her chances looked bleak, before thoracic surgery confirmed that her problems were minor, all she wanted to do was bake bread.

Rocklin said she finds paying attention to the details of a bread recipe just as challenging and as fulfilling as the study of Torah. Following a 30-page recipe by La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton, she has learned to savor each stage of the complex process that turns a homemade starter into a warm brown loaf. For Rocklin today, life is all about taking time to smell the challah.

Baking “slows you down,” Rocklin said. “Bread is an amazing thing. It’s just flour, water, and yeast … and it becomes alive.”

‘Design’-ing Woman Comes to Town

“Kosher by Design,” (ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, $32.99) “Kosher by Design Entertains” ($34.99) and “Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen” ($22.99) by Susie Fishbein.

With the frenzied anticipation generally reserved for the appearance of a rock star — or at the very least, Oprah — the Orthodox community of Los Angeles is abuzz with excitement: Susie is coming!

“Susie” is Susie Fishbein, the effervescent author of the “Kosher by Design” cookbooks, who has turned kosher cooking on its proverbial ear. And no wonder she bubbles over. According to Gedaliah Zlotowitz, Mesorah’s vice-president of sales and marketing, more than 160,000 copies have sold with no end in sight.

Fishbein will be making three exclusive appearances this month in Los Angeles (see box), and those lucky enough to get a reservation will watch, kvell and sample as their idol cooks.

“Susie Fishbein has done for Jewish cooking what [rabbi and author] Aryeh Kaplan did for beginning Judaism,” said Rabbi Shimon Kraft of the 613 Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard. “They’re buying her cookbooks en masse. She’s a genius at editing and putting everything all together.”

“Our patrons are meshugah for her books,” echoed Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles. “We have over 30,000 resources here, and the most precious part of our collection is Jewish cookbooks. Hers circulate so robustly. They’re fabulous.”

Just what is this revolution in kosher cooking that Fishbein has spawned? As food columnist, cooking instructor and dinnerware designer Debby Segura explained, “Lots of people used to feel tied to a few kosher cookbooks, but so much has happened in kosher food over the last 20 years that just wasn’t being reflected, and if it was, it was too complicated. Susie gives you food styling, kosher tips, kitchen tips. But the big deal about Susie’s recipes is they work.”

Risa Moskowitz, who chairs the event for Emek, added, “When I booked the event, everyone said, ‘Oh my gosh, I live by her cookbooks!’ There wasn’t one person who said ‘Who?’ People who aren’t kosher don’t realize what’s possible for us now, the variety of foods and the way to prepare them. They think kosher means dried-out, salted meat. Her books have had a tremendous impact.”

Toras Emes chair Sara Leah Beinstock agreed: “These are the ultimate kosher cookbooks. There’s nothing close to them on the market. Her recipes are easy to follow, and the food is appetizing and delicious. It’s very exciting to have gourmet Jewish cookbooks.”

Fishbein, an Orthodox Jew and mother of four children ages 3 to 11, understands that today’s observant Jews want to prepare many of the same exciting dishes found on restaurant menus and serve them with style. Those who grew up on Grandma’s Shabbos brisket now embrace her Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce.

“Kosher food doesn’t have to be simple or bland,” noted Fishbein by phone from her New Jersey home. “Just about every ingredient is available out there kosher.”

The luscious table settings and presentation ideas that party planner Renee Erreich and Fishbein created for these books — and that photographer John Uher shot — fairly leap off the pages. But everything is doable.

“The food looks intimidating, but the recipes are not,” Fishbein said. “It’s not about putting on a show. These are recipes the family will want to eat over and over.” And they do. So popular are these dishes that guests recognize them on each other’s Shabbat tables.

Routinely dubbed the Jewish Martha Stewart, Fishbein squirms at the comparison.

“I’m flattered, but it’s not really accurate,” she said. “Martha Stewart is all about a lifestyle. If you want beautiful flowers, you plant them and this is how you do it. We’re busy. We have kids. We have jobs. We’re in and out of the kitchen trying to make fabulous meals. I take shortcuts she would never take. I’m about cutting to the chase to accomplish our goals.”

Beloria Fink, whose sister will be driving from San Diego to join her for the Emek event, observed, “Susie can take a simple recipe and it looks extravagant and elegant, like you’ve really knocked yourself out. She’s taken the bland, traditional Shabbos meal and turned it into elegant cuisine. She shows you how to set a beautiful table for each holiday so you can create a legacy for your own children.”

“Kosher by Design” marries food to holiday traditions in new ways that resonate with those seeking a deeper Jewish experience for their families.

“When I think back to Passover in my childhood,” Fishbein reflected, “I remember my cousin Jeff scrubbing the maror, my aunt cutting sheets of egg noodles and Grandma Mollie making chremslach, because 10 minutes shouldn’t go by without her feeding us something. These memories are like yesterday. It’s a happy place for me. I want that for my kids.”

To accomplish this Fishbein went way beyond “It’s Rosh Hashanah, let’s have honey.” Case in point: Pomegranate Chicken. “I tell my kids, ‘You know why I made this dish, you guys? Pomegranate has 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.’ Maybe it’s not my grandmother’s chicken, but it’s incredibly appropriate.”

Similarly, envelope-shaped Won Ton Wrapped Chicken appetizers for Purim are edible reminders of the lots (purim) Haman drew to select the date for the Jews’ extinction.

For Simchat Torah she incorporates the tradition of eating rolled foods to mimic Torah scrolls.

“I thought stuffed cabbage was overdone,” Fishbein noted, “but I’ve got this awesome Chicken Negemaki. Chicken is rolled around scallion and red pepper strips and tied like a scroll with a blanched scallion. True, God never told us to eat Chicken Negemaki, but he didn’t tell us to eat stuffed cabbage either.”

With “Kosher by Design Entertains,” Fishbein moved on to celebrations — a housewarming, dinner for two, an engagement party — nine in all, with spectacular menus and extravagant serving ideas along with the simple, yet elegant recipes she had become famous for.

Now “Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen” offers the dishes kids like to eat — and cook — clearly explained, beautifully photographed and coded for difficulty with one, two or three chefs hats (see story p. 49).

How does Fishbein herself explain the hoopla surrounding her books?

“I think I hit a nerve in the community,” she said. “People clearly have had a creative passion in them that was waiting to be unleashed. I’ve unleashed their inner cook.”

Rack of Lamb with Fig-Port-Shallot Sauce

From “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons dried rosemary
2 teaspoons dried minced thyme
2 shallots
2 racks of baby lamb chops, 8-9 chops per rack; have butcher French the bones
1 cup port wine, divided
8 fresh Mission figs or 6 dried figs, cut into quarters
1/2 cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 450 F. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process 2 tablespoons olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and shallots 30-45 seconds or until thick paste forms. Rub herb paste into lamb.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium oven-proof skillet. Add lamb, fat side down, and cook over high heat 5 minutes. Turn lamb and cook an additional minute so that both sides are brown.

Add 1/2 cup port to skillet. Place skillet in the oven and roast 18 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven. Place lamb on a platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Add remaining 1/2 cup port and figs to skillet. Bring to a simmer. Use a spatula to loosen brown bits from pan. Add stock and simmer 3-4 minutes. Sauce will thicken to a nice amber color. Pour sauce over lamb and serve.

Makes four servings.

Additional recipes can be found at ” target=”_blank”>www.cookingjewish.com.

Susie Fishbein will appear in private homes on:


Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew

Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.


‘One People’ Adopts Novel Plan on Book

Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei knew his congregants at Westwood’s Sinai Temple loved reading when about 20 of them braved the evening rush hour last November for an event at the University of Judaism (UJ) celebrating the 1939 talmudic novel, “As a Driven Leaf.”

“This was sandwiched in between two major adult learning weekends,” said Schuldenfrei, still amazed two months later.

The novel by the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg is currently being read at two dozen local synagogues in the new “One People/One Book” program, an attempt to broaden Jewish communal learning by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. It joins other Jewish book group gatherings at the Skirball Cultural Center and Orange County’s Bureau of Jewish Education.

The “One People/One Book” plan is for synagogue members to meet and discuss “As a Driven Leaf” in small groups at least four times between last November’s opening at the UJ and a closing event on May 24 at Milken Community High School.

“Every synagogue is sort of coordinating this in a different way,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “In some synagogues, it’s just lay people studying.”

Steinberg’s well-received book is a fictionalized portrait of Elisha ben Abuyah, a dissident talmudic scholar in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. The “One People/One Book” study guide mixes the book’s ideas with Torah texts.

“This book lends itself to so many profound themes,” Diamond said. “Modernity vs. tradition, forgiveness and repentance.”

The board’s president, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Pico-Robertson’s Orthodox B’nai David Judea Congregation, worked last year to develop “One People/One Book” with Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of the Reform congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood. The new learning program came after the board held annual interdenominational “Meeting in Torah” study nights for six years, but interest in that waned.

“For the first couple of years, it was very novel,” Kanefsky said. “Over the course of years, it became one part of the landscape.”

The new “One People/One Book” program replaces the one night of annual “Meeting in Torah,” with its opening and closing gatherings and smaller synagogue discussion groups.

“This way, we have two of those everyone-coming-together events and the four study groups in between,” Kanefsky said.

At Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, people are absorbing the book in clusters.

“We are reading the book in different settings around the congregation,” Senior Rabbi Laura Geller said. “Two different classes are including it in their reading, so it’s happening all around the congregation.”

Geller said she feels that her 50 to 60 congregants who are reading Steinberg’s book together are gaining “a deeper understanding of rabbinic Judaism. It’s putting flesh and blood on names. I also think that they are finding themselves in the book.”

Schuldenfrei said Sinai Temple will start discussing “As a Driven Leaf” in March, with the Conservative synagogue currently busy marking it its centennial anniversary.

Beyond “One People/One Book,” the Jewish community has other ongoing book groups.

The Skirball Cultural Center’s book group has an “Echoes of the Past” theme set around five novels and nonfiction books to be discussed at monthly meetings through June. The first meeting, on Feb. 14, will examine Australian writer Anna Funder’s “Stasiland: True Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall” (Granta Books, 2003).

Skirball book lovers in March will read Brian Morton’s “A Window Across the River” (Harcourt, 2003), followed in April by Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker” (Vintage, 2005). In May, the book group will read James McBride’s “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (Riverhead Trade, 2001) and in June Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” (Picador, 2005).

In Orange County, the Bureau of Jewish Education is in the midst of 30 weeks of Tuesday morning book club meetings around the women-driven theme, “Foundations: Making Our Wilderness Bloom.”

The bureau’s Web site lists six books anchoring the theme: Haviva Ner-David’s “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination” (JFL Books, 2000); “A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey” (State University of New York Press, 1999), by Merle Feld, and Kim Chernin’s “In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story” (Harper Perennial, 1994).

Also listed are the Rebecca Goldstein novel, “Mind-Body Problem” (Penguin, 1993); Anzia Yerzierska’s, “Bread Givers: A Struggle Between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New World” (G. Braziller, 1975), and Gina Nihai’s “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith” (Washington Square Press, 2000).

In addition, the Santa Monica Public Library is exploring Jewish books with its program, “Between Two Worlds: Stories of Estrangement and Homecoming,” meeting the third Tuesday of each month. It will start on Feb. 21 with Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language” (Penguin, 1990), followed March 21 by a discussion of Saul Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (Penguin reissued edition, 2004). Scheduled for April 18 is the Andrea Aciman memoir, “Out of Egypt” (Riverhead Trade, 1996).


Library Group Draws Fire Over Web Site

With more than 64,000 members, the American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest organization of its type in the world. The group aims to improve the quality of libraries and to ensure equal access to information for all. This mission has included advocacy when libraries or librarians are in danger.

The Chicago-based ALA also provides an impressive array of research tools on its Web sites, including links for a multitude of subjects to help guide the work of scholars, students, library patrons and even library professionals.

But critics fault the ALA for endorsing a Web site for children that arguably takes an anti-Israel worldview. It’s the latest skirmish between pro-Israel groups and the ALA, which has intermittently devoted a great deal of energy to singling out Israel for criticism.

The offerings of the ALA matter, say observers, because the organization is both so well respected and influential. The ALA accredits librarian graduate programs, funds awards and scholarships and also is generally considered the voice of American libraries in the halls of Congress.

Through its recommendations, conventions and seminars, the ALA also influences the book collections in nearly 170,000 libraries, as well as informing the views of nearly 400,000 people who work in libraries — not to mention the patrons who use these facilities.

These days, the ALA’s reach extends into cyberspace, which is where children are directed to a Web site that Jewish groups say distorts Israel’s past.

In the world history section of the association’s Great Web Sites for Kids, the only information on the current political situation in the Middle East comes from an ALA-approved, Saudi-funded site called ArabNet.

Much of the material is cultural and not objectionable, but some entries are notably one-sided. In an entry titled, “Netanyahu — the Peace Sabotage,” young readers would learn that the former Israeli prime minister, and he alone, “had definitely slowed the [peace] process with predictable results in all quarters most directly affected by it.”

That explanation is simplistic and doesn’t take into account the political machinations of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his continuing collusion with organizations that were directing terror attacks, said David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and a professor of Jewish history.

The ALA-approved ArabNet Web site also talks of the 1948 expulsion of Arab families from Israeli-controlled areas but makes no mention of the departure or expulsion of up to 850,000 Jews and from Iraq, Yemen, Libya and other Arab countries after 1948. Nor does it note, in a section about modern Lebanon, the lengthy Syrian occupation of that nation.

ALA bylaws state that Great Web Sites should be accurate and unbiased.

To be sure, the ALA Web site’s resources for adults contain a plethora of links to organizations with contrasting views. It has links to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament — and also to Al Jazeera, the controversial Arabic television news channel and the Arab League.

The organization also has made efforts to reach out to American Jews. In 2004, the ALA launched a reading and discussion program for libraries called, “Let’s Talk About It: Jewish Literature — Identity and Imagination.” Recently, the organization established a new award for excellence in Jewish literature, which will be handed out later this year.

The Great Web Sites entries, on the whole, include many valuable resources for children, including a Web site on the Holocaust.

Still, the absence of a pro-Israel link to balance the pro-Arab link on the ALA-approved Web sites for children, troubles Jewish advocates. They argue that young children lack the sophistication to analyze and process complex information and might take the material presented by ArabNet as gospel. That’s why they have sought — unsuccessfully so far — to rectify the situation.

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), the ALA division responsible for running the Great Web Sites, recently turned down proposals from Jewish organizations, including the Los Angeles-based advocacy group, StandWithUs, to add at least one pro-Israel link to counterbalance the pro-Arab site. Janet Sarratt, co-chair of the ALSC Great Web Sites Committee, said she never shared the concerns raised by Jewish advocates with her committee colleagues because she didn’t want to influence their evaluation of the proposed pro-Israeli sites.

The frustrations of several Jewish groups notwithstanding, ALA President Michael Gorman said he had no intention of intervening in the online controversy, calling it “a divisional matter.”

Retired Texas librarian Barbara Silverman, who serves on an American Library Association committee that deals with children’s books, said the reluctance to address legitimate concerns raised by her and other Jewish librarians troubles her.

“I don’t know whether I’d say [the Great Web Sites Committee] is anti-Semitic, but they’re certainly anti-Israel,” she said.

There’s a long history to the discomfort felt by some Jewish organizations toward the ALA. Over the past 15 years, the ALA has passed three resolutions critical of the Jewish state, more than of any other country, save the United States. During that period, the ALA failed to pass a single resolution critical of Syria, China, Sudan, Iran and North Korea — countries where library rights and other freedoms are at risk on a daily basis.

“It seems like the leadership should be most concerned about issues of literacy and publishing, but rather, they focus attention on political institutions they don’t agree with,” said Paul Gertsen, a non-Jew who is a librarian at the St. Paul Public Library in Minnesota. “Naturally, that bias filters down to administrative and acquisition levels.”

It would be absurd to argue that opposing Israel heads the agenda of the American Library Association. The top-ticket items — which are bannered on the group’s Web site — include protecting and enhancing library funding and monitoring the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which threatens privacy protections.

But Israel has popped up periodically on the agenda, most recently in 2002, when the ALA passed a resolution calling on the United States and “other governments” to prevent further destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives and other cultural institutions.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) blasted the resolution, calling it biased, without factual basis and a throwback to the bad old days of the early ’90s. At the time, an Israeli government spokesperson denied that the army ever targeted books or libraries but noted that any building “used as a safe haven for terrorists and snipers” could have been “caught in the cross-fire.”

Credible reports in the Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times recorded instances of damage and vandalism to cultural resources in the Palestinian city of Ramallah during an incursion by the Israeli army in response to terrorism.

The same year that the ALA condemned Israel for allegedly destroying Palestinian libraries, it failed to blame Arab terrorism for the murder of American Israeli library staffer Dina Carter, who lost her life when a bomb detonated at Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus in Jerusalem in 2002. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. In response, the ALA generally condemned “the violence that resulted in the loss” of her life and said it “abhors the loss of all innocent lives, including Dina Carter’s, during the recent conflict in the region.”

Asked why the association failed to single out Palestinian terror, ALA President Gorman called it a matter of semantics. Gorman, also the dean of library services at California State University Fresno, said he could not explain why his organization had officially criticized Israel three times since 1991, although he vehemently denied that anti-Zionism played any role. (The ALA later rescinded one of the anti-Israel resolutions).

“The idea that there’s some kind of hotbed of anti-Israel feeling that constantly bubbles up is simply at variance with the truth,” he said.

The other two resolutions were in 1992. In one, the organization protested the deportation of a librarian at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Also that year, the ALA called on Israel to “end censorship and human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and in Israel itself.”

Under intense public pressure from the ADL and other Jewish advocacy groups, the ALA rescinded the resolution a year later in 1993. The ALA has rarely, if ever, condemned the extensive censorship practiced routinely in Middle Eastern countries outside of Israel, nor the strident anti-Semitism in many textbooks used in Muslim countries.

Moreover, the ALA issued no statement in 1999 after an arsonist destroyed a Sacramento synagogue library that housed thousands of historic Holocaust books, documents and videos. Similarly, the ALA passed no resolution in 2004 condemning the firebombing of a Jewish day school in Montreal, a hate crime that destroyed its library.

The ALA Council’s reluctance to criticize such actions suggests that it “doesn’t seem to be concerned about the destruction of any Jewish libraries, archives and resources,” said Elliot H. Gertel, Judaica curator at the University of Michigan.

In his view, ALA members by no means share a monolithic anti-Zionist viewpoint, but a number of influential association leaders apparently do. Gertel, as a member of the ALA’s Jewish Information Committee, unsuccessfully attempted to get ALA to rescind the group’s 2002 condemnation of Israel.

An ALA official explained the discrepancy by making a distinction between the acts of individuals and the acts of a government. Michael Dowling, director of the ALA International Relations Office, said his organization has not, in the past, adopted resolutions relating to the destruction of libraries by individuals.

The ALA magazine, he added, ran short articles about the attacks in Sacramento and Montreal to “make people aware of the destruction of these libraries, and those interested could assist in the rebuilding efforts.”


Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’

“New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora” by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).

Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on “Jewish community in an era of looser connections.” Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: “New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora.” Bisman’s JDub Records seeks “cross-cultural … dialogue” through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub’s breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings “Chasidic reggae.” They are the New Jews to whom the book’s authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.

Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. “What,” they ask, “does … an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?”

The authors propose a new map with “multiple homelands” that displaces Israel from “the center of the Jewish universe.” They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. “New Jews,” they argue, “connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home.”

In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s “continuity” campaigns — but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, “Queer Jews,” considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.

Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions — and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor “suspicious of the comforts of America.” At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains “intolerant of difference” when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.

Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael — though by no means dismissing its importance — the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular “Jewish geography, culture, and memory.” They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.

“The only thing that Jews have in common,” Aviv and Shneer conclude, “is the fact that they self-identify as Jews.”

To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer’s generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates — it is old news.

“New Jews'” greatest strength — that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument — also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer’s assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call “flows.” To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group’s request to hear the “traditional” melody for “Havdalah” (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum’s “V’Shamru” at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, “Allah Hu”; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song “Hallelu.”

The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on “Bill O’Reilly” and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and this year over “Christianization” and the “War on Christmas” paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it “inside,” those who are “at home.” These, too, are the experiences of “New Jews.”

Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer’s greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.

J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.


No Religious Bias in Racy ‘Bodice Rippers’

Fess up or don’t, a lot of us are reading romance novels — otherwise known as “bodice rippers.” The numbers speak for themselves, accounting for 48 percent of all popular paperback fiction published, according to the Web site of the Romance Writers of America.

And that “us” includes more than a few Jews.

While there are no statistics to prove it, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Typing “Jewish romance novel” into Google calls up dozens of bodice rippers featuring Jewish themes or characters, and not all published by small presses. And since publishers make their decisions based solely on a manuscript’s marketability, the romance novel industry is as democratic as it gets. Bottom line, these Jewish-themed books are getting published because editors know there are readers who will buy them.

Just who these readers are is hard to say, according to Mark Shechner, professor of English at State University of New York at Buffalo and co-editor of “Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Jewish-themed pulp fiction is prevalent and has a loyal following, it’s just not singled out in reviews, Shechner said.

“There are even writers of Chasidic romance fiction, like Pearl Abraham, author of ‘Romance Reader,'” he noted.

Recently published Jewish-themed romances include Persian Jewish writer Dora Levy Mossanen’s “Harem,” and her 2005 follow-up, “Courtesan”; Australian Jewish author and screenwriter Tobsha Learner’s “The Witch of Cologne,” and Southern Jewish writer Loraine Despres’ “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell.”

The list goes on, with titles also including works that seem to be a part of an emerging genre fondly termed “biblical bodice rippers” by Abigail Yasgur, executive librarian at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.

Anita Diamant’s 1998 best seller, “The Red Tent,” a fictional retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, seems to have set off the trend. Two recent releases include Eva Etzion Halevy’s “The Song of Hannah” and Rebeca Kohn’s “The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther,” which both came out in the last two years.

A Jewish tradition of romance writing may help account for this trend, Shechner said. “The earliest Yiddish writing we have is from the early 16th century, ‘Bovo of Antona,’ a Yiddish translation of the Anglo-Norman romantic epic.” Moreover, “there were courtly romances with names like ‘Pariz un Vyene’ (Paris and Vienna). There were early translations of Arthurian tales into Yiddish — very early.”

And while the genre is easy to mock, consider this before you do. Shechner believes that the Jewish culture has an intrinsic relationship with romance.

“Maybe after all, romance is one of the authentic undercurrents of the Jewish imagination,” he said. “Isn’t romance the underside of piety, the negative, the shadow, the suppressed yearning that follows duty and restraint around? That is how I look at it.”

Three Romance Books Follow Novel Paths

“The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell” by Loraine Despres (Willaim Morrow, $23.95).

Incorrigible Belle Cantrell can’t seem to help being bad — or is it just that she’s ahead of her time? Women combating social repression are a common theme of historical romance fiction, and “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell” is no exception.

The protagonist of Loraine Despres’ latest book lives in 1920s Louisiana, and whether it’s fighting for women’s suffrage or against the Ku Klux Klan, this Scarlett O’Hara with a sex drive always seems to be getting herself into trouble.

It doesn’t help that she’s fallen for a handsome Jewish Yankee with a wife back in Chicago.

Spitfire Southern girls and genteel Jewish men seem to be Despres’ specialty, having written for television shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” — including penning the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” episode. Despres is currently a producer living in Los Angeles, as well as a romance writer.

In 2002, she published her novel, “The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc,” and has followed it up this year with a prequel, “The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell.” Both feature Christian Southern belles with affections for Jewish men.

But while the protagonist of Despres’ “Bad Behavior” may seem a bit of the Southern girl cliche, the book’s sexy love scenes aren’t too purple and should leave regular romance readers satisfied. So will a host of other kooky characters and a happily-ever-after ending.

“The Witch of Cologne” by Tobsha Learner (Forge, $14.95).

Interfaith love sits at the heart of Tobsha Learner’s dark historical romance epic, “The Witch of Cologne.” The starkness of mid-1600s Germany is brought into focus through the eyes of Ruth Bas Elazar Saul, a learned midwife and the daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Deutz.

At 23, Ruth is still unwed, after running away to Amsterdam to escape having to marry a man she did not love. Ruth’s rebellious nature also leads her to study Kabbalah and modern birthing techniques in Amsterdam.

However, her inability to live a quiet life, coupled with her maternal family’s unfortunate history with an evil Spanish friar who has since become an inquisitor under the Inquisitor-General Pascual de Arragon, puts Ruth face to face with the Inquisition.

This chain of events will bring Ruth face to face with true love — in the form of nobleman and Christian canon Detlef von Tennen — and, ultimately, her greatest tragedy, as well.

As defined by the Romance Writers of America’s Web site, this story isn’t considered a romance: “In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

But apparently, emotional justice isn’t to be had in 17th century Cologne. Still, considering this book remains in good company with other “nonromances” like the film, “Titanic,” and the book, “The Bridges of Madison County,” we feel fine including it just the same.

Moreover, readers who enjoy hints of magic and circles of political intrigue woven through their romances will be pleased with this choice.

“Courtesan” by Dora Levy Mossanen (Touchstone, $14).

The exotic lives of Parisian courtesans in the Belle Epoque provide the backdrop for Persian Jewish author Dora Levy Mossanen’s latest novel, aptly and simply titled, “Courtesan.”

Mossanen’s protagonist, Simone, is yet another headstrong girl. But what’s a girl to rebel against when she has been raised in a brothel by her famous grandmother, the courtesan Gabrielle?

Simone’s best way to defy her grandmother, and the mother who followed in her footsteps, is to embrace what her grandmother rejected, namely a Jewish upbringing and a more conventional life.

Simone chooses to follow love, rather than follow their ways. And so she does, all the way to Persia, where she marries Cyrus, a Persian Jew and the shah’s jeweler. But that is just where Simone’s adventure begins, eventually taking her back to Paris and to the diamond mines of Africa.

While certainly lighter than “The Witch of Cologne,” “Courtesan,” to its credit, also does not provide the formulaic happy ending. However, its flowery prose is occasionally too much, and Mossanen’s tendency to imbue her women’s sexuality with supernatural qualities can seem silly at times.

Still, it is refreshing to find a romance that does not rely on its characters’ opposing religions to provide the story’s major obstacle.

Paint Colorful Table With Italian Dishes

While Crostini di Spuma di Tonno, Zuppa di Pesce Passato, Dolce di Tagliatelle might not sound like Jewish food, Italian Jews have long enjoyed these dishes.

Joyce Goldstein made her first trip to Italy in 1957 and instantly became what she calls a “fanatic Italophile.” The former chef-owner of San Francisco’s Square One and daughter of Russian immigrants, Goldstein threw herself into Italian art, architecture, language, culture and food.

Out of her travels and study came “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen” (Chronicle Books, $19.95). Newly released in paperback, the book is a beautifully photographed homage to a cuisine that dates back to Roman times.

It’s not exactly the first place you’d think to look for a Rosh Hashanah menu. But the Jews of Italy can trace their roots to the second century B.C.E., making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Goldstein said.

As in every corner of the Diaspora, Jewish cooks throughout the ages have used their creativity to wed regional cuisine to the laws of kashrut. Sometimes a clue lies in what is missing — no besciamella (cream) sauce or cheese on meat, for instance. The names of recipes may contain a tell-tale ending, “alla Guidia” or “alla Mosaica,” denoting “Jewish style,” “per Sabato” for Sabbath dishes or “per Pesach.”

“These are very regional Italian recipes,” Goldstein said, “and often you can tell just by looking at them where the Jews lived. Sometimes what makes these recipes Jewish is the name, like Scaloppini di Tacchino Rebecca or Minestra di Esau, but a lot of times you can’t tell, unless you see margarine or oil where they might have used butter.”

While the book is thoroughly researched, Goldstein never sacrifices flavor for authenticity. Where she finds a recipe bland, she adjusts the seasoning. “Our palates today are not used to things simple and good; they’re a little more stimulated. We’re used to eating all kinds of food here, so the ante is up and we want a little bit more flavor.”

She also admits to adjusting cooking times, as many of the oldest recipes were overcooked by today’s standards. “These are people who lived without ovens. They brought things to the baker to be cooked and picked up later, and some things were cooked a very long time. Vegetables — in those days you never got a crunch in your life,” she said.

Trained and educated as an artist, in Goldstein’s capable hands food and art blend. “When you cook you are organizing flavors and appearance, colors, smells, tastes. To me that’s like organizing a canvas when you’re painting, like the composition, choice of textures and colors. With art you don’t have smell and taste, so maybe food has an advantage, although art lasts and food gets eaten up. But both make use of creative energy.”

She is equally passionate about using locally grown ingredients. “The raw materials of the region are fabulous: Italian eggs with red yolks; flavorful, fresh chickens; vegetables that are picked one minute and served the next. Italians are totally driven by the quality of their ingredients; whereas if I go to the supermarket, when was it picked? When was it put out? When did I cook it? Three days maybe have lapsed, and it’s not as flavorful.”

Many of the ingredients traditionally used in Italian cuisine — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, pumpkin — were New World foods brought by the explorers to Spain and Portugal, where Jews, relegated to making their livelihood in trade and import, introduced them to the community at large. They were then transplanted to Italy by Sephardim who found refuge there during the Inquisition.

For Rosh Hashanah, try Stufadin di Zuca Zala (Braised Meat with Butternut Squash), reminiscent of Ashkenazic tzimmes. And no wonder. Many Ashkenazim immigrated to the Veneto, where this Venetian stew became popular. Here squash and Marsala add a touch of sweetness, bringing a wish for a sweet new year to your Rosh Hashanah table.

Traditionally for the holiday new fruits are served, and it is customary in Italy to poach quinces both for Rosh Hashanah and to break the fast for Yom Kippur. With an infusion of cloves and cinnamon, Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe (Quince in Syrup) brings a sweet, aromatic finale to your holiday feast.

Stufadin di Zuca Zala

(Braised Meat With Butternut Squash)

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 pounds cubed veal for stew

Salt to taste

1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine

1 butternut squash, about 1 pound, halved, seeds and fibers removed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and parboiled in salted water for 5 minutes

1 1/2 cups meat or chicken broth, or as needed

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Warm two tablespoons of the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. Add onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté until tender and translucent, about eight minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Warm the remaining two tablespoons olive oil in a heavy pot over high heat. Add meat and brown well on all sides, sprinkling with a little salt after it has browned. Add wine and let it bubble up. Add sautéed onions, butternut squash, and broth to cover and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until meat is tender and squash has formed a puree, one to one-and-a-quarter hours. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

Variation: You can use three-quarters of a pound carrots, peeled and grated, in place of the squash.

Makes four to six servings.

Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe

(Quince in Syrup)

2 pounds quinces

2 cups sugar

1 cup water, or as needed

2 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

In a large saucepan, combine quinces with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, uncovered, until barely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain quinces and when cool enough to handle, peel, halve, core, and cut into slices.

In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the sliced quinces, combine sugar, 1 cup water, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add quinces and additional water if needed to cover. Simmer five minutes. Then over the course of 12 hours, bring quince slices to a boil in the syrup three times, boiling them for five minutes each time. This helps to bring up the rich red color of the fruit and allows them to absorb the syrup over time.

Transfer to a serving dish and refrigerate. Serve chilled.

Makes six servings.

Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of “Melting Pot Memories” (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at

West Hollywood Lauds Ladies of Lit

Take some chick lit, throw in a dash of mystery and political awareness — plus some first-timer nervousness — and you have the makings for some thought-provoking panels at the fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, scores of writers, readers, children and adults will converge at West Hollywood Park for this year’s event. The variety of panels, authors, stages and programs means that anyone can find their niche, for example, Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein will be moderating “The Many Faces of Jewish Creative Writing.” While both genders will make a showing at that panel, many of the others are heavily weighted in favor of the well-read woman, such as “Chewing on Chick Lit: A Quasi-Serious Discussion” and “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped The Modern Mystery Novel.”

Among the Jewish authors signing, speaking and spanning several genres will be mystery writer Rochelle Krich and novelists Seth Greenland and Jennifer Coburn. There’s also a book signing by Oliver Crawford, one of the last remaining “blacklisted” writers from the 1950s. Crawford, 88, will be signing copies of his newest book, “The Last Generation.” In addition to the authors noted above, Aimee Bender, Lisa Glatt and Lynn Freed — all of whom are scheduled to attend the book fair — spoke to The Journal about their new works.

The Harsh Pain of the Bruised Apple

Lisa Glatt’s “The Apple’s Bruise: Stories” (Simon and Schuster, $12).

The apple’s bruise is its vulnerable spot, the place where all its strength and crunch disintegrates into mealy brownness. It is also hidden by the shiny skin of the apple. The stories in “The Apple’s Bruise” are like that; they are populated by regular people, for whom a regular facade reveals an uglier secret. There is the mother in “Soup,” who finds herself attracted to the boy who, years earlier, bullied her son, and who recently raped a girl. In “What Milton Heard,” a milquetoast neighbor disavows any knowledge of the serial killings happening in the apartment directly above his. A marriage disintegrates in “The Body Shop” after the husband uses his wife’s money at strip clubs and, in a burst of weirdness, carries a stripper off the stage.

But the apple’s bruise (literally) is most poignant in the first story of the collection. In “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” Jewish Hannah bites into that very spot right after her mean, non-Jewish neighbor Erika steals her turkey sandwich. Wanting to appear nonchalant, uncaring about her abuse, Hannah “chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that soft brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” Erika is the girl Hannah has to walk to school with every day, the girl Hannah overhears telling her mother that “[Hannah’s] dirty,” the girl who takes her into the garage, and eats chocolates while pinching Hannah so hard all over her body that Hannah is left with tattoos of bruises. During this little torture session, Hannah is conscious of the smell of gas.

On the day that Erika can’t walk Hannah to school because of a skin infection, Hannah walks herself and gets hit by a car. The accident is debilitating but liberating. Hannah loses “her spleen, half of her calf muscle, the baby toe from her left foot which her father will look for and never find.” But she also gains strength. She is no longer afraid of Erika, no longer worried about being that very-easy-to-squash apple’s bruise.

“Come on in Erika… I don’t bite,” she tells her, thinking that maybe she does bite, that maybe she’s becoming just that sort of girl.”

The story is an autobiographical one for Glatt, who is Jewish and was in a terrible car accident as a young girl that left her in crutches for eight years. It is also Glatt’s most obviously Jewish story, and she plans on continuing the story of Hannah in an upcoming novel.

“When I wrote “Hannah” I had read a series of Holocaust books, and I was really immersed in it for a while,” said Glatt in an interview with The Journal. “I realized, going back over the story [after it was written] that I was conscious on some level of putting those details in [such as the gas]. I was interested in the political and the social become personal.”

“I find trouble interesting,” Glatt continued. “I am interested in human beings with all [their] flaws and complexities, doing terrible things. Some people can do terrible things, and that can be interesting to me.”

Lisa Glatt will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Magical Mystery Tour

Aimee Bender’s “Willful Creatures: Stories” (Doubleday, $22.95).

The emotions in Aimee Bender’s stories are familiar, the characters, not so. While the stories in “Willful Creatures” deal delicately with loss, love, family and pain, the people in them have pumpkin heads, potatoes for children or keys for fingers. This surreal and dreamlike world is simultaneously haunting and tender. In “End of the Line” a man buys a miniature person as a pet, and then tortures him mercilessly, for an enjoyment that is cruel and empty. In the end, he lets the little man go, and the little man returns, broken, to his little community. In “Ironhead,” a family of pumpkinheads have their mettle tested when a child they bore has an ironhead (literally, an iron for a head), and though he is different, and sickly, they love him deeply. In “Dearth” a woman can’t get rid of the seven potatoes in her pot, although she tries, and she eventually comes to love them as her children.

Other stories in the collection are profoundly disturbing. In “Debbieland,” the cool girls lure a nerdy girl (‘Debbie wore the skirt all the girls had been wearing, but she wore it two months too late…) outside, and beat her up knowing she will never tell on them.

“I don’t think I could write the same stories with ordinary people,” said Bender, in an interview with The Journal. “Flannery O’Connor talks about the grotesque as an exaggerated world, where, in the distortion, you see something more clearly that you would not see outside the distortion. If something is too quiet or balanced, or if a quality is more normal, then I am less likely to see it. I am always looking for an access point of feeling, and often I feel liberated by the skewed world. I can find emotions in there that I can’t find elsewhere.”

While Bender says she has only written a handful of stories that directly address Jewish characters or being Jewish — although she did contribute an essay on the guilt she feels when everything is going well to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” ($24.95, Dutton) — she feels that her style is more Jewish than not.

“There is such a tradition of Jewish storytelling that is a little bit magical and a little bit dark,” she said. “So many of the writers that I look to as inspirations are Jewish, like Kafka. He wasn’t writing about being Jewish but he was a very Jewish writer. I do remember loving the [Torah] stories in Sunday school. I loved the bigness of those stories, and how mythic and exciting and dramatic they were. I mean — [Moses] parts the Red Sea! It is incredible. It is a great image. I think on a visceral level, that is the way my Jewishness comes through in my writing.”

Aimee Bender will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Writer’s Life

Lynn Freed’s “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home, Life on the Page” (Harcourt, $22).

The simple act of putting words on a page is something many writers find arduous, difficult and frustrating. In “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home,” a memoir that is equally raw and sensitive, Freed strips back the mystique of writing. The book is a collection of personal essays that Freed wrote over her 20 years or so as a writer, and while it reveals many tribulations that writers face, it also is an inspirational look at what makes a writer.

In “False Starts and Creative Failures,” Freed writes about her continuously aborted attempts to write a third novel. She becomes stuck on the characters name, and then the novel’s title and then the setting. For years, she fixates, unable to move beyond the 40 pages she has written. Until it is written, the novel is like an albatross around her neck. In “Doing Time,” Freed writes about the frustration she feels in teaching writing, a task that she feels is essentially enigmatic, and for many students, an exercise in futility.

“Despite all my years in creative writing classrooms, I still have no idea how to pretend to unravel the mystery,” she writes. “…I feel like a fraud…. How can I help someone breathe life into a flat and pointless piece of writing? I cannot. If there are teachers who know how to work from the abstract to the concrete, I am not one of them.”

Freed grew up in an artistic, Jewish family in Durban, South Africa. Her mother was a stage actress. Her family was traditional, and Freed attended Hebrew school three times a week.

“One can only write what one is, and as I’m Jewish it tends naturally to come into my fiction,” said Freed, in an interview with The Journal. In addition to “Reading, Writing,” she has written five novels and a collection of short stories. “[Jewishness] comes into my writing all over the place, but not because I put it there, but mainly because that is my experience.”

“When you first start writing, you don’t have an audience at all, and I think it is a blessed event,” said Freed, reflecting on the 20 years she has been a writer. “And when you have an audience, you have to resist trying to please them as you have always pleased them. With age, you have to resist trying to do the same thing again. One gets more careful, and possibly, a little slower.”

Lynn Freed will be participating in “Memoirs Light the Corners of My Mind,” at 12:15 p.m. in the Assorted Lives Pavilion.


Go Ahead — Read That Book in Shul

The sounds of the Days of Awe in synagogue: the cry of the shofar, the cantor chanting age-old melodies that go right to the heart and congregants alternatively whispering and shushing each other. Then there’s the gentle click of pages turning to their own rhythm, not in unison with the congregation.

The latter refers to a not-so-secret habit that’s growing in popularity, as an increasing number of people bring outside reading material with them to services. Some do this openly, even encouraged by rabbis, and some tuck a volume into a tallit bag for transport and then slide it into an open machzor, much like the high school tradition of folding comic books into math texts.

These independent readers — who might pull out a book during a particular part of the service in which they lose interest — are likely to be reading serious books, trying to deepen their experience of the holidays. From my experience, it’s not as though congregants are thumbing through airport novels or diet books; these special days require special books.

I’ve spotted interesting titles, from pocket editions of the Talmud to novels by Philip Roth. The book I’ve seen most often (and bring to shul myself) is the classic “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon (Schocken, 1995). First published in 1937 and in English in 1948, this is a companion to the prayer book, an anthology of texts, teachings, midrash and customs following the order of the service. Agnon, a modern writer who was well-versed in Jewish texts, writes with love of the tradition, seriousness, a sense of humor and joy, and engagement. In his section on tashlich, he tells of how the Jews of Kurdistan would go to a river and jump in, rather than simply shaking the crumbs off of their clothing, so that the water would wash away all of their sins.

Rabbi Arthur Green, in a foreword to the latest edition, suggests that readers open the book and “think of Agnon as an old Jew from a world now vanished who happens to sit down next to you.”

Most of the entries are less than a page long, some run onto a few pages, but the format makes for easy reading when there’s much else going on, like during services. Even returning to this book every year, readers will find something new.

Another anthology of note is “Days of Awe, Days of Joy: Chasidic Insights Into the Festivals of the Month of Tishrei,” compiled and adapted from the talks and writings of the rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch (Kehot Publication Society, 1998).

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has compiled a number of anthologies for the holidays, drawing on a wide range of classic and contemporary sources. His “Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation” (Jewish Lights, 2005) is published this season, featuring section introductions drawing on Arthur Green’s “These Are the Words.” Those readers who prefer meditation to prayer, or find that meditation enhances their prayer, will enjoy one of his earlier volumes, “Meditations for the Days of Awe” (Growth Associates, 1999).

Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy’s “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Ties of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002) isn’t directed toward the holidays, but readers will find comfort and inspiration in her original, personal prayers that touch on a wide range of human experience. Its compact size makes this an inconspicuous choice. She offers a prayer for daily insight:

“Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don’t have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And you are near.”

“Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004) by Rabbi David Wolpe is a first collection of his brief essays that touch upon topics like God, spiritual growth, forming families and life and death. Wolpe proves himself a master of this format: His essays are tightly woven gems based in deep learning and drawing on a huge breadth of sources.

“Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Riemer and Judith A. Kates (Touchstone, 1997) anthologizes original essays by distinguished women scholars, authors and educators, interpreting the Torah readings of the holidays. Each contributor draws deep meaning from the text, and generously shares her wisdom.

For a more straightforward introduction to the themes of the holiday, “Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and their Themes” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer (Jewish Publication Society, 2005) demonstrates how the themes of the holiday play out in the service.

Just as you don’t have to be a Conservative Jew to appreciate Hammer’s style — in fact, it’s intended for all Jews — you don’t have to be female to enjoy “Beginning Anew” nor Chasidic to find “Days of Awe, Days of Joy” of great interest.

Another category of shul books is spiritual self-help, books that help readers with their process of teshuvah. “Improve yourself, then improve others,” the sages say in the Talmud (Bava Metzia).

“60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson (Kiyum Press, 2003) is a workbook and a reading book, with kabbalistic, biblical and psychological insights, covering the period from the beginning of the month of Elul to the end of the month of Tishrei. Jacobson urges sincere preparation for all of the holidays and his approach is hands-on, with articles of daily inspiration, meditative quotes and practical exercises.

Each year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage to visit the grave of the Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in Uman, Ukraine, especially on Rosh Hashanah, and many study the teachings of this charismatic great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, born in 1772. “Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practical Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings” by Chaim Kramer (Breslov Research Institute, 1990) is an introduction to his life work and thought, organized thematically. The author emphasizes the rebbe’s teaching about seeing the good in others, judging all people favorably. Several editions of Nachman’s work are available for those who might prefer to directly encounter his words, in translation.

Not so much a self-help book but more of an analytic work, Aaron Lazare’s “On Apology” (Oxford, 2004) has much to offer related to teshuvah. For Lazare, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the process of apology is both simple and entangled, potentially powerful and transformative.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: “I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind.”

“On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourse of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik” edited by Pinchas H. Peli (Jason Aronson, 1996) is a compilation of lectures given by the late preeminent Orthodox philosopher, laying out his philosophical and theological premises for teshuvah. For the Rav, as he is still known, teshuvah is not only repentance but purification

On a more mystical note, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Thirteen-Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief” (Basic, 1985) is a remarkable synthesis of Jewish thought, and “Honey From the Rock” by Lawrence Kushner (Jewish Lights, 1999) is a first-rate introduction to the Jewish mystical tradition.

Those interested in adding a modern historical context to the holidays might particularly enjoy two fine new works of Jewish history, “American Judaism” by Jonathan Sarna (Yale, 2004) and “A History of the Jews in the Modern World” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, 2005).

And some people just prefer a good novel. Many works of fiction touch on the ideas of the holidays. Elie Wiesel’s latest work, “The Time of the Uprooted” (Knopf, 2005) is a beautifully written work that addresses, among other themes, survival, memory and new beginnings. This season, when so many people have lost their homes, the novel is particularly timely.

Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel, “Days of Awe” (Sourcebooks, 2005) is tied to these days not only by its title but by the author’s exploration, both sensitive and powerful, of God, mortality and love, set in the context of Sept. 11. At the novel’s center is a New York City family, unusually close and facing difficult times. The author creates an unconventional artful narrative, combining elements of mythology, poetry, e-mail, various points of view, descriptions of the mundane details of daily life and spiritual yearnings. This is a novel with great heart.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana likes to recommend “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman (Warner Books, 1994), an imaginative short novel about time and memory, unfolded in vignettes.

And then there’s the Book of Life. May we all be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, blessed with peace.

Between the Pages for Young, Young-at-Heart

Let’s face it. Many people go to synagogue on the High Holidays because they have to. A feeling of poorly understood and unappreciated obligation can pervade this time of year. But it doesn’t have to. You can put yourself or your children in the spirit and in the know with help from this by-no-means-comprehensive list of titles that elucidate the prayers and customs of the holiday.

For Young Children:

“My First Book of Jewish Holidays”
by Shmuel Blitz, illustrated by Tova Katz, (Artscroll Mesorah, 2004)

“My First Book,” which is beautifully illustrated, explains the historical significance of the holidays (i.e., the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, as well as the laws). In addition to their regular text, the pages have “Did you know?” boxes. It is not a storybook, but it is written clearly and its pictures are mesmerizing.

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah”
by Yaffa Ganz
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1990)

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah” is one in a series of books about Jewish holidays, in which two young children and their talking dove go on a learning mission. In this pleasantly illustrated book, children can learn about holiday customs, such as dipping an apple into honey, and different names of Rosh Hashanah. For example, Yom Hakeseh is called the Day of Concealment, because the moon is concealed on that day — just a sliver in the sky. And metaphorically, the outcome of the new year, too, is concealed from us.

For Teenagers:

“Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” by Shimon Apisdorf
(Leviathan Press, 1997)

The “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” is aimed at those who

would really rather be elsewhere during the services — sound like any teenager you know? The book gives tips about how to make the service meaningful, without being bogged down with effort. (Sample tip: “Five minutes of prayer said with understanding [and] feeling … means far more than five hours of lip service.”)

It also offers cute factoids about Rosh Hashana, presenting an easy and fun-to-read overview of the prayer service and Torah readings.

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity — “Survival Kit” does not shy away from the weightier matters; it offers compelling expositions on teshuva (repentance) and personal development.

For College Students:

“60 Days, a Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays”
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
(Kiyum Press, 2003)

In “60 Days,” Jacobson looks at the months of Elul (the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays) and Tishrei (the Hebrew month in which the High Holidays occur) as a period for self-improvement. Basing many of his teaching on Kabbalah, Jacobson goes through each day of the two months, explaining the historical significance of the day well beyond the obvious holidays. For example, the 18th of Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

But he also describes exercises to enable the reader to use the 60 days for introspection. Jacobson wants us to be our better selves, and to use that improvement for an enhanced relationship with God.

For the Prayerfully Challenged:

“Pathway to Prayer: A Translation and Explanation of All the Amidah Prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”
by Rabbi Meir Birnbaum
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1997)

Even for those familiar with the daily prayers, the Rosh Hashanah service can seem formidable. It is long, different and should ideally be infused with enough kavannah (concentration and devotion) to change the destiny of the upcoming year for the better.

In “Pathway to Prayer,” Birnbaum explains the prayers line by line — often word by word. He is not merely content with translating. Rather, he explains what the thought process should be when each word is said. For example, in the musaf prayer, the repeatedly used word. “Hagadol [the Great One], referring to God, really means God who is great “in exercising the attribute of kindness.”

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer”
by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
(Schocken Books, 2000)

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer” provides great background reading for those interested in the history and development of prayer in Judaism. The chapter on Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known, provides a brief overview of the holiday and the origins of the prayers that developed in conjunction with it.

This book will not necessarily help you navigate a machzor (special prayer book for the holidays), but it does outline what we will be saying on Rosh Hashanah (i.e., which prayer comes after which, when the shofar is blown, etc.) as well as explanations and customs of shofar blowing. Steinsaltz also explains differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic nusachs (the order of the prayers).

For Meaning Searchers:

“Days of Awe: Sfas Emes, Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes on the High Holy Days”
by Rabbi Yosef Stern
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1996)

The Sfas Emes, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger, became leader of the great Gerer Chasidic dynasty in Poland in 1870, when he was only 23. Under his guidance, Ger became one of the biggest Chasidic groups in Poland.

In this volume, Stern distills the Sfas Emes’ Chasidic teachings into illuminating essays on topics such as “The Omission of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah” to the “Symbolism and Significance” of Shofar blowing.

“This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation”
by Alan Lew
(Little Brown and Company, 2003)

“This Is Real” follows no ordinary Rosh Hashanah book path, because it encompasses so many different elements. Part memoir, part Zen mediation, part rumination on life in general, interspersed with Torah readings, Jewish teachings and Zen parables (Lew considers himself a Buddhist rabbi), this is a book that describes a soul’s journey from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, as it “heads home.”

Lew sees the High Holidays as a metaphor for life itself, and he wants us to experience “oneness with everything.” Rosh Hashanah is a time that we can “experience the truth of our lives.”

Though the title is ominous, the book is ultimately uplifting, about a person’s power to transform sadness to joy.

For General Background:
“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days”
by Shmuel Yosef Agnon
(Schocken, 1995)

This is a collection of writings on the Days of Awe culled from traditional sources, such as the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. Agnon lets the writings speak for themselves, but he compiles them in a way that tells the history of the holidays.

In the section on Rosh Hashanah, he starts with the commandment from Leviticus to observe Rosh Hashanah (“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns”).

He then moves on to descriptions from Ezra in Chronicles of the Jewish people bringing sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, and then quotes from the Mishna and Talmud about what Rosh Hashanah means.

The book is a fascinating compilation, perfect for those who want to understand the meaning of the holiday from original sources.

For Contemporary Approaches:

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays: Poems, Stories, Essays.”
edited by Steven J. Rubin
(Brandeis University Press, 2003)

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays” is not a book for those who simply want laws or traditions laid out for them. Rather it’s for those seeking creative or artistic musings on the holidays.

Gathering verse from poets as diverse as Solomon Ibn Gabirol (an 11th-century Jewish Spanish scholar) and Emma Lazarus, the poems convey a range of experience, from the spiritually awesome to the skeptically modern. The stories and memoirs are evocative. Eli Weisel tells of Rosh Hashanah in the concentration camp, others of Rosh Hashanah in the shtetl.

“The Jewish Way, Living the Holidays”
By Rabbi Irving Greenberg
(Simon and Schuster, 1988)

In “The Jewish Way,” Greenberg explains the holidays as “the quintessential Jewish religious expression, because the main teachings of Judaism are incorporated in their messages.”

In his essay on Rosh Hashanah, he explains that it is a somber time when we must confront our own mortality, since one’s life “is placed on balance scales.” In addition, Greenberg gives a summary of the prayers and customs of Rosh Hashanah.


L.A. Authors Break the Heroine Mold


California purists who like to shop local, travel local and eat local will have no problem reading local. Among the season’s offerings of new books are several impressive works by Los Angeles-based writers.

Although the many writers at work in this city choose different genres, four novelists — Maggie Anton, Merrill Joan Gerber, Lynn Isenberg and Rochelle Krich, all fine storytellers — will be particularly visible this fall, reading from and talking about their new books at venues around town (for listings, see facing page). Two of the novels are contemporary tales set in and around Los Angeles, another is a story that takes place in Florida in the 1950s and the fourth is a historical novel set in medieval France. Anton’s is a debut novel and the others are by veteran writers.

The novels are so different in tone, style and theme that it’s difficult to identify any common L.A. sensibility, but these women are writing within miles of one another, probably looking out over some of the same landscape.

As “Six Feet Under” ends its run, Isenberg’s “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, $12.95) breaks new ground as a novel involving bereavement. It’s the story of building a business, with doses of romance, challenges of friendship and family, with old rivalries and new partnerships. The book is full of humor and has been the spark of a new business.

Since writing the novel, Isenberg, a media developer, took her idea of planning one’s own very personal funeral in advance — at the heart of the novel — and turned it into an actual business, Lights Out Enterprises. This is a case of fiction inspiring reality. She wrote the book soon after her own brother and father died a year apart to the day, causing her to have lots of grief to deal with — along with much experience with funerals.

The novel’s main character, Madison Banks is an L.A.-based overachiever, a risk taker determined to build a successful business before she dies. She comes up with the idea for a personalized funeral ceremony after sitting through a dreadful canned eulogy for a dear friend, given by a minister who never met the 31-year-old woman. Her business plan is to work with individuals and their families ahead of time to create funerals that are celebrations of life rather than a mourning of death: She doesn’t seek to eliminate the grieving process but, rather, hopes to influence the way people deal with grief.

Banks always wears a watch that has the internal mechanisms showing through the Lucite face: She likes to know how all things work. Not a practicing religious Jew, she does have an affinity for ritual, Jewish and self-invented ones — they give her a sense of stability. She realizes that most of the people working in the funeral business are the sons and daughters of others who’ve worked in this business; they think largely in traditional terms, while she is able to think, so to speak, out of the box. Her business is geared to baby boomers who “want to validate their lives by giving meaning to their deaths.” Although the business initially fails, she remains determined and is open to new interesting developments in her life. The novel, from a publisher specializing in chick lit, makes for entertaining reading, and might inspire some readers to look up Lights Out.

The author, a self-described avant-garde content creator, producer and narrative marketing strategist, is the author of two previous novels, including “My Life Uncovered.” Her television credits include “Youngblood” and “I Love You to Death,” and she is the founder of the Hollywood Literary Retreat.

No question, the young women in the vintage photograph — seen peeking out the windows through Venetian blinds — on the jacket of “Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties” by Gerber (Terrace Books, $24.95) are looking at guys. And they’re trying not to be seen, while hoping to be seen.

This is a novel of college life, set at a time when college girls wear leather-heeled loafers and rarely go out without girdles. These coeds set their hair in large foam rollers, live in a strict-curfew dormitory where “four feet on the floor” is the rule when men visit and follow the dictum: Marry before graduation or be lost forever. “Glimmering Girls” is a period piece and also a coming-of-age story, particularly for Francie, a transplanted New Yorker who is one of the few Jews at the University of Florida.

Francie is also unusual in that she’s not at all desperate — like many of her classmates — to become engaged before graduation. While her roommate reads Bride’s magazine, she writes a paper on D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” During her senior year, she accepts an invitation to move out of the strict-curfew dormitory with two more worldly girlfriends into a house off-campus, sharing it with the boyfriend of one and a pair of male twins.

She doesn’t want to be a teacher or nurse — the chosen professions of those young women not marrying immediately — but wants to be a writer, although she doesn’t know what that means. As she nears graduation, she muses, “All her life she has been in a long tunnel, and finally she is about to burst into clear air and open skies.”

Gerber writes of these women’s adventures, their longings and their self-discovery with sensitivity, quiet humor and an authority that a reader guesses is born of knowing that era intimately. The author of many novels, short-story collections and nonfiction works, she teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.

Krich brings back her appealing Orthodox sleuth, Molly Blume, in her newest suspense novel, “Now You See Me…” (Ballantine, $13.95), to be published in October.

Recently married to a rabbi and author of a new true-crime book, Blume gets drawn into a case involving the daughter of a well-known rabbi who had been her teacher. The high school girl disappears, it seems, with someone she met in an Internet chatroom. The family refuses to turn to the police, in fear of the reputation of their daughter — and ultimately the entire family — in their close-knit Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

Blume visits the chatroom, struggles to get the girl’s classmates to speak openly with her, calls in favors from friends in the police department without revealing details of the missing girl and unravels some interlocking mysteries in trying to solve the case, which ultimately involved a murder. Krich’s distinctive style is to mix in details about Judaism, about the Orthodox lifestyle in particular, with the clues.

The chatroom where Hadassah meets the person who lures her to meet him is called Jspot — it’s a place where religious kids talk anonymously about sex, drugs and other subjects that are otherwise difficult to discuss in their lives. Her parents are shocked to learn that their daughter would frequent this site, and they also learn other facts of her life that are surprising. The intricacies of the plot can’t be described without giving away details key to the pleasures of discovery for readers.

The book’s epitaph is from the book of Genesis, when Dinah, the daughter of Leah, is taken by Shechem, prince of the land. “He loved the maiden and spoke her heart.”

Maggie Anton’s first novel (and the first in a projected trilogy) is inspired by her own adult study of the Talmud. Every talmudic student quickly learns of the work of the great medieval French scholar Rashi, whose commentary appears in every printed Talmud. Another column on the page includes the work of the tosaphists, the grandsons and disciples of Rashi. Anton’s book “Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved” (Banot Press, $15.95) tells the forgotten story of the generation of women sandwiched in between. She imagines what the personal and intellectual lives of the three daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel, might have been like. Little has been written of them, although they played a crucial role in Jewish scholarship.

Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon Yitzhak ben Isaac, who was born in Troyes, France, in 1040. The novel is published on the 900th anniversary of his death.

At a time when most women were illiterate, Rashi learned Talmud with his daughters. From the time of the birth of their new sister, the two elder daughters, Joheved and Miriam, began a bedtime secret ritual of studying Talmud, which readers can follow. When it is time for the family to begin thinking about a betrothal for Joheved, even though she is quite young, she makes it clear that she desires to marry a scholar. Indeed, she marries a young man who is a former student of her father. The book includes an absorbing, detailed account of the process of betrothal and marriage.

The novel is also the story of the French Jewish community in medieval times, and the daily lives of Jewish women, many of whom were vintners, merchants, midwives and mothers.

In researching the book, the author who works as a clinical chemist, visited Troyes, Rashi’s birthplace where he founded a school, consulted with scholars in medieval and Jewish studies and read books in English, French and Hebrew. l

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

Signings and Such

Signings and Such
Lynn Isenberg:
“The Funeral Planner”
Thurs., Sept. 29, 7 p.m.: Village Books
1049 Swarthmore Ave. , Pacific Palisades (310)454-4063.
Tues., Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: Dutton’s Bookstore, 447 N. Canon Drive,
Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Merrill Joan Gerber:
“Glimmering Girls:
A Novel of the Fifties”
Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Reading and talk in conjunction with Jewish Book Month.
Borders at the Westfield Santa Anita Mall, 400 S. Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.

Rochelle Krich: “Now You See Me…”

Sun., Oct. 2, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: (panel)
10 a.m.-6 p.m. (fair), “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped the Modern Mystery Novel.” Moderated by Linda Palmer. Panelists: Rochelle Krich, Naomi Hirahara, Taylor Smith and Carolyn Wheat. Signing to follow. Fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, www.weho.org/bookfair.

Mon., Nov. 14, 7 p.m.: Duttons of Beverly Hills, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Tues., Nov. 15, 5 p.m.: Book ‘Em, 1118 Mission, South Pasadena,
(626) 799-9600.

Wed., Nov. 16, 7 p.m.: Mysteries To Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 374-0084.

Thurs., Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636.

Sun., Nov. 20, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Mystery panel moderated by Nathan Walpow. Panelists: Rochelle Krich with Jerrilyn Farmer and Robert Levinson.
Jewish Federation, Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, 258 West Badillo St., Covina, (626) 967-3656.

Mon., Nov. 21, 7 p.m.: Mysterious Galaxy,
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., San Diego, (858) 268-4747.

Maggie Anton:

“Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved”

Sat., Sept. 24, 2 p.m.: Donald Bruce Kaufman-Brentwood Branch L.A. Public Library, 11820 San Vicente Blvd. (at Montana Avenue), Los Angeles, (310) 575-8273.

Fri., Sept. 30, 8 p.m.: Shabbat services at Temple Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road,
No. B, Calabasas,
(818) 880-4880.

Sun., Oct. 23, 10 a.m.: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles,
(310) 277-2772.

Thurs., Oct. 27. 12:30 p.m.: Jewish Studies Department, CSUN Grand Salon in the University Student Union (just west of Parking Lot G4 off Zelzah Avenue), Northridge, (818) 677-3007.

Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.: Long Beach JCC Jewish Book Fair (In conjunction with Cal State Long Beach’s Jewish studies department) Barbara and Ray Alpert JCC, 3801 E Willow St., Long Beach, (626) 426-7601.

Write of Passage

My first crush was the Pikesville library in Baltimore, Md. Every Saturday after synagogue, my parents would usher me into the small, ancient red brick building quietly ensconced along one of the less-developed business roads in Pikesville. I would spend what seemed like hours quietly roaming the young-adult stacks and painstakingly choosing the “friends” I would bring home with me for the week.

One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire “Box Car Children” series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy “Deenie” home in between my “Sheila the Great” and “Blubber.”

After racing through all of the books with still a few days lingering between my weekly trysts, I would start reciting the books aloud, memorizing passages and acting out the various characters. Sometimes, I gawkily went so far as to continue the books in my innumerable journals. I’d imagine my own ending to the “Narnia” books and give the “Bobbsey Twins” new mysteries to solve.

My first audience was my far-too-willing parents and my far-too-unwilling younger brother. At dinner, after my parents asked us how school was and my brother, David, retorted with the perfunctorily pithy “fine,” I immediately glimpsed my window of opportunity and launched into a new playlet. Everyone assumed I would outgrow this “little phase” of needing attention.

The day of my bat mitzvah proved otherwise.

November 1986. It was raining outside Beth Am, one of the only pre-century temples that stood proudly in a yet-to-be-gentrified, fairly unsafe neighborhood. My hair was curled like Farrah Fawcett’s and my bat mitzvah book — yes, book — whose cover I had designed and whose 11 pages I had meticulously written, was ready.

A burnt orange cover, my thematic Thanksgiving color of choice, enveloped the little novella, which proudly stood in nine piles of 11, waiting for people — my people, my audience — to read during the ceremony. As I stood up on the bimah, I took people through my book of poems, stories and Jewish anecdotes.

It was then that I realized an audience of 99 sure beats an audience of three. My dream was to both act and write.

For a while, I put writing on hold, because acting was a lot more glamorous. Yet glamour easily tarnishes and after coming out to Hollywood, the Mecca of the film industry, I acted in a lot of plays, yet somehow felt unsatisfied.

I felt limited by the words the dead male playwrights were giving me. I was Jewish — where was my voice?

It wasn’t until I met Mark Troy, a Jewish playwright who later became my fiancé, that I realized the power of the voice within me. He inspired me to write my first play. He simply put the mirror in front of me and echoed the timeless adage: Write about what you know.

Admittedly, I knew my women inside and out. They were fiercely impassioned, obnoxiously intelligent, a little zaftig and a lot Jewish.

They were me.

My plays are a reflection of my life. My first play, “First to the Egg,” was the classic boy-meets-girl; however, the boy was a nerdy schlemiel sperm and the girl was the self-important conservative egg, whom he was trying to woo. Life reflected art and art reflected life. My genesis as a playwright had fertilized and conceived.

Growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore has given me lots of fodder for my work. Dad’s a specialist on Middle East policy and Mom’s a teacher, so our dinner-table conversations were fraught with arguments, lessons and thought-provoking anecdotes. Of the five plays I have running around the country, all of them employ pseudo-intellectual/quasi-political and far-too-educated characters based on my own Jewish upbringing.

Currently, at the Elephant Theatre, my play, “Ellipses…,” is about two people who can’t finish their sentences; yet they manage to communicate better than most people.

My family rarely finished their sentences because everyone had so much to say, articulate, declare, pronounce, state, verbalize. Dad was always spewing on and on about Arab-Israeli politics, Mom would argue the benefits of communal dressing rooms at Loehmann’s, and I would champion my vegetarian ideals by disputing whether or not an egg should replace the shank bone on the seder plate.

Like the Freedman’s, the couple in “Ellipses…,” including the Jewish saleswoman who tries to help them pick out a wedding dress, are plagued with ellipses. These characters have so much to say, that they can’t finish their sentences because their minds are working too quickly.

I attempt to explore, investigate and play with my voice in various plays. Currently playing in Northern California is “Looking for Atticus Finch,” a play I wrote with Mark Troy, investigates a Jewish girl’s coming of age at Haverford College (my alma mater) and her ultimate search for a real hero. In Pennsylvania, one of my favorite plays is running: “Serial Killer Barbie,” which explores a young Jewish girl’s evolution from kindergarten to high school as she confronts anti-Semitism head on with her wit, anger and strychnine.

Who knew once upon a bimah that my coming of age was truly reflective of my adult coming of age as a writer?

Being a writer is a process. Being a Jewish writer simply furnishes a lot more schtick with which to bless my characters.

Colette Freedman’s “Ellipses…” runs through June 15 in Circus Theatricals One Act festival at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit

Meow With a French Accent

Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore. In both the United States and France, they’ve been enjoying a popular explosion among readers of all ages.

One of the stars of the explosion in France is Joann Sfar, an enfant terrible whose work has become so popular, that it can be found on the bookshelves of hip intellectuals there.

The prolific Sfar, 33, at last count is the author of 40 different comic-book series, including the wildly popular “Little Vampire” and “Big Vampire.” But only two of them — “Dungeon” and “Little Vampire” — are available in English, and they have been aimed mainly at young adult readers.

This summer, however, Sfar’s profile in the English-speaking world is likely to be raised: The first volume of “The Rabbi’s Cat,” one of his best-loved series in France, will be released in English by Pantheon Books in August. Translations of “Big Vampire” and “The Tree Man” are in the works.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” chronicles the adventures of a talking cat, who lives in Algeria with a rabbi and his daughter. The first volume in the series recounts the cat’s desire to have a bar mitzvah. Along the way, it tells the story of how the cat learned to talk — he ate the parrot — and how he took on “the rabbi’s rabbi,” chiding his master’s teacher for his narrow, dogmatic approach to Judaism.

When asked about the abundance of Jewish themes and philosophy in his work, Sfar, who was born to an Ashkenazi mother from Ukraine and a Sephardi father from Algeria, says that for him, Judaism isn’t “an all-consuming passion” it’s just what he knows best. — Lauren Elkin, Jewish Telegraphic Agency