Teens should follow in footsteps of volunteerism

As I watch the first of my six granddaughters prepare to become a bat mitzvah this spring, I am filled with pride. She and young Jews like her around the world are following in the footsteps of generations of youth who came before them, affirming to their communities that they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.

Every society has a way of marking significant stages in our lives when we celebrate our transitions and mark phases of maturing.

Moments of tremendous learning and growth, these “rites of passage” — often transformative experiences — are forever imprinted in our memories. Like rites of passage in other societies, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies have become nearly universal experiences in the Jewish community. While many children of bar mitzvah age are unable to grasp all that their newfound responsibilities entail, each one recognizes the occasion as an important turning point in their lives as Jews.

The bar mitzvah epitomizes obligation to our religious and cultural ideals.

But should the bar mitzvah be the only demonstration of a young person’s communal allegiance? There are so many values that the Jewish community embraces — values that are truly universal in nature — for which we have no outward tradition of affirming with the gravity of a bar or bat mitzvah. We say we are a people committed to chesed, or lovingkindness; tzedek, or justice; and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but oftentimes we fail to see our engagement in such activities as an expression of who we are as Jews. As a people, we need to develop a new rite of passage devoted to these pillars of Jewish action.

These Jewish values were instilled in me at an early age. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of my father involve the time I spent with him visiting and helping care for people I remember calling the “little old ladies” — women who were probably no older than I am today. My father never talked in terms of charity. He spoke only of improving lives and, in turn, making the world a better place for us all. Time and again he would say, “Each of us is worth only what we are willing to give to others.”

Through our frequent volunteering I came to see that tzedakah, or giving money, is not enough — it must be coupled with its sister tzedek, bringing us closer to the people who benefit from our giving, and impressing upon us the importance of getting our hands dirty for the sake of others. The physical aspect of service is much more transformative than writing a check.

Schools and universities are catching on, adding service to standard classroom work. Service leaders in the United States also believe that they can ignite a fire in young generations who, through service work, come to think of themselves as responsible citizens, dedicated to their civic identities and to the ideals of democracy. Just as these American leaders hope to leverage service to benefit American society, so too can the Jewish community utilize service to touch both those who serve and those who are served.

We cannot underestimate the profound impact Jewish service has on its participants. First, service adds another rich layer to the lives of those already committed to Judaism. It is a channel for young Jews to expand their Jewish identities, to think about Judaism as a holistic living experience.

At the same time, service also reaches out to the Jewishly uninspired. Many young people today speak the language of universalism, choosing to view the world from that vantage point and inadvertently turning away from the particulars of Judaism.

Accordingly, Jewish service can give universalists a chance to live out their broader values in a Jewish context, to learn that they can be both Jews and humans.

Thinking about all this as a philanthropist, I began to tackle the question of how I could encourage more young Jews to engage in service. How could my philanthropy help to make service a universal Jewish experience?

Our Center for Leadership Initiatives, a new operating foundation that I helped establish in 2006, sponsored 550 young adults’ participation in service projects in northern Israel this winter, to assist the region after this past summer’s war. More than 3,000 young people from around the world applied to our Leading Up North program, and this incredible number alone shows how much this generation is eager to be involved.

When the volunteers we took to Israel finished their days fixing bomb shelters and preparing charred forests for replanting, they spent their evenings in discussion with young Israelis who have chosen to live in the socio-economically challenged regions of the country in order to bring about change. They met with Israelis and other Jews from around the world who are deeply engaged in service, working with non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities.

It was incredibly moving for me to spend time with them in Israel, hearing their impassioned words and responses. With more opportunities, they will come to see service as their unique contribution and as their duty.

In response, our foundation has not stopped with Leading Up North. We continue to support Jewish service in many ways, including J-Serve, a national Jewish teen day of service, and an online networking site and follow-up programming for alumni of Jewish service programs.

Whether you call it volunteerism, community service, tzedek, social action or something else altogether, an intense service experience must become a rite of passage for all young Jews. When it does, our community will be living the values, invested in positive change — both within the Jewish community and the general society — planting the seeds for their children to flourish, and returning the favor in a never-ending cycle.

And so I challenge all of us to step it up. Let’s step up the number of young Jews doing service. Let’s step up support for Jewish organizations that provide authentic service programs, significantly expanding their reach. Let’s step up our commitment to tzedek and tikkun olam. Let’s unite our community with a sincere, shared obligation to Jewish service. Let’s make service universal.

This column courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lynn Schusterman is chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Eco-Friendly Parties Mix Mitzvah, Simcha

Three days after my son, Will, ascended the bimah as a bar mitzvah, I stopped by our shul to drop off some books and thank the principal of the Hebrew school and others who made his big day such a wonderful experience.

When I got back in my car and drove past the piles of huge trash bags outside the shul’s kitchen door, I got a jarring jolt of reality: white plastic fork tines poked through the black bags and the remnant of a Mylar balloon was blowing in the breeze, caught on a nearby treetop.

While I wouldn’t classify myself as a tree hugger, I felt guilty that my hasty decision-making was impacting the environment. Had I invested a little more time and effort beforehand, I would have made more eco-friendly choices.

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year it lands on Shabbat. What better way to demonstrate our commitment to conserving our world’s precious resources than with b’nai mitzvah planning?

Selecting an environmental mitzvah project is a good starting point. But consider adding eco-friendly substitutes for white plastic tableware, Styrofoam centerpieces, Mylar balloons and elaborate banners. Are your invitations printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks?

If you need some tips, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL ) can help. The nonprofit publishes “Caring for the Cycle of Life: Creating Environmentally Sound Life-Cycle Celebrations,” which can be purchased online for $4.50. The booklet addresses brit milah, naming ceremony and weddings, and devotes three pages in the b’nai mitzvah section covering such issues as the ecology of the student’s Torah portion, what it means to fulfill the commandment of “to till and to tend” and environmental aspects of holidays, in case your child’s portion involves one. The booklet also covers Shabbat and “how solving environmental problems is an important part of tikkun olam, and then mitzvah project ideas,” said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of COEJL.

The booklet also offers lots of green mitzvah project possibilities that would appeal to kids.

Since many people have books, CDs and videos that they no longer want, you could keep those things out of the wastestream by organizing a drive and donating the items to a hospital, shelter or senior center.

eBay’s Giving Works program offers a high-tech answer. Your child can gather unneeded merchandise in good condition — sports equipment, toys, musical instruments your child had to have but then decided he hated, etc. — and sell it through this online yard sale, transferring the money raised electronically to the charity of his or her choice.

Since kids wear out or outgrow sneakers fairly quickly, why not consider adopting Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program as a mitzvah project? Nike grinds the rubber, foam and upper fabric of any brand of athletic footwear and recycles those components into new material that is used for running tracks, tennis courts, soccer fields and playground surfacing. The program features drop-off locations throughout the L.A. area.

Selecting the right invitation can set the scene for a green b’nai mitzvah day. Handmade, recycled-material paper invitations are obtainable (but not inexpensive) through Indiana-based Twisted Limb Paperworks. For those with a smaller budget, machine-made recycled paper is now available through most regular invitation purveyors. And soy-based inks are starting to gain ground, too.

Whether your family decides to celebrate the simcha quietly with an intimate gathering after services or loudly on a grand scale, food will be served. Even if it’s just challah, cake, coffee and soda, you’ll need cups, plates and utensils. Tables will have to be covered. A few balloons strategically placed outside the sanctuary will add a festive touch.

With more and more consumers clamoring for earth-friendlier options, companies are now producing products that are strong, serviceable, cost-effective and conservational.

If you’re having a colossal Kiddush, consider covering the tables with white butcher paper and using Chinet plates or platters instead of plastic. Made from recycled material, this tableware will stand up to a most generous serving of chopped herring, cheese, egg salad, gefilte fish and all the horseradish you want.

Plastic can take almost forever to break down at the city dump, so if you’re unable to use metal utensils, consider this alternative: biodegradable cutlery. Made of cornstarch, potato or tapioca starch, these utensils look great and work almost as well as plastic. However, potato-starch-based products will hold up better to heat than cornstarch ones. If you don’t find these items at your favorite party store, check with Palo Alto-based nonprofit World Centric, which sells the items online.

When you’re considering balloons, think latex. While it won’t hold helium as long as Mylar, it is made from rubber, a renewable resource that is biodegradable. Color selection is extensive, and size and shape options are pretty good, too. Specialty balloons are available through party planners and retail outlets, like 1-800-Dreidel.

Centerpieces and banners are often quite flashy and extravagant — lots of glitter, Styrofoam, plastic and all sorts of environmental unmentionables. If you choose to take the eco-track, consider using recycled paper banners and decorating tables with pi?atas or live plants, or creating something out of natural materials, like seashells and bamboo. With a little thought, it’s easy to come up with something attractive that won’t condemn the next generation to energy starvation and toxic terror.

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
” target=”_blank”>www.nikereuseashoe.com

Twisted Limb Paperworks
” target=”_blank”>www.worldcentric.org/store/cutlery.htm


Not Your Grandma’s Honey Cake

It wouldn’t be the second night of Rosh Hashanah if our friends didn’t come for dinner, contributing a cornucopia of dishes, especially divine desserts. There are enough pastries covering the buffet to keep judges at the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest busy for a week.

I always bake a chocolate and yellow swirl bundt cake, my daughter’s favorite dessert. One year, a friend came with an apple pie and a plum torte, which she placed on the buffet next to my cake. A towering pyramid of brownies vied for attention with white chocolate chip cookies and a plate of lemon squares. The intoxicating smell of a warm pear crisp tempted people who were piling their plates with pastries. When they reached the homemade honey cake, though, they made bee-lines back to their seats. Feeling embarrassed for Alice, who’d baked this wallflower, I moved the honey cake to a more prominent position and cut it into slices. Still there were no takers.

“I told you not to bring it,” Alice’s 8-year-old daughter cried. “Honey cake is boring. Nobody wants it.”

To be kind, I took a couple of slices. But Alice’s daughter was right. The cake tasted overbaked. I had been warned that dryness is a problem with honey cake, which is why I never attempted to make one. Yet I felt guilty shunning the only Rosh Hashanah dessert on the buffet. I realized honey cake had become the dowager of New Year’s celebrations, revered but seldom consumed.

“A dry honey cake will send people away for years,” said Marcy Goldman, author of “Jewish Holiday Baking” (Broadway Books, 2004). Conventional wisdom on the subject maintains that if honey cakes are removed from the oven at exactly the right time –whatever that is — the dreaded dryness will be avoided. But Goldman disagrees, explaining that many recipes call for only one-quarter cup of oil, which is not nearly enough fat to yield chewy, moist texture.

And so she began experimenting with different honey cake recipes. First, she upped the fat content. Then she realized that she had to add some sugar; using enough honey to sufficiently sweeten the cake can make it too sticky to rise. Later she addressed flavorings, adjusting their levels depending on which type of honey cake she was baking.

“If I make one honey cake, then I have to make 10 different kinds,” she said. Among her repertoire, Goldman has developed a Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake, an Eastern European Bee Sting Tart and a Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake.

The whole honey cake hullabaloo started because Goldman is fussy about honey and will not buy just any kind. In recent years, she has enlisted Elmer, a retired stockbroker-turned-beekeeper, to fill her honey needs. Elmer produces a nonpasteurized kosher honey, known to taste exquisite.

“Most honey is just sweet; it lacks rich honey flavor,” Goldman said.

Honey comes in thousands of varieties. There are more than 300 such varieties in the United States alone. They range in color from pale blond to dark walnut, and in flavor from mild and floral to herbal and robust.

The taste of this natural sweetener depends on the types of flowers its black-and-yellow creators frequent. In the United States, the most common floral destination for bees is clover, but the possibilities are endless, depending on climate and growing conditions. Like wine, honey is a truly local product that varies from region to region.

Equally enthralled by the range of honey flavors, food writer Jayne Cohen takes her family on vacation every August with a mission. As a segue between the carefree days of summer and the fall holidays to follow, they spend their vacations searching market after market for honey.

“We always bring a fragrant honey back from every trip,” said Cohen, who, along with Lorie Weinrott, is co-author of “The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book” (Clarkson Potter, 2004). She joyfully describes creamed lavender honey from Provence, wild blueberry honey from Maine, chestnut honey from Italy and honey scented with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda.

“Every year, we open a lovely new honey, and that has become our Rosh Hashanah tradition,” she said.

Last year her family vacationed in Sicily, where they found the most marvelous honey carrying the aroma of pistachio flowers.

“I prepared an elaborate Rosh Hashanah dinner for family and friends,” Cohen said. “But nobody could stop dipping apples and challah in that pistachio honey.”

It was so popular that three of her friends later visited Sicily and returned with jars of honey of their own.

While in Sicily, Cohen’s daughter, Alex, purchased a three-pack of honeys: chestnut, wild flower and thyme. Attending college in California, Alex couldn’t come home for Rosh Hashanah. Instead she bought a challah and went to a farmer’s market for tart apples. Inviting friends to her dorm room, they dipped the challah and apples into the three Sicilian honeys.

“Alex liked the idea of beginning the school and Jewish year wishing for sweetness,” Cohen said. “It was nice to see her repeating our family tradition.”

Honey has long been important to the Jewish people. Since biblical times, honey has been a symbol of abundance. Addressing Moses from the burning bush, God announced his plan to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

Back then, “milk and honey” were dietary staples, so in essence God was saying that Canaan would be a promising place to settle. In fact, the land was teeming with goats and swarming bees abounded. Canaan’s fertile soil supported grapevines and date trees, which produced a syrup also known as honey. Date syrup is similar in viscosity and texture to honey, and is equally sweet.

This abundant land offered prosperity and sweetness, which have come to represent Rosh Hashanah ideals.

During her career, Cohen has specialized in tweaking traditional Jewish recipes to create marvelous alternatives. With Rosh Hashanah in mind, she developed Honeyed Cigars with Date-Pomegranate Filling, a phyllo pastry with a Sephardi influence.

“Besides being a traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit, pomegranates have a tart taste,” said Cohen, adding that you don’t truly appreciate sweetness without contrast. For that reason, Jews from some Sephardi cultures mix pomegranates with honey. Cohen’s recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which can be found in Middle Eastern, specialty-food and gourmet markets.

Cohen highly recommends baking with a quality honey, preferably one that carries a flavor you find pleasing. Look for honeys such as orange blossom or lime blossom at farmer’s markets. At specialty stores, you can sometimes find Greek thyme honey or lavender honey.

If you can’t locate fragranced honey, mix flavors you like into commercial honey. Almond extract or a small amount of strawberry jam work well, also.

While the Rosh Hashanah dessert course should be the moment for honey to shine, it has lost out to Blondies and Mississippi Mud Pie over recent decades. There was a time when Ashkenazi Jews eagerly anticipated the holiday because it promised honey cakes galore. Every family had a bubbe or aunt who baked them. Yet a dwindling number of people recall this distant memory.

Now, just in time for Rosh Hashanah,
“I love baking,” Goldman said. “But even better than that, I love it when someone else derives pleasure from repeating my recipes, because with Jewish cooking and baking, you’re talking about more than just a recipe. You’re passing on your whole culture.”

Along with the chocolate desserts people crave, this Rosh Hashanah try baking a pastry so full of nectar that even the most ardent honey cake haters will have to admit they’re wrong.

For more tempting Rosh Hashanah baking ideas, visit Cohen’s Web site, www.ultimatebarbatmitzvah.com, which features Apple Challah Bread Pudding, along with other seasonal pastries.

Goldman revives honey cakes and other holiday confections on her Web site: www.betterbaking.com.

Marcy Goldman’s Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

11/2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup warm coffee or strong tea or Coca-Cola

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup rye or whiskey (or substitute orange juice or coffee)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

This cake is best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in one 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake, or two 5-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit. Have ready doubled up baking sheets with a piece of parchment on top

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

Make a well in the center. Add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, tea or cola, orange juice and rye or whiskey.

Using a strong wire whisk or in an electric mixer on slow speed, stir together well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom.

Spoon batter into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle top of cake(s) evenly with almonds. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets stacked together. (This will ensure that cakes bake properly.)

Bake until cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, 60-80 minutes; loaf pans, about 45-55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, baking time is 40-45 minutes.

Let cake stand 20 minutes before removing from pan.

Marcy Goldman’s Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

1 cup white sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

2 teaspoons pure vanilla

1 cup Coca-Cola

1/2 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate

1/3 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350F. Generously spray a 9- or 10-inch tube pan or angel food cake pan with cooking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.

In a food processor, add in the oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar. Blend well about 30 seconds. Add in the eggs, vanilla, and Coca-Cola. Blend well for another minute.

Fold in the dry ingredients and blend for about two minutes, until smooth, stopping the machine once or twice to ensure that ingredients are all blended and not stuck at the bottom.

Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon or pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with almonds. Place cake on baking sheet and bake until done, about 60-75 minutes, until cake springs back when gently pressed with fingertips.

Cool 10 minutes before unmolding from pan.

Dust cake with confectioner’s sugar, or cocoa. Or, drizzle on melted, semi-sweet chocolate.

Garnish with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, drizzled melted semi-sweet chocolate, or the decadent Microwave Ganache Glaze (recipe below).

Microwave Ganache Glaze

1/2 cup water or heavy cream

1 cup coarsely chopped, semi-sweet chocolate (the best quality you can find)

1 tablespoon honey

Place water or cream in a microwavable bowl and heat on high until bubbly.

Remove from microwave and whisk in the chocolate and honey, blending until smooth and glossy.

Refrigerate about two to three hours until it has thickened but is still spreadable. If it is quite stiff, warm it slightly until you can drizzle it on the cake. You can also add one-two tablespoons of unsalted butter or margarine to make it more pliable.

Jayne Cohen’s Honeyed Cigars With Date-Pomegranate Filling


About 12 sheets of frozen phyllo, plus several extra to allow for tearing

1/2 cup light, fragrant honey

1/2 cup avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) Medjool or other soft, moist dates, pitted and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon hot water

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 pinch of salt

1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling

Additional honey to brush on after baking

Thaw phyllo sheets slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the unopened package from the refrigerator two hours before you begin the recipe to allow sheets to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

In a small saucepan, warm 1/2 cup honey. Slowly add 1/2 cup oil, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in cinnamon. Remove pan from heat.

Prepare the filling. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend dates, oil, pomegranate molasses, hot water, cinnamon, and salt to a smooth paste. Add walnuts, and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a bowl.

Remove phyllo sheets from the package and carefully unroll them on a damp kitchen towel. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stack of sheets in half from short end to short end, forming rectangles approximately 6-by-17-inches (exact size will depend on brand of phyllo used). Immediately cover the cut phyllo sheets with a large piece of plastic wrap and another damp towel to prevent them from drying out.

Work with one sheet at a time, keeping the rest covered with the plastic wrap and a towel. Remove one sheet from the stack and brush it lightly and quickly with the honey-oil mixture. Carefully fold the sheet in half, bringing the short ends together and pressing down gently. Brush the new surface, now exposed, with the honey-oil.

Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling, roll it into a little sausage, and place it along the short bottom edge of the phyllo, leaving a one-inch border at the sides. Fold the bottom edge toward the center so that it just covers the filling, then fold the sides in, so the filling won’t ooze out. Brush the new phyllo surface that is exposed with more honey-oil, and continue to roll, jelly-roll fashion, brushing each new, dry phyllo surface with more honey-oil as you go.

Brush the finished cigars lightly over all surfaces with the honey-oil and place seam-side down on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle lightly with chopped walnuts. Keep the cookie sheet lightly covered with plastic wrap as you work.

Continue making cigars with more phyllo and filling, stirring the honey-oil mixture when necessary if it separates. (You can refrigerate the unbaked cigars at this point, well wrapped, up to one day before baking.)

Bake the cigars for about 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. While still hot, brush them very generously with honey. Let cool. Serve as is or cut each cigar on the diagonal into thirds.

Yield: 20-24 cigars, or if cut, three times as many bite-sized pieces.

Rosh Hashanah 5765

So, what do math and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, have in common? On this day, Jews are supposed to do a cheshbon hanefesh.

This literally means “accounting of the soul.”

We count up and categorize all the actions we’ve taken

and all the thoughts we’ve had during the year:

How many good? How many bad? How many generous?

How many selfish? How many useful? How many just a waste of time?

Then we decide which actions and thoughts we want to repeat

and which ones we will throw away.

Yom Hooledet Samech!

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birthday of the world. The Jewish/Hebrew calendar follows the cycle of the moon. The English/Gregorian calendar follows the cycle of the sun. Both calendars are divided into 12 months.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next week!

Like Grandmother,Like Granddaughter

"I really didn’t want to do it" said Chiara Greene, 16, of her bat mitzvah. "When I was 12, it really did not seem that important to me. I was not religion oriented, and I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t completely understand."

Those were not words that Chiara’s father, Richard Greene, wanted to hear. "I kept telling her you are Jewish, you are my daughter, and I want you to have this experience," he said.

Chiara was no pushover, so it took Richard three years and a "secret weapon" to convince his daughter to have a bat mitzvah.

What finally caused her to cave was that her father had found her a partner to be bat mitzvahed with — his 73-year-old mother, Eileen.

"When I realized that my grandmother was going to do it, and my dad was not going to give up, I decided it was time to start learning," said Chiara.

The last time Eileen Greene had learned Hebrew was when she was 9 years old, and attended a Hebrew class for two weeks. Chiara’s Jewish experience also stopped when she was 9, and she moved to Santa Fe, N.M., with her mother. This time around, the grandmother and granddaughter started learning Hebrew about a year ago, so that they would be able to read from the Torah at their bat mitzvahs.

"Learning Hebrew was very difficult at the beginning, but once I got the hang of it, it became a lot easier," Chiara said.

"Among the many obstacles I had to overcome while learning Hebrew were the ‘senior moments’ that lasted for more than moments — they lasted for days!" Eileen said. "It was so embarrassing. You would read it one morning and say it was wonderful, and by the evening you didn’t quite remember it all."

In June, both Chiara and Eileen were called up to the Torah in a unique grandmother/granddaughter bat mitzvah ceremony at Temple Isaiah.

"I was scared to death," Eileen said. "I was afraid of making a fool of myself. I did make a few mistakes, but when I was doing it, I was just doing it. When I said ‘Amen’ at the end, I had the funniest look on my face, like ‘phew!’"

"It was completely nerve-wracking," Chiara said. "I was shaking, and once it was over, I was still shaking, but I was relieved."

Despite the nerves, both found the experience to be immensely gratifying.

"I got to see what our religion was like," said Chiara. "I focused, learned the prayers and learnt our heritage. It was an amazing experience to see how far we had come."

"I felt so incredible to be able to read Hebrew, and to finally be able to look at the books in the synagogue and be able to recognize [the words] and not to rely on the English and the transliterations," Eileen said. "Not that I am fluent now, but I can read it. And to be able to look at the Torah and read the words — even slowly — is a wonderful feeling."

The Almanac

What It Is:

As told in the biblical Book of Esther, the Purim story recounts how Haman, the chief minister to King Ahasuerus, plotted to destroy the Jews of Persia. In Shushan, capital of Persia, Haman cast lots (purim) that fixed the date of the Jews’ doom to the 13th of Adar. Esther, the king’s Jewish wife, was urged by her cousin, Mordechai, to intercede on the Jews’ behalf. The Jews were saved, Haman hanged and Purim became a festival for rejoicing.

What’s It All About

Purim celebrates Jewish survival. Its plot and characters can be seen as archetypes for the persecuted and persecutors of all ages.

Reality Check:

Ahasuerus has been identified with Xerxes I, who ruled Persia from 486 to 465 B.C.E. The first observance of Purim dates from the Hasmonean period, but scholars have long debated the historical basis for the Purim story.

What To Do:

Attend synagogue services on Purim eve (Feb. 25) for
the raucous reading of the Book of Esther from a handwritten scroll, or

Enjoy one of the numerous Purim carnivals around town
(see Calendar page 48). Eat a festive meal.

Give shalach manot. According to Jewish law, we give a
gift consisting of food items to at least one friend, and at least two gifts of
charity to the poor.


Graggers: Noisemakers used to drown out the name of
Haman during the reading of the Megillah.

Costumes: Children traditionally dress up as characters
from the Purim story or in other outlandish get-ups.

Graggers, masks and costumes are available at Jewish gift stores.

Eating and Drinking:

Hamantashen: Triangular fruit-filled pastries, meaning
“Haman’s Ears.” Make your own or stop by any Jewish bakery.

Liquor: It’s customary for Jews to drink on Purim until
we can’t tell the difference between evil Haman and good Mordechai. Enjoy in
moderation, and don’t even think of driving afterward.

An Interesting Note:

Nowhere in the Book of Esther is God mentioned. Some scholars believe the book itself is a kind of Purim joke.

Learn More:

“The Harlot by the Side of the Road,” by Jonathan Kirsch, is an exploration of Esther’s racier side.

“The Jewish Way” by Irving Greenberg.

“Purim: Its Observance and Significance” by Avie Gold.

And More:

Visit www.jewishjournal.com and click on “Purim Links.”


Like a pareve partygoer in a world of milk and meat, I’m traipsing between two distinct December traditions. While I don’t belong in Christmas festivities, I don’t enjoy the season’s organized Jewish events. And so, I’m more confused than Anne Heche on a trip to Fresno.

The Christmas season is good to me — those swank holiday parties, the Mrs. Beasley gift baskets, not to mention Pottery Barn wine socks filled with free alcohol. Santa knows this Jewish girl has been a little naughty, but mostly nice. At times I am so immersed in Christmas merriment that I forget I don’t actually celebrate the holiday.

Christmas is so secularized that it seems most Americans now embrace the December holiday fever. And I’ll admit that I, too, find myself carried along by a gust of good tidings and Tiny Tim cheer. At parties, I Ethel Merman “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I swig some eggnog and rock more than a few Jingle Bells. And let me tell you, this Jewish babe can kiss under the mistletoe with the best of them.

But in my heart I know that Christmas is not my holiday. I should have as much contact with mistletoe makeouts, stocking stuffers and yuletide festivities as I do with my ex-boyfriend. And yet, I can’t make the clean break.

But can you really blame me? Have you explored the alternative? The motley crew of Christmas counterprogramming — StuandLoserpaloozaJewzer shindigs — that our fellow Jews offer up in lieu of yuletide fun?

I checked one out once. Once.

I went, hoping a club full o’ Jews was more my scene. And at first, it seemed the Jewbilee had skyrocketing pickup potential. No way would I leave this function without a Kate Spade full of digits.

Yet despite the robust five-guys-to-every-girl ratio, this meeting of the MOTs (Members of the Tribe) was as socially rewarding as a Blockbuster night. The single men who answered this open-casting call hit me with pickup lines like “My mohel was impressed,” or my favorite: “I’m Jewish. But if you don’t believe me, why don’t you confirm it for yourself.”

It was like a bad Jewish e-joke that someone kept forwarding to my inbox. But I couldn’t delete my way out of this one. As I right-hooked my way through the bar line, the DJ started spinning 2 Live Jews and the entire Adam Sandler Chanukah song trilogy. Don’t get me wrong. Sandler is one bachelor whose Judaism I wouldn’t mind confirming personally. But the matzah ball mosh pit was just more than I could handle. I was out of there faster than a Barry Bonds homer.

The party names alone should have sent up red flags. The Schmoozapalooza? The Hamish Hop? The Mensch Mart? We’d call the Anti-Defamation League if a non-Jew dreamt up these names. Why does our effort to throw our own holiday parties have to be so self-mocking? Can we keep up with the Joneses without keeping the kitsch? It feels like we’re overcompensating for Christmas insecurities with shtick humor and potentially detrimental self-gibing.

Maybe I’m just oversensitive. Maybe I’m just bitter because I left the Simcha soiree as single as I arrived. No, there is definitely more to my discomfort than my always-a-bridesmaid status.

It’s the tone of these events that distresses me. These Jewish galas simply try too hard and result in a caricature of our culture. Why does this night need to be different from all other nights? On all other nights, Jews drink at bars like normal people, but on Christmas night, we act like fools.

And so, yet again this year, my December quandary burns brighter than a yuletide log. What’s a Jewish girl to do? I am torn between parties where I have fun and parties where I belong. Perhaps I feel more comfortable at Christmas parties because the revelers aren’t trying to prove that they can have a good time; they simply have a good time. They aren’t looking to publicize their holiday; they’re looking to celebrate it.

So this Christmas, I won’t be returning to the Mitzvah Mixer. No booty shaking to “Jew Rule” for me. Instead, I’ll be living it up like a special episode of “7th Heaven.” I’ll be kicking it with a little drummer boy and lap dancing for Santa. But when the jolly man asks, I’ll tell him that I all really want for Christmas is a Schmoozapalooza with a bit less schmaltz.

Carin Davis, a freelance writer, is waiting for her mensch under the mistletoe.

Deep Fry Diversity

The historical foundations of Chanukah are well documented, in the Apocrypha’s First and Second Books of the Maccabees and "The Jewish War" and "Jewish Antiquities," written by the Jewish historian, Josephus, in the first century of the common era. As these sources relate, in the year 167 B.C.E. the king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decreed that only pagan gods could be worshiped in the temples, and the practice of Jewish rituals, including circumcision and Sabbath observance, was outlawed under penalty of death. Although many Jews, looking to assimilate into Hellenic society, acceded to Antiochus’ decrees, an elderly priest named Mattathias and his five sons (the middle son would become known as Judah Maccabee or "Judah the Hammer") bitterly opposed them and, after raising a rebel army, headed to the hills.

Thus began a bloody three-year guerrilla war against both the Syrian armies and the local Jewish assimilationists that culminated in the liberation of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple there.

It’s not hard to understand why, at a time of Roman rule, the rabbis may have felt obliged to play down the idea of rebellion against an imperial army and focus attention instead on the holiday’s spiritual qualities.

An especially fortunate outcome of the shift in emphasis is that down through the centuries Chanukah has developed into a celebration not merely of resistance to tyranny but also of foods cooked in oil. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more festive holiday, or one to be more happily observed, than that which prescribes the eating of fried foods.

Of these foods, certainly the most well-known is the potato latke, which in the United States has come to bear the same relationship to Chanukah as roast turkey does to Thanksgiving: The holiday is unthinkable without it. Latkes are of Eastern European origin (the word itself is Yiddish, of Slavic derivation), and their prominence at Chanukah is a result of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazic composition of American Jewry; among Sephardic Jews, potato latkes are about as common as Easter eggs. By no means, though, have the Sephardim had to forsake the pleasure of fried foods on Chanukah — far from it. The fried doughnuts called sfenj, for instance, are a North African Chanukah delicacy. Lightened with yeast, the doughnuts are glazed with a sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon and orange, as is often the case with Sephardic cakes and pastries. (Sfenj are also to be found in Israel, but even more popular there are the jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot, introduced in the 1930s by immigrants from Germany, where the new year is celebrated with jelly doughnuts.)

Fried doughnuts are really just more elaborate versions of fritters, and yeast-raised fritters doused in syrup are a Chanukah tradition throughout the Sephardic world, from Europe and North Africa to the Middle East. In Italy, the holiday is celebrated with fritters made from pureed squash, or from a more traditional yeast dough filled with raisins and anise seeds and finished with warm honey. Across the Mediterranean in Greece, a yeast dough is used to turn out fried puffs called loukomades; anyone who has ever visited the Café du Monde in New Orleans will recognize them as beignets, though loukomades are topped not with a half-inch of confectioner’s sugar (the tell-tale white powder on the shirtfront instantly identifies a recent cafe patron) but with crushed nuts and the omnipresent Sephardic sugar syrup.

In Greece, olive oil is still used for deep-frying, but this practice is no longer very widespread because olive oil’s smoke point — the temperature at which it begins to smoke, imparting an unpleasant flavor — is lower than that of many other types of oil, while its pronounced flavor tends to overwhelm sweet foods. Far more often, now, deep-frying is done with other types of oil, including sunflower oil (as in Turkey, where there has been a relatively recent transition from olive oil, a Spanish legacy), corn oil, peanut oil, and, in North America, canola oil. Still, whichever oil is used, the principle behind deep-frying remains the same. The heat of the oil causes browning in the natural sugars with which it comes into contact resulting in intense flavor, and if the oil is hot enough, steam will be produced inside the food, which pushes outward from the center and prevents the oil from being absorbed. Though surrounded by liquid, the food remains crisp. It is a culinary miracle worthy of celebratio, at Chanukah time or anytime else.

Sfenj (Yeast Doughnuts)

In Morocco, sfenj are a popular street food, often eaten for breakfast. Among North African Jews, they are traditionally made for Chanukah celebrations.

For doughnuts
1 package (about 2-1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
2-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons. vegetable or peanut oil
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon orange-flower water
1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional)
Vegetable or peanut oil for deep-frying

For syrup (optional):
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon orange-flower water
Dash of vanilla
Confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling on top of Sfenji (optional)

For syrup (if using), mix all of the syrup ingredients together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, mix the yeast with the warm water and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Let stand until the mixture becomes frothy — about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, the remaining sugar and the salt. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, oil, orange zest, orange-flower water, the chopped almonds (if using) and the yeast mixture. Make a well in the dry ingredients and carefully pour the liquid in. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the liquid until a uniform dough is formed. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is soft, about five minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place in a large, lightly oiled bowl and cover with a towel. Let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down the dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 13-inch width. With a cookie cutter or the rim of a large glass, cut out rounds about 3 inches in diameter. Use your thumbs to punch out a hole in the center as you pull up each dough round. Place the dough rounds on lightly oiled baking sheets, cover with towels and let rise until puffy, about 45 minutes.

In a large, heavy pot, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees. Drop the doughnuts in small batches into the oil (do not crowd the pot, as it would make the oil temperature fall) and fry until golden brown on both sides, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spoon or wide skimmer and let drain on wire racks.

Dip the warm doughnuts in the cooled syrup (let glaze harden slightly, then dip a second time) or sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 12.

This article appears courtesy of The Forward.

Santa in the City

Enjoyable, unique experience, totally different type of job, mostly outdoors, great fun, good pay. Santas needed. Holiday spirit a must.

I called the number listed at the bottom of the ad, and a few weeks later, I got a call. The boss (I’ll call him Mr. Green) had only one question: "Are you fat?"

"No," I replied.

Despite my lack of girth, I got the job that I had coveted for years. After an unorthodox path, I was finally Santa.

As a Jewish kid growing up in a cramped New York City apartment, I never experienced a true Christmas. You know, like the ones they show in those Budweiser commercials. In fact, Christmas was usually a melancholy time for me. In grade school, the role of Rudolph was unjustly taken away after I was accused of disruptive behavior unbecoming of a reindeer.

My family tried, but never quite could pull off the Christmas thing. Instead of a tree, we had a cactus, albeit one draped in lights. (From lighting the menorah, my folks were quite adept with lights.) They even put wrapped presents underneath that cactus. But whatever they did, however hard they tried, that damn thing was still a cactus. When other kids came over, they would bring sand instead of presents and usually ended up throwing it on one another.

The final Christmas crisis came one Christmas Eve. I was attempting to trim the cactus when I caught a thorn and had to be rushed to the emergency room. That marked the end of Christmas in the humble Hart home.

But two Adam Sandler songs later, I still wanted to be St. Nick. I applied at Macy’s, but they were only hiring elves. The Internet only featured material on child-molesting Santas. My last resort was the classifieds.

Before I could start, Mr. Green said I needed to buy a Santa suit, so I headed to a costume store in Corona, Queens, to get one. My $80 ensemble was composed of a red suit, a white wig and beard and boots. Well, they were not truly boots, they were actually vinyl pullovers.

When I arrived at the tree lot, which took up an entire block in Soho, Mr. Green was unimpressed. Mr. Green said that clearly I was a bulimic Santa. Mr. Green emphasized his disgust by threatening to sic Roscoe, his off-duty cop employee, on me. "Do you want to deal with Roscoe?" he yelled maniacally.

To make matters worse, Mr. Green’s aides, the aforementioned off-duty cop and a fanatical tree-cutter, repeatedly shouted, "You’re the worst Santa I’ve ever seen!" Before Mr. Green or one of his goons could order me to climb down a chimney or a sewer, a cable television crew requested an interview. Mr. Green primped himself for the camera. But the television people wanted the man in red, Mr. Chanukah Cactus. Mr. Green ordered me to fetch a pillow from an unkempt bed in the back of the trailer. With the soiled pillow stuffed under my red, fluffy shirt, I headed for the camera.

"What would you like to see in the New Year?" asked the reporter, holding the microphone in front of my scraggly artificial beard. "I’d like to see Bert Reynolds get a new hair weave." Mr. Green told me he wants to bury Santa.

Back on the street, well-dressed strangers pass by Mr. Green’s virtual forest in Soho, and I approach them, attempting to act jolly. "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!" I belt out.

"From your gut!" interrupts Mr. Green. "From your gut!" Not that he has any Santa experience. Regardless, I take his advice. Babies turn away. Some even cry. The Tree-Cutter gives me dirty looks as he trims with his conspicuous sharp knife. The Cop looks like he wants to cuff me on the spot. Worse, my pillow keeps falling out of my shirt.

"Have you written out your wish list?" I ask a kid in my best soft Santa voice.

"I don’t believe in Santa," she replies, walking away.

Several men walk by and ask if I’m pregnant. "Yeah," I respond. "And you’re the father." Christmas in New York City.

When night falls, I head to the corner and spot a shiny red Corvette slowly coming toward me. It comes to a halt. The window rolls down. Perhaps I have generated a tree sale. "How do you get to Broome Street?" With my morale hurting, my feet frozen, I decide to pack it in. Dejected, I slump through Soho as shoppers gawk at me. I bump into a former roommate and, thankfully, he does not recognize me.

I consider quitting when a friend offers to cast me in his movie. Well, it wasn’t exactly "Miracle On 34th Street" — more like "Maiming in the East Village." I’m glad to land the role of a stalking Santa.

As I attempt to harass the protagonist (a television star), people walk by in disbelief. "You are not a good Santa!" one man yells in a Hispanic accent. A homeless man embraces me. When the cameras roll, I grab my groin and yell, "Eat me!" to the protagonist. The natives smile. East Villagers appreciate this kind of Santa.

The next day, back at the tree stand, however, is not so terrific. It’s sunny, but the streets are empty. And I’ve lost one of my vinyl pullovers. As I try to greet the few customers, I attempt to hide one foot behind a tree. When I head to the trailer to stay warm, Mr. Green continues to taunt me about Roscoe. I go to the back and remove my Santa suit.

"Let me ask you one question," says the Cop.

"Shoot," I respond. Considering the circumstances, I guess that was a poor choice of words. "Go ahead."

"Are you Jewish?"

Next year, I’ll be a Chanukah bush.

Bring a Rabbi Home

Stumped by what to buy as a Chanukah present? This year, you can give “The Rabbi Says…” doll to someone on your list.

The lovable stuffed rabbi, a creation of the Motor City’s Gary Barris, debuted this season as “the Jewish response to teddy bears.”

“A couple of holidays ago, I was at Fred Meyer [a store similar to a Super Kmart],” Barris recalled, “and I realized that there’s really nothing out there for Jewish people in terms of gift-giving.”

This is the first such venture for Barris, 30, the creator of “Rough Edge,” a public access show frequented by Detroit rocker Kid Rock.

Contrary to popular belief, the bearded Jewish dolls do not talk. Barris has spent some energy clarifying the misunderstanding that they kvetch and plotz when squeezed. The stuffed rabbis, which retail at $11.95, come with customized tags bearing different greetings such as: “Oy, Vey,” “L’Chaim,” “Mitzvahlicious.”

Barris, who consulted with Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before creating his initial batch of 3,000 dolls, drew inspiration from Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Neil Diamond remake of “The Jazz Singer.” He went with an Orthodox look because it was ostensibly the most recognizably Jewish.

For Barris, there are no immediate plans for follow-ups, although he has not ruled out “The Rebbetzin Says…” or huggable rabbis of other denominations. However, he insisted that his toy isn’t based on either of the rabbis at Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, Mich., the Reform shul he belongs to.

So, for anyone offended by “The Rabbi Says…,” count your blessings — Barris could have invented “The Rabbi’s Mother-in-Law Says…” instead.

For information on “The Rabbi Says,” visit www.therabbisays.com  

How Can We Celebrate Now?

It is hard to look. My insides ache for the boy whose father never came home, for the office workers who watched men and women plunge to their deaths and for the little girl — now homeless — whose doll collection is buried under mountains of dust. It is so hard to look at this new world. I find momentary comfort in my son’s wish to give his toys to children who have nothing left. I wonder how my 6-year-old can understand so much when a 13-year-old expresses anger and disappointment at the disruption of his planned bar mitzvah ceremony and party.

My nephew had been preparing his Torah portion for months when a bomb went off in the Sbarro Pizza shop in Jerusalem. The mood changed overnight. No one wanted to fly to Israel, certainly not to celebrate. The fear was as much for the innocence of the group as it was for its safety. Parents worried that their adolescent children would witness something from which they would never recover.

The date and location changed, as did the Torah portion. And so my nephew began to learn a second Haftorah, this time with only weeks to prepare. New invitations were sent out. Daniel was to be called to the Torah in New York City on Sept. 15.

Jewish Law may define our 13-year-old sons and daughters as adults, old enough to observe the mitzvot, to fast on Yom Kippur and to be called to the Torah, but any parent of a bar mitzvah knows that the mere coming of age does not transform a boy into a man. And, as I learned on Sept. 11, standing just miles from Ground Zero, no matter how old you are, there can be no preparation for such an awakening.

I spent hours trying to make sense of my life in context of the bombing itself. Any sense. There is no logic, no path to follow, no leap to take. I am enveloped by a sense of dread. I fear going across town in case a bomb strikes, and I am separated from my children by Central Park. I fear the sound of sirens, any siren, one siren in the streets and what disaster — once imaginary and now all too real — it might signal. And above all, I cannot articulate how one day, one hour, has changed me so immutably, or ascribe meaning to the mundane activities that once occupied my days. With 5,000 people missing, how would I go about dressing my two young sons, suddenly at risk of being blasted into adulthood, to celebrate a more traditional route to the same end?

But Daniel’s bar mitzvah had been canceled once before. And so his parents say “yes” to the bar mitzvah, but “no” to the party. Daniel protests and pouts. His is a different kind of loss; his memories of his bar mitzvah, of the first time he is called to the Torah, will be forever intertwined with the destruction of New York’s skyline.

The phone does not stop ringing: parents afraid to leave their children alone, children afraid to leave their parents, families afraid to drive across town. It is too soon. No one is ready to celebrate, no one can even pretend. The venue changes from a large auditorium to an intimate room that holds less than half the number of people originally expected. The rabbi speaks of the men and women lost, and the entire congregation stands to chant the mourner’s “Kaddish.” The parents of the bar mitzvah thank those who come for venturing out; Daniel delivers a speech that could have only been written in the past 36 hours. The bar-mitzvah boy is only briefly the center of attention. During the luncheon that follows, the talk is of death and near death.

I know that, as a New Yorker, I am playing catch-up to the residents of Oklahoma City, Bogota and Jerusalem. When bombs exploded in those cities I paused, but I did not stop; I rode the train, went to the post office, met friends at a bar. I know that in other parts of the country my new sentiment may be foreign. I wonder if it takes a bomb in one’s own backyard before one can experience the terror and the vulnerability. I suspect it does.

Three weeks after my nephew’s bar mitzvah, my husband and I load our car and drive to Boston for the bat mitzvah of the daughter of a close friend. The foliage has transformed the countryside and transported us, however temporarily, to a world where beauty still exists. The rabbi welcomes the congregation and the invited guests. I find it almost profane that he does not mention the bombing or the lost lives in his opening remarks. Is it possible that in such a short time the world has begun to allow the trivial to be important again? Or am I wrong? Perhaps there is nothing trivial about bar or bat mitzvahs, or about any of the rituals of our daily lives. The singing and the cries of Mazal Tov sweep me up when the Havdalah service ends. The party follows, and I watch the dancing with joy and wonder.

Every night, after my children have fallen asleep and the house is still, I try not to think about the horrors my family — every family — has witnessed. Each night since the bombing I have put my children to bed and recited with them the “Shema,” as if nothing has changed in the world. I don’t want my children to know that I have gone from feeling safe in my home to feeling vulnerable; from wondering how their talents and lives will unfold, to wondering not how they will be called to the Torah, but if they will. Overnight, I went from being my children’s protector to being a mother who failed to shield her children from danger, destruction and devastation.

The ground has shifted. But as I shop for a bar-mitzvah gift for my nephew, I am also aware that life, in all of its mundane splendor, goes on.

Mixed Message

The “report card” for non-Orthodox American Jewish teens should feature either an A or a D, depending on which of two new studies you read.

With teen outreach a growing concern in the American Jewish community, a number of communities and agencies, including the Reform movement, have launched special teen initiatives and task forces in recent years. The Conservative movement has set itself a goal of doubling youth group membership.

But results of the two new studies are mixed enough that translating them into policy recommendations will not be easy.

The two research projects on affiliated Jewish teens — a national study of Conservative teens commissioned by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and a survey of Boston-area teens conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies — are the most comprehensive surveys yet of Jewish teen involvement.

Both studies consisted of interviews with approximately 1,300 teens who have celebrated bar or bat mitzvahs.

The Conservative study interviewed its participants twice, shortly after their bar or bat mitzvahs and then again four years later.

The Brandeis study surveyed teens aged 13 to 17 once in 1998-99.

Like most American Jewish youth, the majority of respondents in both studies had attended congregational Hebrew schools, rather than day schools.

The Conservative study was the more upbeat. The two studies’ findings differ in several key areas:

  • Feelings About Pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah Jewish Education

    In the Conservative study, 97 percent of respondents described their bar/bat mitzvah training as positive, with 44 percent of them describing it as “very positive.” In contrast, more than half of the Brandeis respondents said they seldom or never enjoyed Hebrew school, with two-thirds reporting they always or often felt bored there.

  • Gender Differences

    The Conservative study concluded that gender explains “very little about individual variations among the sample population.” In contrast, the Brandeis study reported that girls are more likely to participate in formal Jewish education as teens, feel positively about their Jewish education and find Israel experiences personally meaningful.

  • Attitudes Toward Intermarriage

    Fifty-five percent of the Conservative study teens said they think it is very important to marry someone Jewish, while only 32 percent of the Brandeis respondents agreed.

    Some of the differences may stem from the fact that the JTS study focused on Conservative teens, while the Brandeis study included teens in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and independent congregations.

    For example, the Conservative teens differed from Reform and Reconstructionist peers in their strong opposition to intermarriage, the Brandeis researchers said.

    That’s not surprising, since the Conservative movement forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages and does not allow non-Jewish spouses to become congregation members.

But on other issues, the Brandeis researchers said, the Conservative teens — approximately one-third of the total — had attitudes similar to those of other respondents.

It’s also possible that no single metropolitan area, like Boston, is representative of the national scene.

Some commentators said the phrasing of the questions could explain the divergent findings.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has authored a number of key studies on American Jewish identity, pointed out that Hebrew school and bar or bat mitzvah training are “not at all the same.”

For example, bar or bat mitzvah training might include tutoring and experiences at day school, and a small percentage of the respondents in the Conservative study went to day school.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center, agreed.

“The personal attention kids get in direct preparation for the bar/bat mitzvah is seen more positively” than Hebrew school, Saxe said.

Other differences may be due to spin.

Saxe described the divergences between the two studies as the difference between seeing the cup as “half empty” or “half full.”

“Do we celebrate the involvement and the knowledge of a substantial group of our B’nai Mitzvah,” Saxe asked, “or do we worry about the people who didn’t get to the bimah in the first place and who didn’t end up continuing to be involved?”

Neither study found particularly high rates of post bar/bat mitzvah Jewish education, such as part-time Hebrew high school.

Twenty-seven percent of the Conservative teens graduated from a Hebrew high school program. Only 22 percent of the 11th -graders in the Brandeis study were enrolled in formal Jewish education.

Other key findings of the Brandeis study include:

  • Parents have a strong influence on teens’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to issues such as continuing Jewish education, intermarriage and the importance of raising children as Jews. For example, teens whose parents strongly oppose intermarriage are more likely to oppose intermarriage than peers whose parents are less concerned about the issue.

  • Secular schools exert a “powerful, even dominating influence” on teens. More than a lack of interest in things Jewish, academic demands help explain the decline in Jewish involvement.

Key findings of the Conservative study include:

  • The overwhelming majority of teens said they want to maintain or increase their level of Jewish observance.

  • Ninety percent of teens attend synagogue on the high holidays, 75 percent have “some connection with organized Jewish activities” after their bar or bat mitzvahs and half have been to Israel.

The intensity of the teens’ Jewish involvement dropped significantly between their bar or bat mitzvahs and senior year of high school. The exception is opposition to intermarriage, which increased as the teens matured.

The decline in intensity was most marked in the teens’ feeling that Jewish education is “very important to their sense of Jewishness.” Two-thirds of respondents felt this after their bar or bat mitzvahs, but only half did four years later.

Synagogue attendance also fell, from 65 percent who attended services at least once a month at age 13 to just 40 percent four years later.

Yet the authors of the Conservative study take heart that patterns of Jewish identity set in the early teen years persist through high school. The feeling that being Jewish is very or somewhat important, for example, decreased little in the four years after their bar or bat mitzvahs — from 98 percent to 90 percent.

The Conservative study shows that “early educational experiences play a crucial role in shaping the Jewish identity of the younger generation,” said Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research and one of the study’s authors.

In the study’s conclusion, Kosmin writes that “the myth of the bar/bat mitzvah as an exit from Jewish life, at least in today’s Conservative synagogues” has been “debunked.”

The conclusions of the Brandeis study are more nuanced. Judaism is “important” to today’s teens, the authors write, but “only as it fits into their lives and their goals in a secular, pluralistic society.”

We’re Really the People of the Question

Why are we the People of the Book? Why aren’t we the People of the Question?

After all, before Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, like Abraham earlier, he answers God’s call to service with a question. In Exodus 3:11, he says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

I empathize completely. For who am I that I should host the seder every year, moving all the furniture out of the living room and moving in a couple dozen relatives, friends and folding chairs as well as the requisite stranger or two?

Why am I burdened with standing upright in the kitchen while all those people sit relaxed and reclining at the seder? Really, I’ll take 603,550 whining Israelites and a 40-year hike any day.

But long before sundown on April 7, the night of the first seder, I’ll be having my own culinary crisis and vowing to spend next year not in Jerusalem but at my sister Ellen’s new condo. Yep, next year I call dibs on hosting the family Sukkot celebration — a potluck, paper plate, alfresco affair.

But the point is not to match Moses’ tsuris-ridden trek through the wilderness with complaints of our own. Rather, the point is to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt and to do this by asking as many questions as possible. We begin with the proverbial “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and end, hours later, with an exasperated, “Why does ‘Chad Gadya’ have so many verses?”

Why so many questions?

For one reason, the Torah commands us, no less than four times, to tell our children the story of the Exodus. Never mind that after all these years and all those tuition payments to Jewish day schools, they should already know it.

Conveniently, the haggadah guides us in this evening of questioning and answering, which results in effectively recounting the story.

But we must tell the story in four distinct ways, for the rabbis remind us that there are four kinds of children, each asking a different question and each requiring a different approach.

The Wise Son asks, “What are the decrees, statutes and laws that God has commanded concerning Passover?” He can easily grasp the complex and profound teachings of Judaism.

The Wicked Son asks, “What does the service mean to you?” He is scornful, an outsider. We are told to reprimand him.

The Simple Son asks, “What does this all mean?” For him, we need to start at the beginning of the story, explaining slowly and carefully.

And the Fourth Son does not know how to ask a question. Not even, “Can I go to the mall?”

I too have a set of Four Sons, currently 17, 13, 11 and 9, each claiming to be the resident Wise Son and each accusing another brother of being the Wicked Son.

I explain that the Wicked Son, surprisingly, is not the problem. For he, at least, is engaged enough to pose a question and potentially can be coaxed back to Judaism. This is probably not best accomplished, however, by “blunting his teeth,” as the haggadah recommends.

The challenge is the Fourth Son, who cannot even formulate a question, who cannot even begin to understand the world around him.

And perhaps this is the second reason for this quintessential night of questions, to demonstrate that just as God leads us out of bondage in Egypt, so the act of questioning leads us out of the bondage of ignorance.

“Ask and learn,” the Apocrypha tell us.

And so we do, spending our lives firing questions. From “Where did I come from?” to “Where am I going?” From “What is life?” to “What is love?” to “What makes the world go ’round?”

And in this pedagogic process, we invent the wheel, eradicate smallpox and split the atom. We fly to the moon and delve into our subconscious. And most important, we come closer to comprehending how this huge, daunting and marvelous world works — and where we fit in.

When my son Zack was 4 and riding in the car with my husband, Larry, and me, he asked, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?”

“It depends,” my husband answered.

“No,” Zack repeated intently, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?” He wasn’t asking about automobile etiquette; he was asking, “Hey, who’s really in charge here?”

Now, at 17, he raises and lowers his own windows.

But he still asks plenty of questions. And that’s exactly what Passover teaches us to do — to ask wise, wicked and simple questions, difficult and chutzpadik ones. And to teach this critical skill to our children.

As the German Jewish inventor Charles Steinmetz said, “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.”

And who wants that to happen?

Strangers at the Feast

My worst Passover was my first in Los Angeles, more than half a lifetime ago. I had nowhere to go the first night, and the second night, a college friend took me to an institutional seder that was so sterile and faceless that I went home early and, paraphrasing Scarlett O’Hara, vowed, "As God is my witness, I’ll never go without a seder again."

And I haven’t, because since then I’ve made one every year. Only during a two-year sojourn in my extended family’s Expected Attendance Area have I failed to haul out the haggadot and start rounding up everyone who wants a place at the table.

There were only five of us at the first seder I made, in 1978, including a live-in boyfriend and a non-Jewish guy I knew from work who had always wanted to go to a seder. I had taken my 23-year-old self to J. Roth (of blessed memory) and bought copies of the most up-to-date haggadah I could find in those days before feminist, peacenik and other alternative haggadot were in mass circulation.

It was the first seder at which I drank the third and fourth cups of wine, because my family never got back to the service after shulchan orech. But no one got tipsy, because Live-In Boyfriend and I were pouring Manischewitz; nobody knew from Baron Herzog back then.

The next year, we had to put both leaves in the garage-sale Formica dining table. By 1983, the spring we lived in New Hampshire, we had graduated to fake French provincial, my parents’ old dining room set. Two years later, I made the seder about eight minutes after Live-In Boyfriend moved out.

The following spring, the love of my life had his feet under my seder table (and still does). Ten years ago, leftover marinated green beans from our wedding luncheon made a nice cold side dish. Many pages of our haggadot have been papered over with new readings.

Blood relatives are rarities at our seders: once, years ago, an uncle and aunt happened to be in town; more recently, one of my sisters lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years. My husband and I have no family in Southern California, and because guilt infliction seems to be effective only from parents to offspring, I haven’t been able to persuade my Arizona-based mom and dad to join us.

So every year we troll for folks who need a seder and don’t have one. We find them in the synagogues we belong to, sometimes in classes and at work. Every year the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism, where my husband studied for conversion six years ago, sends us two or three people. This year the role of "the gentile who’s always wanted to go to a seder" will be played by the lone Christian in my husband’s Hebrew class.

Many of the faces around the table change from year to year. People move in and out of town, in and out of our lives; we change jobs, attend different schools, find ourselves hanging out in different circles than we did the year before.

Some perennials have developed, though: folks from shul who like our combination of fun, attention to the haggadah, and enough good food to feed an army, and a longtime friend whose husband always seems bemused by our seders, which are nothing like the ones he grew up with in London.

My best friend, Barry, used to come every year and complain that we never had enough unattached gay men at our seder. Finally, he passed up our first night a couple of years ago to go to a seder that was all gay men. He came back. We’re family.

I identify with our ancestor Abraham, who always was more comfortable welcoming passersby into his tent than he was depending on the kindness of strangers. While there have been years when we’ve been invited to someone else’s home for seder, I decline with thanks. Tempting as a work-free seder might be, there are people who count on us now.

Tomorrow night, my husband and I will sit side by side and gaze out over the mixed multitude in our living room. Our dog will lie under the table, waiting for something to drop. We’ll tell the story, sing the songs, eat and drink, talk about Egypt and deliverance. And even if Elijah doesn’t show up, the Shechinah will be there.

Families, Then and Now

Joel Grishaver.

The Bible is rich in stories of passion, plagues, miracles and betrayals, but what about good parenting?

“In truth, there is no good fathering in the Bible,” said author and Jewish educator Joel Grishaver.

Grishaver, who was asked by the Skirball Cultural Center to create a Father’s Day workshop centered around the topic, said that in the Bible, “the focus is much more on husbands and wives, or the relationships among brothers. Childhood is not the focus. People go from birth to adulthood in one sentence.”

So, instead, Grishaver, the creative director of Torah Aura Productions and a popular speaker on the family-education circuit, has created “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages.” The June 15 workshop will be a lively and provocative mix of role-playing, art, debate, discussion of Jewish texts and, ultimately, an exploration of family issues closer to home.

Grishaver is an accessible and witty storyteller, adept at weaving traditional Jewish sources into contemporary discussions. In conversation, he illustrates points with references to everything from Rashi to Rod Serling, Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe. His facility with pop culture, combined with an unflagging enthusiasm for Torah study, makes him a provocative discussion leader for second-graders and seniors alike.

One segment of his Skirball workshop will be a “paper-tear midrash,” a concept first developed by Jo Milgrom. Grishaver presents a story, a midrash that may deal with anger and forgiveness, for example. After discussing any parallels to their own experience, family members then create their own visual midrash, using torn paper as the medium.

“Tearing the paper is a way to free people from the constraints of worrying about whether they can draw or not,” Grishaver said.

Another segment will be devoted to what he calls “biblio-drama,” a form of role-playing first developed by Peter Pitzele. To spark discussion, Grishaver will present several stories that highlight the emotions, ethical conflicts and risks faced by biblical parents. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, for example, had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to place their endangered male infant in a basket hidden among the reeds in order to save him. Later, an adult Moses faced the dilemma of whether to bring his family to Egypt or to send them home. Jethro was charged with the task of taking care of his own daughter as well as his grandchildren — Moses’ offspring.

“With biblio-drama, people voice the feelings of these characters in sort of a self-created midrash, and, obviously, several layers of thought and feeling emerge during discussion,” Grishaver said.

Another session of the two-hour workshop is “family beit din,” a sort of mock court in which family members are separated and placed into two or three groups that serve as tribunals for cases presented to them by Grishaver. The scenarios are thoroughly modern. The sources he cites are from centuries ago. The essential conflicts are timeless.

A case in point: Mom and Dad are divorced but have good custody arrangements. Both, however, want the child for an upcoming vacation that each is planning, respectively. The child is asked to choose between them. What to do?

A similar scenario was pondered by Jewish sages ages ago, Grishaver explained, in the form of this question: Mom and Dad both ask for a glass of water. Who should the child serve first?

“In the Talmud,” Grishaver said, “the conclusion is drawn that the child should serve Dad, since, anyway, it’s Mom’s obligation to serve Dad too. These were, after all, pre-feminist times.

“In the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ it’s decided that the child should serve whomever s/he chooses. It’s the 16th-century commentator Marashal who comes up with a pretty enlightened response. The child should put the glass of water on the table and let the parents work it out between them. In essence, Marashal concludes that it’s an unfair question to ask kids. It’s the parents who should decide.”

The Father’s Day workshop dovetails with the publication of Grishaver’s most recent book, “The Bonding of Isaac,” a collection of short fiction and essays about gender’s connection to spirituality. He described the book’s central theme as an exploration “of the dysfunctional myth of the functional family.” Using Torah as his framework, he makes the case that conflict is organic to family units, not some aberrant sign of failure.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., on Sunday, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s free with museum admission and designed for participants 7 and up. Space is limited to 50 people. Advance registration is recommended. Call (310) 440-4647.

“The Bonding of Isaac” (Alef Design Group, $21.95) may be ordered by calling (800) 845-0662.