Skirball’s founding chairman passes the baton


Addressing the more than 600 attendees of the Skirball Cultural Center’s Founders Gala last October, Howard I. Friedman, the center’s first, and until Jan. 2 its only, board chairman, spoke about one of his favorite subjects: the significance of ideas in sustaining Jewish life. 

“The Jewish people could not have survived 4,000 years in the world without the power of ideas,” Friedman, 85, told the group of business and civic leaders, without glancing at the small sheet of notes on the podium in front of him. “The Skirball idea, its mission, is embraced by the notion of celebrating the American Jewish experience. That is the foundation of this institution.” 

Friedman, who after 18 years as Skirball board chair is officially passing his baton to attorney Peter M. Weil (see adjacent story), offered the requisite “salute” to the institution’s supporters gathered in the center’s new Guerin Pavilion. He lauded Skirball Founding President and CEO Uri D. Herscher for his “indispensable leadership and inspiration.” But the manner that Friedman, in a five-minute speech that included citations from Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Winston Churchill and American-Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen, gave pride of place to the Skirball’s mission is very much in keeping with his character and emblematic of how he has served the Skirball. 

“Can you imagine,” Herscher said in an interview, “having a chair who doesn’t call you to ask you about your budget? Who basically is just interested in your mission, and ‘Uri, how are we informing the world, from our 4,000-year history, how are we informing the world that democracy is the cornerstone of civilization?’ ” 

“Just imagine having a chairman like that,” Herscher, continued. “Who is fortunate enough to have such a person, who will really give life to a new entity?”

Herscher conceived and founded the Skirball as an outreach effort of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion back when he was the college’s executive vice president and dean of faculty of the Los Angeles campus. Under his leadership, the Skirball, which opened its campus in 1996, has become independent and matured into the fullness of the original vision. 

The Skirball now attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually — including more than 80,000 schoolchildren, most of them not Jewish. Its $150 million endowment supports a varied slate of activities and exhibitions, all aimed at conveying to visitors the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. 

And, Friedman said, his own role at the helm of Skirball’s board is somewhat atypical, in that he hasn’t had to do much fundraising — “Uri is a magician,” he said. Nevertheless, speaking to the Journal from the home in Encino where he and his wife have lived since 1960, Friedman did tout one particular fundraising statistic: 40 percent of the money raised for the Skirball has come from non-Jews. 

“The next question is,” Friedman said, not waiting to see whether his interlocutor would ask the follow-up, “Why are they interested in giving to the Skirball?”

“Because the Jewish experience in America is the paradigm for America itself,” Friedman answered his own question. “And we have thousands of kids who go through that place every year, and they see the American excitement about the American experience — a very Jewish excitement about the American experience — and it turns them on, and they begin to be excited about their own immigrant American experience.”

Though Friedman’s own parents were not immigrants, all four of his grandparents were, and he grew up knowing he was “part of an immigrant generation” at a time when “most Americans could say that.” His father’s parents, originally from Romania, settled in Peoria, Ill.; his maternal grandfather came from Austria; his grandmother from Russia, and their Orthodox family made its home in Chicago, where his parents met and married and where Friedman was born in 1928. 

During the Depression, in pursuit of jobs for Friedman’s father, the family moved first to Springfield, Ill., then Lincoln, Neb., and when a job in the advertising department of an Oklahoma City newspaper opened up, they moved again. 

“Then he heard about this defunct Jewish magazine,” Friedman said. The year was 1931; the magazine was called the Southwest Jewish Chronicle. “For $100, he bought it.”

The Chronicle may not have been a venue for great journalism, but it served to connect disparate Jewish communities throughout the hinterlands of the United States with news of weddings, bar mitzvahs, High Holy Days sermons and obituaries. His father “sold some advertising,” but Friedman said that his mother “really put the paper out. She knew all the rabbis throughout the Southwest.” Friedman’s parents published the paper until the end of their lives, and the proceeds from the paper were enough to put their two kids through college. 

Friedman attended University of Oklahoma and in his senior year became involved in the cause of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, a black applicant who brought a lawsuit against the university. She was denied admission to University of Oklahoma Law School because of her race. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fisher’s favor, the university quickly created a new, separate school for black students in Oklahoma City — the Langston University School of Law, which was housed in the State Capitol. 

“They hired a lawyer to be a professor and a legal secretary to be registrar,” Friedman recalled. 

The university then again denied Fisher admission to the whites-only law school in Norman, Okla., this time on the grounds that she had been admitted to Langston. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet struck down such “separate but equal” accommodations — Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t be decided until 1954. Fisher refused to attend Langston, and two months later, her lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice, filed a new suit on her behalf. 

In the meantime, Friedman, an active member of Hillel Foundation, helped organize a campus protest in support of Friedman’s cause. According to an Associated Press report that appeared in the Jan. 30, 1948, edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, Friedman was the main speaker at the “orderly” demonstration. 

“Those who say we can have equality under separate schools are blind,” Friedman said, according to the report. In 1949, with the case headed back to the Supreme Court, Oklahoma backed down, and the University of Oklahoma Law School admitted Fisher that June; she graduated from the school in 1952. (In 1992, in a highly symbolic move, then Oklahoma Gov. David Walters appointed Fisher to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. She died in 1995.) 

Friedman went on to attend Yale Law School, and after graduating he spent two years in the Air Force, working in the Judge Advocate’s Office, representing the government in cases against its contractors. Upon leaving the service, Friedman took a teaching fellowship at Stanford University Law School, and then moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the California Attorney General’s team working on a case before the Supreme Court about the rights various Western States had to the water in the Colorado River. He then brought that case to Loeb and Loeb, the law firm where he would eventually become a partner. 

Considered one of the region’s top litigators, Friedman may be best known as the man who represented heiress Joan Irvine Smith in her many courtroom battles with the board of the Irvine Company, but he also took on more than a few pro bono clients; in 1992, he made the appeal for a stay of execution on behalf of convicted killer Robert Alton Harris to then Gov. Pete Wilson. 

Friedman took on the task at the behest of the ACLU and the California Appellate Project. Harris, who shot two 16-year-old boys in San Diego in 1978, suffered from both fetal alcohol syndrome and abusive parents. 

“I thought there was some merit to it,” Friedman said. “The governor turned us down.” Harris was executed at San Quentin  State Prison on April 21, 1992, the first to be put to death in the state of California since 1967. The date happened also to be Friedman’s 64th birthday. 

Over the course of his career, Friedman has held numerous leadership positions in Jewish organizations, including serving a term as national chair of the American Jewish Committee, the first person on the West coast to hold the position. But despite his varied accomplishments, Friedman, a self-described neoconservative, freely expressed his disappointment at certain qualities about America today. 

“I think my generation has, generally, done a poor job of passing along values to the succeeding generation and passing along the values of our traditions,” Friedman said. 

By way of illustration, he cited a quote from a 1908 book by G.K. Chesterton, titled “Orthodoxy.” 

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” Chesterton wrote. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” 

“You cannot,” Friedman said during the interview, “be true to the future unless you understand the past and treat both with the same kind of loving kindness. I can’t think of anything more un-Jewish, that we live only for the new and that we are starting from scratch to rebuild a society. That’s what the mission of the Skirball is all about.” 

The merits of tradition notwithstanding, Friedman said he has no regrets about stepping aside as chairman. 

“It’s time for a new face,” he said. “Eighteen years is a pretty long term.” But, he added, “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Drawing new interest to the Talmud


This story originally appeared on JNS.org.

Last August, in conjunction with the beginning of a new seven-and-a-half year cycle of “daf yomi”—the daily study of a double page of the Babylonian Talmud that is observed by tens of thousands of Jews worldwide—Nicholls inaugurated an online “Draw Yomi” project that day-by-day results in a hand-drawn response to what she has studied.

“Here I go. Full of optimism and hope that I will not be defeated by the daily discipline of learning,” the London-based Jewish artist wrote on her blog to initiate the project.

With drawings of a human heart, a scorpion, and the Hebrew word “Amen,” Nicholls introduces and explicates the often-arcane world of the Talmud.

“Drawing is a way to slow down and get the brain to take a different path,” she told JNS.org.

After several months, that path—which is available for view on her website, http://drawyomi.blogspot.com/—has illuminated with graphic and thought-provoking drawings a world of Jewish law, storytelling and contemplative thought that had previously been limited mostly to the word and textural study.

In Nicholl’s illustrations—each illustration is accompanied by a reference to the text from which she bases the illustration—Talmud study shifts to the visual as Hebrew letters anthropomorphize into fists, and a human skull helps to illustrate “the blessings on all the weird and wonderful things in the world.”

As a kind of warm-up to Draw Yomi, Nicholls had earlier created a drawing a day for the 49 days of the counting of the Omer. As it turned out, she missed the ritual of sitting down to draw every day. “I like the immediacy and deadline,” she said.

To create her illustrations, Nicholls, who describes herself as a traditional Jew, first studies the double page portion to get a “sense of what’s up on the daf (page)” and to search for a theme she can illustrate.

With raised fists, Jacqueline Nicholls's interpretive Talmud drawings also take on social issues. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

Sitting in her studio, she limits her time for the drawing to thirty minutes. “I use a kitchen timer,” she explained. “The drawings are not a finished piece of art–more like a sketchbook,” added the artist, who in September had a showing of her previous artwork at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.

Nicholls said she has found that drawing is not only a process of study, but also a “way of taking the daf out of the yeshiva.”

Moving even further from the yeshiva, Nicholls, who studied anatomical art and medical drawing, does not shy away from illustrating the female form. For example, to illustrate a daf that she interprets as being “all about life and babies,” she illustrates a pregnant woman in position for childbirth.

Each week, to further explore the text, Nicholls invites a learning partner to add another voice to the ongoing Talmudic conversation by engaging in chevruta—the time-honored method of Talmud study where two students bounce ideas, questions and interpretations off of each other.

“She has changed the medium for commentary,” said Rabbi Deborah Silver, who has been one of Nicholls’s chevruta partners. “She holds up a particular kind of mirror to the text,” added Silver, the assistant rabbi at Temple Adat Ari El in Los Angeles who studied with Nicholls before she began the Draw Yomi project. “I know her for along time, and this is her language,” she said.

Silver explained that the drawings are a “springboard” serving to “take the conversation deeper, quicker,” showing a more concentrated view of Nicholls’s thought process.

Depending on the Talmud daf (page), Jacqueline Nicholls's interpretation can take a whimsical approach. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

For instance, to illustrate a daf on what it means to forget, and specifically to forget Shabbat, Nicholls shows a woman missing the top of her head. “Is forgetting the same as never knowing?” she asks.

To capture a Talmud page on waiting for Shabbat to be over, Nicholls shows a clock overseen by three stars. On the belief that crying can cause blindness, she draws a tearful smoldering eye.

If there is humor in the text, Nicholls shows that, too. To illustrate a page that likens a city to a person with limbs, we don’t see a serious city with “Broad Shoulders,” as we might imagine from Carl Sandberg’s  “Chicago,” but an animated town with bent arms, cartoony fingers, even a couple of feet.

But to illustrate another page of Talmud that speaks of “cities that are dangerous to enter if you are from the wrong neighborhood,” Nicholls’s buildings grow angular, and with raised arms, look ready for a fight.

After more than half a year of the project, Nicholls has received interest from several quarters, including “a fairly right-wing chasidic chap,” and others who are approaching daf yomi using social media and international conversation. There has even been interest from those wanting to buy the drawings.

A woman with the top of her head missing in a depiction of a daf (page) from Tractate Shabbat in the Talmud by Jacqueline Nicholls. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

In May, Nicholls was also invited to serve as a scholar and artist-in-residence at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, where she presented the Draw Yomi project and heard comments from people who had been learning daf yomi for years. She said she was “pleasantly delighted” by the feedback she received.

At this stage of the Draw Yomi project, Nicholls knows “a couple of people who like my art, check in and see my drawings quite regularly and have now started learning daf yomi themselves.”

“What she does is jump the language barrier,” said Rabbi Silver.

Food, inspired by Israel


Sandy Leon, 42, grew up Catholic, but she never connected with the religion. Three years ago, she took a trip to Israel to see if, perhaps, Judaism was right for her. 

“When I got there, I wanted to embrace everything in Israel, like the food, the culture and the people,” she said. “I went to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall; it was huge for me.”

During the two and a half weeks she spent in Israel, Leon, who works as a hospital chef, took frequent trips to Jerusalem’s Arab shuk (market) in the Old City and shopped for local produce. She immersed herself in the culture, visited King David’s Tomb and explored Tel Aviv. “I traveled before, but Israel was calling to me,” she said. “It was the most beautiful experience. … I loved it.

“As soon as I came back, I knew for sure that I wanted to convert.” 

She took simple steps to start the conversion process. Leon bought a Star of David necklace in Israel and wore it every day thereafter. She also purchased a mezuzah and hung it in front of the door of her Arleta home. 

Leon started her formal conversion process in the summer of 2012. After studying initially at House of David bookstore in Valley Village, she was referred to the Judaism by Choice program, run by Rabbi Neal Weinberg — who formerly ran a conversion program at American Jewish University (AJU) — and his wife, Miri. Following a class about the Holocaust that she dropped in on, Leon realized she had made the right decision. “It was a very moving class,” she said. “I knew this was something that I wanted to do that same day.”

She studied Jewish history, prayers and rituals. She celebrated Shabbat and holidays, shul hopped, and decided to attend Temple Beth Am regularly and live a Conservative Jewish life. Her kitchen was kashered, and she started to learn Hebrew with the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute. “I was converting little by little,” she said.

During the conversion process, Leon also decided to investigate a family rumor that her ancestors were Jewish. “For years I knew, and it was always a question,” she said. “On my mother’s side, my ancestors came from Spain. I always wondered why they went to Mexico, of all places.”

Leon contacted FamilyTree.com, took a DNA test and within three months, found out she has Sephardic Jewish roots. 

Alhough her Catholic family has no intention of converting, Leon said they are very supportive of her choice. “My parents wanted to know more and why I wasn’t spiritually fulfilled as a Catholic. They told me, if you’re happy, we’re happy. They saw the positive in me during my conversion. Now they want to go to my synagogue. It’s great to be so open and not be discriminated or judged at all.”

After speaking with her family about it, and taking classes for seven months at Judaism by Choice, Leon completed her conversion by meeting with the beit din, a group of rabbis, at AJU this past March. Her sponsor was Rabbi Ari Lucas of Temple Beth Am. “I’m still shocked,” she said. “I was extremely nervous, but the rabbis made me feel so comfortable in the process. They were really good to me. Emerging [from the mikveh immersion] was such a beautiful spirit moment. I was relaxed, at ease, and I cried like a baby. The whole experience was amazing.”

To make the transition, Leon has started a home library of Jewish books, eats at kosher restaurants in Pico-Robertson, speaks as much Hebrew as possible, attends synagogue and spends time with the friends she made through the conversion program. She chose the Hebrew name Yanah Danit, which means “He (God) answers” and “God is my judge,” respectively. For fun, she explores the outdoors, sees her family, boxes, and cooks Middle Eastern and Israeli food. One of her favorite activities is reading on Shabbat, because, she said, it allows her to “disconnect from the world completely.”

Throughout her three-year endeavor, Leon was able to come back to family traditions and start new ones of her own. Looking back on her journey, she said that she wouldn’t have done anything differently. “I would not change a thing. My conversion was a memorable experience. I was blessed to have shared my journey with good, positive people around me. I have made longtime friends, and Rabbi Weinberg and his wife, Miri, made me feel like family.”

Leon has taken on a new identity, but she said that she is “proud to be a Latina Jew. It’s a great feeling to be part of two beautiful cultures and celebrate both traditions.”

Joshua Bloom: His voice is more than the sum of his parts


The old theater saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, can also be said for opera. Just ask Australian bass Joshua Bloom, who was in town last month to begin rehearsals as Masetto for the Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The opera’s seven performances run Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Masetto marks Bloom’s L.A. Opera debut. “Masetto is a small role, but a good one because you can certainly make an impression,” Bloom said during a break in rehearsal. “There are some roles where nobody remembers you, but Masetto has enough meat to it — it’s great to debut with in a major house.”

The role has already earned him accolades at other major opera houses, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised his peasant Masetto as “stalwart,” adding that his “hearty bass” made for an “endearing performance.”

Audiences may recall Bloom from his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut last year as Algernon in a striking concert version of Gerald Barry’s unpredictable operatic take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Though primarily a bass, Bloom’s flexible range comfortably negotiated this quirky comic baritone part.

Bloom’s lyric, rather than dramatic, voice type has a substance and weight that projects well, especially in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini repertory.

“A lot of the roles for my voice type are smaller, but they’re significant,” Bloom said. “Masetto is the only one who stands up to Giovanni in any meaningful way, and that makes him interesting in a cast of people who are often manipulated by Giovanni without any recourse.”

Masetto is just one of the comprimario, or supporting parts, in Bloom’s repertory. In August, he played Leporello, the Don’s servant, at a festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And when Bloom returns to L.A. Opera in May 2013 for a six-performance run of Puccini’s “Tosca” (May 18 through June 8 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), he will be playing Angelotti.

“Angelotti is another small part, but actually it’s really pivotal,” Bloom said, “and possibly my favorite small role to do. You have some really good music, and it’s very dramatic.”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon observed in an e-mail that the late tenor Charles Anthony often made his greatest impact in smaller parts. A New York Times critic, reviewing his Met debut in 1954, said Anthony even made bit parts, like the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” unforgettable.

“Angelotti is very, very important,” Conlon said. “A great deal of the first act of ‘Tosca’ absolutely depends on a strongly sung and defined Angelotti as a counterweight to the other characters.”

Conlon added that Angelotti’s escape from prison sets “Tosca’s” entire drama in motion, which ends —  (spoiler alert!) — in the violent death of the opera’s four most prominent characters.

Bloom has sung larger parts, including the title character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Nick Shadow (the Devil) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Next year, he is scheduled to sing the bass role in Gerald Barry’s opera “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.” It’s part of a double bill with Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” at a festival in Germany.

“I play Time in both shows,” Bloom said. “The role has very low notes, but also very high. Gerald likes to explore the extremes of people’s ranges, so there’s not a huge difference between his baritone and bass roles. He writes a lot of falsetto for basses as well.”

Bloom, 38, grew up in Melbourne with musician parents who exposed him to all sorts of music from a very young age. But they encouraged him to go to law school. 

“Music wasn’t something I ever thought of doing as a profession,” Bloom said. “Music, to my parents, was not a good career choice. I think they wanted me to get a real job.”

Bloom, whose father is Jewish, went to Anglican schools on a music scholarship as a cellist and double bass player. “Technically, I’m not really Jewish,” Bloom said. “My parents are firm atheists, so I was never particularly religious. I went to Jewish kindergarten. That was as far as it went. Nonetheless, obviously having a Jewish father, and my name being as it is, well, there you go.” 

Bloom majored in history at the University of Melbourne, focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Holocaust history and Russia under Stalin. He also started acting in fringe theater, “doing the odd musical.” 

“I wanted to be an actor,” Bloom said, but people who heard him sing recommended he take voice lessons. “I kind of fell into opera. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do from a young age.”

Bloom left Melbourne for New York when he was 26 and is now based in San Francisco. Since his father was originally from Chicago, Bloom said he’s never had a problem working in the United States, which became necessary for him to cultivate an interesting career.

“Australia is very isolated geographically, and the arts scene is tricky,” Bloom said. “If you want to be a full-time, professional opera singer, there’s really only one company that is available — Opera Australia.”

Over the years, Bloom has been invited back regularly to Opera Australia, but he doesn’t regret leaving. “It’s a great country,” he said, “but for opera singers, it’s a difficult environment.”

Bloom, who is on the road for most of the year, said his parents are “very proud” of his thriving singing career. But, he added, living out of suitcase gets old quickly. And there’s no time for relationships outside the work.

“I would have to establish something quickly and then manage the long-distance thing, which is difficult at the best of times,” Bloom said, adding that most of the people he meets are in the business.

Though he continues to enjoy the variety of small and large lyric roles he’s offered, Bloom said he hopes in the next decade to venture into heftier emotional terrain. One of his dream roles is King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” 

“He’s such a complex and profound character,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of pathos involved, and the music is extraordinary. Although I’ve never played him, Don Giovanni is also a role where, depending on your stage of life, you have a different insight into the character. Those roles have multiple layers, to be explored over a lifetime.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Kipah-wearing teen set for ‘America’s Got Talent’ semis [VIDEO]


Edon Pinchot, a kipah-wearing Jewish day school student, will be performing in the semifinals of “America’s Got Talent.”

Pinchot, 14, of Skokie, Ill., will be among 12 acts performing live Tuesday night on the popular NBC reality show before a a television audience that could top 10 million. The second set of 12 semifinalists will perform Sept. 4.

Other semifinalists joining Pinchot, a singer and pianist, on Tuesday’s show include singers, a dancer, a dog ventriloquist, an acrobat, a mind reader and a comedian.

Should enough TV viewers cast their votes for Pinchot, he will advance to the finals and a chance to take home the $1 million prize. He has performed an audition, in the Vegas round and in the quarterfinals to reach the semis. His kipah has made him a focal point for viewers.

Pinchot,  who is Sabbath observant and keeps kosher, is the fourth of five children and has been playing piano since he was 9. His grandmother, Ginger Pinchot of Silver Spring, Md., says Edon is “very athletic. He’s one of the stars of his soccer team, and he’s also a straight A student. He’s just kind of an all-around guy.”

The show’s three judges—Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern—are Jewish.

Pinchot will be starting high school soon at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.

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.

The forgotten Jewish aviator


As the clouds and rain gave way to evening sunshine at Maryland’s historic College Park Airport, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Washington, DC’s Adas Israel Congregation recites the kaddish for one of aviation’s pioneers who died in a crash there on June 11, 1912, exactly 100 years to that day.

A crowd gathers to pay tribute and open a museum exhibit to commemorate the Russian-born Jew who was the Wright Brothers’ most trusted instructor, and whose student became the head of the U.S. Army’s air forces in World War II.

Arthur Welsh, born Laibel Wellcher, is hardly a household name today. Were it not for his death at age 31 at the College Park, Md. airport, he’d probably be lionized along with legends of flight like the Wrights, with whom he was so closely connected.

At age 9 in 1890, Welsh came to the U.S. and settled in Philadelphia with his family. Al, as family and friends knew him, moved to Washington in 1898. He was raised Jewish, attended meetings of The Young Zionist Union and joined the U.S. Navy in 1901. He served aboard two ships until he was discharged in 1905 as a seaman, and then became a bookkeeper. He and his wife Anna Harmel were the first couple married in Adas Israel’s second synagogue, now known as the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, in October 1907.

Captivated by seeing one of the Wrights’ demonstration flights in Fort Myer, Va., in 1909, Welsh decided to become a pilot. His initial application to the Wrights was rejected, but Welsh was so determined that he traveled to their base in Dayton, Ohio, where they agreed to accept him as a student. He entered the first class of the Wright Flying School in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1910.

Welsh then trained with Orville Wright near Dayton and soon became an instructor at the Wright Flying School, where he later trained Henry “Hap” Arnold (who became the U.S. Air Force’s five-star general). He also joined the Wright’s exhibition team, and established records for both speed and altitude while he flew throughout 1910 and 1911. Welsh won a hefty $3,000 prize at the International Aviation Meet at Grant Park in Chicago in August 1911 for being the first to fly more than two hours with a passenger.

Sent to the U.S. Army’s Aviation School in College Park, Welsh in the spring of 1912 made 16 official test flights for the Army on the new Wright C plane. On June 11 of that year, Welsh and a Lieutenant Hazelhurst were attempting to meet the Army’s exacting loaded-climb test. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s (JHSGW) website, they took off at 6 p.m. and “the plane climbed to about 200 feet and then dove downward at a steep angle to gain momentum to assist the climb.” The airplane then “stalled and crashed into a field of daisies,” and “both men were killed instantly, the first fatalities at the College Park airfield.”

Paul Glenshaw, an aviation historian with the Discovery of Flight Foundation, said Welsh “was the second of only two pilots trained by Orville Wright exclusively.” Glenshaw confirmed that Welsh was the first Jewish-American pilot. Historians further believe, but cannot confirm, that Welsh was the first Jewish aviator in history.

“The Wrights were very private,” Glenshaw said this month on the 100th anniversary of Welsh’s death. “Trust was earned. They did not bring people into their inner circle very easily. By November 2011, all their pilots were gone except Welsh.”

What made Welsh different was that he “didn’t make a lot of glaring headlines,” Glenshaw said.

“He was a married man,” said Glenshaw, who added that most other early pilots were millionaires, stuntmen or racecar drivers. “Here’s a short, little guy, apparently kind of gruff but he just did sober, straight-ahead flying.”

“It was probably through [Welsh’s] sheer determination and probably a great deal of charm that he was able to get into the Wrights’ inner circle and to become their good friend,” Glenshaw added.

The cause and details of the fatal crash were not completely clear, although many observers—including journalists—were present. Welsh was apparently ejected, and crushed his skull as he crash-landed in a field of daisies. Some accounts say the wings collapsed or that the plane buckled, with one saying it fell from only 30 feet. An Army investigation concluded that Welsh was at fault, but that was disputed. Welsh and Hazelhurst were but two of 11 killed in Wright Model C flights by 1913.

Welsh’s funeral, held on June 13, 1912, was briefly postponed so that Orville Wright and his sister Katharine could come from Dayton. It was just two weeks after the funeral of their brother, Wilbur. Wright served as a pallbearer along with Lt. Arnold. Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia (which is in Washington). In his autobiography, General Arnold said Welsh “taught me all he knew, or rather, he had taught me all he could teach. He knew much more.”

Welsh’s widow died in 1926, and their daughter Aline moved to England and lived until her 90s.

The public reception marking the 100 anniversary of Welsh’s death featured speakers, the new exhibition, and descendants of the great aviator. A commemorative sign honoring his unique place in aviation history was unveiled along with an Arthur Welsh Commemorative Medal, commissioned by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) and sculpted by former Leningrad Mint Chief Engraver Alex Shagin. JHSGW President Laura Applebaum remarked that, “The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the inner circle of the Wright Brothers seemed improbable.”

Cathy Allen, former College Park Aviation Museum director, recalled how the late Adas Israel rabbi, Stanley Rabinowitz, had once insisted to her that any exhibit about Welsh should prominently say he was a Jew. Allen recalled the rabbi admonishing her by saying that, “Being Jewish is why Al Welsh is who he was”.

The Welsh exhibit in College Park runs until Sept. 3. For more information visit www.collegeparkaviationmuseum.com.

Old becomes new as couples personalize wedding ceremonies


In the months before his wedding, Jon Citel cringed at the notion of having his friends dance him to his bride at a traditional bedeken ceremony, where he would place the veil over her face.

The concept “was completely foreign to me,” he said. It “felt too traditional.”

But his bride, Ashley Novack, 26, was entranced by the tradition. “I love dancing, and this sounded like an amazing opportunity definitely not to be missed,” she said.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of community engagement at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington and the officiant at their wedding, had a suggestion: Reverse it.

“Subverting thousands of years of tradition, I would dance over to Jon,” said Novack, who called it one of her favorite moments of their 2010 wedding. “I was filled with love and joy as the remarkable women in my life encircled me and danced me over to Jon.”

Citel, 27, ended up loving it, too. “The sound of Ashley’s entourage approaching was thunderous and powerful,” he said. “I probably ended up liking it even more than Ashley.”

The Conservative-raised Philadelphia couple’s twist was by no means traditional, but it was an example of a growing practice of couples putting new spins on ancient wedding traditions. From adapting non-egalitarian parts of the ceremony to having friends officiate, it’s all part of a trend toward personalizing the wedding ceremony.

“It’s very important for people to incorporate their voices,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of the progressive Ikar community in Los Angeles. “That’s the way the old becomes new.”

Sara Cohen of Somerville, Mass., and her bridegroom decided to forego a rabbi, instead asking close friends to officiate at their 2009 wedding.

“We didn’t have a rabbi in our life that felt like ours,” said Cohen, 41. “The bigger reason was we really liked the idea of having people who know us really well do the wedding.”

They asked a lifelong friend of hers, a Jewish studies professor with Universal Life Minister credentials, and a close friend of his to perform the ceremony. But the couple also consulted with a rabbi about the ceremony, which included the traditional hallmarks.

There is no Jewish legal requirement that a rabbi or cantor officiate at a wedding; according to halachah, two witnesses are required to make the ceremony official. Having a rabbi can also add $1,000 or more to the cost of a wedding.

Some rabbis are nonplussed by the idea of clergy-free nuptials.

“It may make for a lovely ceremony, but it does not serve in any way to connect the couple in an official way to the Jewish community by someone who’s been ordained by the community,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the Union for Reform Judaism’s worship and spirituality specialist. “I think it’s sad and it’s a diminishment of connection to community and tradition.”

He also warned of the loss of premarital counseling by clergy.

But Perlmeter praised the notion of having friends participate in the wedding service in other ways. Couples long have had friends and honored guests recite the seven traditional blessings, but now couples are asking friends to add their own creative translations, blessings or even poetry readings to the blessings.

They are “personalizing it and rendering it unique,” Perlmeter said.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, rabbi in residence at Be’chol Lashon, an initiative of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, says there are practical reasons to have a rabbi officiate, including smoothing over family squabbles.

“When the rabbi takes care of it, there’s a pastoral piece involved,” she said. “Weddings are very, very emotional.”

Ra’anan Boustan, Abusch-Magder’s brother-in-law and one of the officiants at Cohen’s wedding, dismissed such concerns. Laypeople can do those things just as well or even better than a rabbi, he said, particularly if, as in many cases, the rabbi doesn’t know the couple very well.

Noting that he and his wife didn’t know their officiating rabbi well, and did not have premarital counseling with him, Boustan says, “I don’t see that was terribly preferable to the three cases in which I married my best friend from college, my wife’s sister-in-law and a friend from childhood.”

More commonly, couples are making egalitarian adaptations to ceremonies that until recently largely had been ignored outside of Orthodoxy.

For example, Orthodox brides traditionally encircle their grooms seven times under the chuppah. It’s now common for many brides and grooms to circle one another; typically each circles the other three times, then they walk around once together.

Dual-ring ceremonies, long the norm in the non-Orthodox world, are no longer unheard of among Orthodox couples.

And the tisch—a traditional time for the men to get together, discuss Torah, celebrate and sometimes be silly while the bride and female guests hold their own party as they await the bedeken—has gone egalitarian, too, with the bride and groom each holding a separate, often mixed-gender tisch.

That’s one of several suggestions that Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in New York, offers to give women a greater role in Orthodox wedding ceremonies.

Linzer also suggests that after the groom has put the veil on the bride, she wrap him in a tallit; that the couple’s Hebrew names include the mother’s as well as the father’s names; and that women are asked along with men to recite the seven wedding blessings, albeit the woman would do so in translation.

Julianne and Justin Miller of Canandaigua, N.Y., each had a tisch at their 2000 wedding and a double bedeken.

“At the first part of the ceremony, I put his kipah on him before he put the veil on me,” said Julianne Miller, 38.

Not only did that make the ceremony more egalitarian but, Miller says—in jest—it also was a chance to be sure she had the right groom.

Her husband is an identical twin.

“Before I put the kipah on him, I looked in the crowd to make sure I saw his brother,” Miller said.

Rabbi Julia Andelman, 36, and her husband, Eitan Fishbane, a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, opted out of kiddushin, the betrothal portion of the wedding ceremony in which the bridegroom “acquires” his bride by giving her a ring.

“We wanted something equally binding for both parties, and God forbid the marriage would not work out, we wanted something that would not require a get,” she said, referring to the religious divorce decree. “You need a get to dissolve to kiddushin, so if you don’t have kiddushin, you don’t need a get.”

But the couple retained the “nisuin” portion—the seven blessings known as the “sheva brachot”—binding them together as husband and wife.

“There are certainly people who could argue we’re not halachically married,” said Andelman, a former congregational rabbi who directs the Engaging Israel Project in North America.

She and Fishbane also each wore a kittel, the white robe traditionally worn by men at weddings and certain other special occasions.

Some of the creativity at weddings stems from efforts to create meaningful ceremonies within a Jewish framework for same-sex couples, said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a senior Jewish educator at the Tufts University Hillel.

“There’s a little more permission to look outside the old box,” said Ruttenberg, who maintains a website, the Kiddushin Variations (http://alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com/), with postings on rabbinic opinions regarding egalitarian ceremonies.

Aaron Dorfman and his bride, Talia Milgrom-Elcott, wanted to eliminate any portion of the ceremony that spoke of acquisition, including exchanging rings.

Instead they borrowed rings from other people and used those rings as exchanges. This way, the rings “could not be perceived as halachically effecting legal acquisition because they were not ours to give,” Dorfman said.

As a sign of protest that most U.S. states don’t sanction gay marriage, the couple, who live in New York, borrowed from a Passover tradition: As seder participants reciting the Ten Plagues traditionally spill a drop of wine for each plague in recognition of the pain of others, they spilled some of the ceremonial wine before drinking it to signal some diminishing of joy.

Drake’s profanity-laced ‘re-bar mitzvah’ video filmed in Miami shul stirs controversy [VIDEO]


Thanks to hip-hop superstar Drake’s latest music video, there are now far more eyes focusing on Temple Israel’s bimah than there are even during the High Holidays.

And even though the song’s lyrics are decidedly more profane than sacred, the Reform synagogue’s president said he hoped the video would help Jewish youth connect to Judaism.

The video, parts of which were filmed in the Miami shul’s sanctuary, purports to depict Drake’s “re-bar mitzvah,” showing the Jewish rapper reading from what appears to be a Torah. But the accompanying song, “HYFR” (Hell Yeah F***ing Right), has nothing to do with a bar mitzvah. Rather, it features profanity-filled and sexually explicit lyrics.

“But she was no angel, and we never waited / I took her for sushi, she wanted to f*** / So we took it to go, told them don’t even plate it,” Drake raps.

The video had garnered well over 1 million views by Wednesday, only five days after its release.

At first, Temple Israel’s president, Ben Kuehne, said that the video—lyrics aside—is “an embracing of religious passage.” He said, “It’s not a sacrilegious message; it’s not an antireligious message.”

But once Kuehne had a chance to review the video and the lyrics more closely, he said, “The complete video is certainly not consistent with Temple Israel’s longstanding history and reputation as a progressive voice in the Jewish Reform movement.” He added, “Temple Israel does not adopt, condone, or sponsor any aspect of the Drake video, and was not involved in its production.”

Nevertheless, Kuehne said, he hoped “Jewish youth will see the Drake video at least in part as a reminder to ‘re-commit’ themselves to their Jewish religion.”

Drake, whose real name is Aubrey Graham, was raised by his Jewish mother in Toronto and attended a Jewish day school. “I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he told Heeb magazine in 2010. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.”

The 25-year-old rapper today us one of the biggest names in hip-hop. He has been very public in embracing his Jewish roots, wearing a Chai pendant on the cover of Vibe magazine.

The video for “HYFR” opens with a clip of Drake as a boy at a bar mitzvah celebration saying “mazel tov” and then cuts to him as an adult wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl as he is shown apparently reading the Torah at Temple Israel’s bimah. A caption at the beginning of the video says the rapper “chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish faith.”

The staged footage of the purported ceremony is followed by party and dancing scenes filmed elsewhere. In many ways, it looks like a typical over-the-top bar mitzvah party—only in this case, the bar mitzvah “boy” is a famous musician who is joined by hip-hop producer DJ Khaled and fellow rapper Lil Wayne wearing a panda mask.

The camera pans a food table with bagels and what appears to be gefilte fish and smoked fish. Drake is shown being lifted in a chair and later pounding a cake with its Torah scroll decorations.

Kuehne said that those involved in the filming were “very respectful and used the temple outside and inside as we would have expected anybody to do.” He said that the producers of the video paid a standard rental fee for the use of the synagogue’s facilities.

Kuehne also said the synagogue’s Torah scroll was not used and that the scenes where Drake appears to be rapping in the sanctuary were inserted post-production. “None of the song’s lyrics were sung in the Temple Israel Sanctuary,” he said.

Yitz Jordan, an Orthodox Jewish rapper who goes by the stage name Y-Love, told JTA he is thrilled to see Drake publicly embracing his Judaism.

“I’ve been saying for years, ‘What’s it gonna take to put Drake in a yarmulke,’” Y-Love said. “I’ve been clamoring for Drake’s Jewish visibility forever.”

He dismissed the lyrics, saying he doesn’t listen to Drake for the content.

“You’re not really sitting there trying to learn about the system of wealth distribution in America,” Y-Love said. “I’m ecstatic just to see Drake in a yarmulke period.” He added, “This is going to help a lot of Jewish kids of color stand up in the hood. Drake’s doing this is really going to help those kids.”

The video’s director, Director X, told Vibe magazine that filming the video last month was a “lot of fun.”

“We were very respectful of the religion and all that happens there,” he said. “So everyone took care with thinking about what’s what, but at the same time, it’s Drake, he’s 24 having a re-bar mitzvah. So it does have a comedy element just by the scenario itself.”

The video’s YouTube page has been flooded with comments both praising and blasting Drake.

“What’s the point of committing to a religion, whose principles you are not going to follow…?” one commenter wrote. “This is just making a mockery of Judaism. I do not practice Judaism, and even I am offended.”

Another wrote, “We get it, you’re proud, which is great—celebrate it more respectfully.”

The video also had its defenders. “Drake is Jewish, his mother is Jewish and he was raised in Jewish religion,” one wrote. “In this video he shows his recognition and actually says that’s what I am.”

Grantland blogger Rembert Browne sees the video as an expression of Drake’s second coming-of-age.

“Coming to terms with who you really are, publicly, is a sign of adulthood, and with this video it’s apparent that his process of doing this is at the very least under way,” Browne wrote. He also said he never had seen Drake “as happy, on-camera, as he is in these party scenes. The look on his face screams, ‘Finally, I can be myself.’”

Painting lives: Artist helps clients mark pivot points, from bar mitzvah dreams to a dying wish


Lori Loebelsohn enters other people’s lives at pivotal moments: a marriage, a milestone birthday, a bar mitzvah. Armed with a pen and a notebook, she discusses intimate details about the inner lives of those she has just met: their passions, their most significant memories, their dreams.

She’s not a rabbi, nor is she a therapist or a life coach. Loebelsohn is an artist whose specialty is what she calls “life-cycle portraits”: personalized works of art that commemorate a special day while also reflecting upon an individual’s lifetime. Loebelsohn draws upon influences as varied as early American quilts, medieval Jewish papercuts, Celtic imagery and 17th-century ketubahs to create an original work rich in personal symbolism.

“I end up having these deep, enlightening discussions with these people I work for,” said Loebelsohn, of Glen Ridge, N.J. “I really feel like I’m a transmitter; I’m trying to transmit what they think is important.”

Loebelsohn, who has decades of experience, recently completed her biggest project: illustrating a 20-page Haggadah created by an 85-year-old man with the intent to create a family heirloom. The project presented many challenges, the artist said, including interpreting her client’s specific ideas in a visual form and keeping a consistent style over a series of some 13 images.

But the biggest obstacle proved to be the rapidly deteriorating health of the family patriarch.

“This had been on his bucket list for years and years,” Loebelsohn said. “It gave him a sense of purpose in his old age.”

Over the course of their collaboration, which began in March 2011, the elderly man grew increasingly weak. The project became a race against the clock, as Loebelsohn worked tirelessly to finish the illustrations before the man’s final hour. He signed off on the final images last November and passed away the following month.

Loebelsohn met the extended family for the first time at the funeral. They used the Haggadah the first time this Passover.

“There was something very spiritual and deep in that relationship,” said Loebelsohn, noting the dual purpose of the Haggadah. “It’s a way of keeping the Jewish Passover story alive; it’s a way of keeping this man’s memory alive.”

It’s an extreme example, to be sure, but Loebelsohn is seasoned at working with families at momentous junctures in their lives. In addition to creating custom ketubahs, one of her more popular commissions is for bar and bat mitzvahs. For a fee starting at $700 for an original painting, she will meet with her young clients (and their parents) and discuss the most meaningful aspects of their lives.

Over the course of about six weeks, Loebelsohn creates an original painting. Typically a central image depicts that week’s Torah portion, and the painting is adorned with numerous personal symbols. Over the years she has incorporated images as diverse as musical notes and family pets, and once a Pittsburgh Steelers logo.

Looking back on her own life, Loebelsohn, 51, says that art—painting, in particular—was an early passion. Growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, “art was a big thing in my house,” she said.

Loebelsohn’s father, Joseph, was a police officer, and her mother, Carol, an artist. (Her twin sister, Alise, is a decorative painter.) Carol worked as an illustrator for high-end fashion magazines and retailers such as Vogue and Bergdorf Goodman. Loebelsohn recalls that couture evening gowns often were present in their home, even though the family was of modest means.

In 1982, Loebelsohn earned a degree in painting at Cooper Union in New York and embarked on a career as both an art teacher and an artist, working primarily on abstract paintings and, later, more realistic illustrations. In 1989 she earned a master’s degree in special education from Hunter College; since then she has worked part time as a learning specialist.

“I’m very passionate about my other career—teaching kids to read,” she said. “It’s not like I’m doing my other job like a waitress. I love both my careers.”

An artistic turning point came in 1991, when Loebelsohn was commissioned to create an overmantel painting for the Lefferts Historic House—a homestead built during the American Revolution, now a museum in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Her task was to paint what the farm had looked like in the 1700s in the folk-art style of the era.

The project “liberated” her, Loebelsohn says, and turned her on to a more symbolic style of painting. Folk art, she realized, “was more about a story rather than getting the likeness of a person. This was more about the narrative.”

Loebelsohn has been experimenting with the format. She began with what she calls “quilt paintings”—paintings inspired by traditional American quilts in which each square evokes an image or symbol. By the time her children reached bar/bat mitzvah age—Loebelsohn has two children with her husband, lawyer David Goldstein: Rachel was born in 1991 and Alex in 1994—she found new inspiration amid historic Jewish manuscripts, particularly the layout of 17th-century ketubahs.

“It was still the same idea of using symbols and things, but the format had changed,” she said. “There was a kind of structure; a central image and the words, and all this decorative stuff around the image.”

The artist is hoping to complete a children’s book project, but acknowledges it’s been put on the back burner. She says she’s been steadily working on commissions since 2004.

“I have hardly had a moment when I haven’t had a backlog of paintings to do,” she said.

Loebelsohn, a Reform Jew who was raised in a non-observant home, says her work has been a way to connect with her religion.

“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It’s been an evolution for me as an artist and a Jew.”

Her connections to her clients usually endure long after the painting is delivered, Loebelsohn says.

“It’s amazing, they’ll include me in their weddings and bar mitzvahs,” she said. “They tell me everything. I’m talking to them at these pivotal moments in their lives; I’m a part of the process.

“The true meaning of what I do is over time. When that day is long gone, this image lives on.”

Home movies reveal cultural history of SoCal Jews


Home movies have long played an important role in the lives of American Jews. Backyard barbecues, baby namings, bar mitzvahs — few are the events that haven’t been captured on film by the Jewish parent or grandparent. Home movies contain our memories, our inside jokes, our first steps, but for the people behind a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center, they contain something far grander: history.

For Marsha Kinder, the director of USC’s Labyrinth Project, home movies offer a glimpse into the world of our past, both personal and communal. “The idea that you participate in making history, and that history is an ongoing process, that’s what we really hope to emphasize,” said Kinder, sitting in the lobby of the Skirball on a recent Monday morning. 

When Kinder started the Labyrinth Project in 1997, she hoped to use new media and technology to help bring history alive. Among her collaborators was the noted Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács, who was known for his use of home movies in his work. Together, they created an exhibition for the Getty in 2002, called “Danube Exodus,” incorporating amateur footage from a captain who helped ferry Jewish refugees down the Danube to the Black Sea in the 1930s.

“We were influenced by Péter in terms of the value of home movies, because that’s what he specializes in,” Kinder said. Fogács’ use of amateur footage intrigued Kinder. If home movies could be used to illuminate the history of European Jews, how could they help shine light on the lives of Jews in California? 

“We actually started talking about and planning this in 2006,” Kinder said of the project that would become “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage.” “We had a really good board, and any plan we made, we ran it through them.” 

But turning the idea into reality took time. First, there was the problem of getting funding. Once that was accomplished, the real work needed to be done. They needed home movies, and so they advertised. They put notices in The Jewish Journal and other places, asking people to bring their home movies in for a special selection day. “We had it at USC, and we had all the projectors there, and you could just come and show whatever you had,” Kinder said. Some of the movies were good, and some were blurry and boring, but in the end they found the material that became “Homegrown History.”

The main films in the exhibit are projected on three screens, which work in concert to deliver an immersive experience. While one screen displays images from a home movie, another might show a quote from one of the film’s subjects, or an entirely different image from the sequence.  The topics of the films range from intermarriage to growing up in a Hollywood family, to vacationing at Murrieta Hot Springs.

“Increasingly … our generations … we’re relying so much on the visual as a mode of history,” Kinder said. “We’ve been very interested in how we use multimedia and archival materials to dramatize these projects.”

For Kinder, the idea of showing the interaction of Jews and other ethnic minorities in Southern California through home videos was very appealing. Included are home movies from a family that was part Mexican and part Jewish, and a piece on the melting pot of Boyle Heights. “A lot of these films documented the relationship between the Jewish community and other ethnic communities,” Kinder said.

The idea of cross-cultural experience definitely appealed to Skirball director Robert Kirschner. “It speaks to the larger audience that the Skirball engages,” Kirschner said, “because we have for many years now realized that the Jewish story we tell here is also a broader story of the American experience of a pluralistic society, one that values equality and freedom and dignifies the various ethnicities and ancestries and faith communities that make America the flourishing society it is.”

And while Kirschner likes the exhibition’s use of touch screens and interactive media as an interface, he’s also aware that museums are merely catching up to the world at large in that regard. “Tablets and laptops are ubiquitous these days. … I think, for us, it’s the content that’s compelling,” Kirschner said. “The Skirball Cultural Center is all about the American-Jewish experience … because this project speaks so directly to that experience and also grounds it locally … that makes a very obvious and significant connection to our purposes as an institution.”

It all boils down to building a stronger connection between us and our very real, now visible, past, Kinder explained. Like many Jews, she says she regrets never having asked her grandparents more questions. Many of the contributors to the exhibition had never even seen their home movies before bringing them in to USC for the collection day. “That’s the thing; they’re in a box,” hidden away. Now the Labyrinth Project is bringing them into the light.

But the work is far from done. “We hope to add others of these, what we call homegrown movies … for example [from] the Jewish and the Korean community,” said Kinder. “We also haven’t found the Iranian-Jewish home movies.”

More than anything, Kinder hopes people will “walk away with a sense that their own heritage is really important.” And if “Homegrown History” proves anything, it’s that one person’s home movies are another person’s treasure.

“Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. “Jewish Homegrown History: Immigration, Identity, and Intermarriage” continues at the Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 2. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.skirball.org/exhibitions/jewish-homegrown-history.

Parents find new benefit to Jewish camp: Freedom from themselves


When she took the stage recently before an audience of 400 Jewish camping enthusiasts, Lenore Skenazy wasted no time in addressing why she is known as “America’s Worst Mom.”

The author of a 2008 column in The New York Times describing how she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway home alone just to see if he could do it, Skenazy has been the subject of sharp criticism for her parenting philosophy. But Skenazy is fighting back, waging war against what she describes as overzealous and anxiety-ridden helicopter parents who hover over their children rather than letting them be “free-range kids,” affording them the freedom to make mistakes.

She even wrote a book on the subject: “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.”

“Sending your kids to camp is a fantastic way to give kids back their freedom,” Skenazy said at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s recent leaders’ assembly in this central New Jersey city. “Homesickness is a good thing. It shows they appreciate their home. So, thank God for camp.”

Summer camp has emerged as one of the most promising tools in the struggle to ensure Jewish continuity in an era when Jews face more choice and fewer barriers to assimilation. A recent study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen commissioned by the FJC shows that campers grow up to be connected to Jewish life and identify proudly within the Jewish community as adults.

“The analysis indicates that they bring, first of all, an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from Shabbat candle lighting to using Jewish websites, and to appreciate the value of Jewish charity,” Cohen concludes in the study. “Secondly, they bring an increased inclination to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community, whether in the immediate sense of joining other Jews in prayer or in the more abstract sense of identifying with fellow Jews in Israel.”

Since its launch 13 years ago, the foundation has raised approximately $90 million to strengthen Jewish camps and, more recently, to encourage the growth of so-called Jewish specialty camps—those that focus on sports, art or outdoor adventures—in an attempt to siphon off some of the Jewish campers who might be drawn to non-Jewish camps focusing on specialty areas.

But the focus on identity building has obscured what some say is another, less-touted benefit of the camp experience that should also be a draw for Jewish parents: affording their kids a measure of freedom from intensive parenting.

“Kids go to camp and gain independence,” said Nancy Lublin, the founder of the nonprofits Dress for Success and DoSomething.org, and another speaker at the conference. “That’s why we need camp. It’s about the fun, tradition and independence. Go get dirty, get lice, sprain something. Parents will see that they don’t come home with their nose pierced, purple hair or worshiping the devil. It’s OK.”

Helicopter parenting, a term used to refer to parents that hover over their children and pay exceedingly close attention to their every activity—sometimes to a degree that borders on smothering—is hardly a Jewish phenomenon. It has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and of late has sparked its own backlash. But Jewish parents, and particularly the much-maligned stereotypical Jewish mother, may be more susceptible to such impulses than most.

“We Jewish parents are definitely overprotective of our kids, and it’s tough to send them to overnight camp,” Lublin said. “But we all know it’s the right thing to do. It’s just what Jews do.”

For some parents, however, summer camp may not be a cure-all. Parents still call and write their kids and, with the proliferation of new communications technologies, they can remain involved to a degree that parents of a previous generation were not.

“Even when the children are away at camp, the parents will still be hovering,” said Michael Salamon, a psychologist in New York who has fingered overparenting as one of the reasons behind the so-called shidduch crisis, in which a glut of young unmarried adults—mainly in the Orthodox community—struggle to find suitable mates.

“I met with parents in a recent session who were so overprotective of their child that it was hindering the child’s ability to perform well in school,” Salamon said. “They told me they felt it was important to send their child to camp this summer to encourage independence, but really what I noticed is that they were looking for a vacation for themselves. They work so hard at parenting that they need a break.”

For parents like these, summer camp is a way to loosen the reins a little but in a way that still feels relatively safe.

Stephanie Steiner of Springfield, N.J., describes her own parenting style as “somewhat overprotective.” Still, every summer she ships off her kids to Camp Harlam, a Reform movement camp in Pennsylvania. They’ve demonstrated more independence as a result, which makes the experience—and the expense—worth it.

“We feel very comfortable with the camp and who is running it and how it is run, so it makes it easier,” Steiner said. “The camp’s motto is ‘Where friends become family,’ and we know our kids are so happy at their home away from home.”

Whatever the benefits of Jewish camping, there’s little sign that enthusiasm for it is on the wane. The Jim Joseph Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation have put up $8.6 million in grant money to bring more Jewish children into the camping world by focusing on their specialized hobbies.

“Camp gives kids the permission to be themselves. Parents trust that camp is a positive place for building self-esteem and self-confidence,” said Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “Jewish camp brings that and an even stronger sense of community.”

Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, blogger and social media expert. He’s president of Michigan-based Access Computer Technology and was voted by the National Jewish Outreach Program as one of the top 10 Jewish Influencers. He blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com and is on Twitter @rabbijason.

West Point’s Jewish choir sings for the president and diversity


It doesn’t get more “only in America” than this: A Christian president with an African-born Muslim father throws a Chanukah party at the White House, and the featured act is the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir—a group that serves as a beacon of Jewish pride and identity at the nation’s top military academy, while also boasting a non-Jewish conductor and plenty of non-Jewish members.

And one more twist.

When the Jewish choir performed at the White House Chanukah party earlier this month, it chose to serenade the commander in chief with a song of peace.

“We were invited there for the party, a big honor,” said Cadet Evan Szablowski, 20, the choir’s non-Jewish conductor, a junior from Bakersfield, Calif.

After performing for arriving guests such holiday favorites as “Maoz Tzur,” ‘Who Can Retell” and “Oh Chanukah,” the 34 singing cadets—a group of men and women—were directed to file quickly into the Diplomatic Reception Room for a photo with President Obama and the first lady.

“Then the president came in,” Szablowski said, “and in a big booming voice welcomed us. He and Michelle shook our hands. The president looked into each of our eyes.”

Moments after the photo was taken, “totally out of nowhere, [the president] asked if we can perform,” recalled Szablowski, who spoke to JTA shortly after completing his final in “Mathematics and Networks for Counter Insurgency.”

From its repertoire of Jewish songs, the chorus quickly decided to perform one of the group’s favorites, “Lo Yisa Goy.”

But first, Szablowski recounted, the group explained that the song is based on the words of the prophet Isaiah, which translated from Hebrew includes the famous passage, “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

“It’s probably the coolest thing I have ever done at the academy. We were giddy,” Szablowski said, adding that about halfway through the performance it hit him—“a Jewish choir was performing for the president of the United States.”

It was a thrilling experience for the cadets, said Susan Schwartz, the “officer in charge,” or faculty adviser, of the chorus and the campus Hillel who accompanied the group on the trip.

“They met their commander in chief,” Schwartz said. “Afterwards they were bouncing off the walls.”

“We received a warm reception,” said Allyson Hauptman, an alto in the chorus who is a sophomore double majoring in international law and IT systems. Hauptman, who attended Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah in Philadelphia, felt that seeing such a high level of support of Jewish culture in public was “heartwarming.”

According to Schwartz, the West Point Jewish Chapel Choir has been in existence for more than 60 years, with the most recent White House performance coming six years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush.

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, 60 to 70 cadets identify as Jewish in a total population of 4,500, according to Schwartz.

Part of the group’s mission, the chorus and Hillel adviser said, is to make people aware that there is Jewish life at the school charged with educating the future leaders of the U.S. Army.

In the last year the group has performed at synagogues in Palm Beach, Fla., and Rockville Centre, N.Y., and the Hillel at Yale, as well as at the dedication of the Arlington National Cemetery’s Jewish Chaplains Memorial.

Especially for older Jews who have served in the armed forces, Schwartz has found that the group serves as a point of connection.

The Jewish Chapel Choir is one of several singing groups at West Point, including Protestant, Catholic and gospel, that serve as a form of outreach, showcasing the cadets’ and the institution’s religious diversity.

The choir itself is a diverse group, with Szablowski and other non-Jewish cadets taking part.

“All of these cadets are going to be officers, and they need to become aware of other cadets’ needs,” said Schwartz, who is Jewish and grew up in North Miami, Fla. “There is an expectation that they will respect our traditions.”

“I have learned more about Jewish culture than the beautiful songs,” said Szablowski, who only a few years earlier was the drum major at his high school in a region of California not known for having a large Jewish population. At West Point he sees his fellow choir members as “really just a group of friends.”

“If I have Jewish members in my platoon, I will be able to understand them more,” he said.

The non-Jewish members of the chorus “learn a little bit of Hebrew and Jewish culture through the songs,” Hauptman said.

According to Schwartz, some of the Jewish members, who were more “secular” in their Jewish identification when they first come to West Point, learn a bit, too.

“They find a Jewish home at West Point,” she said.

In addition to the private concert, Obama received a few early Chanukah gifts from the chorus.

The Jewish chaplain at West Point, Rabbi Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, presented the first family with West Point Jewish Chapel coins.

Additionally the cadets “wanted me to give him one of our kipahs,” said Schwartz, speaking of the gray head covering imprinted with the chorus’ name. The group had the kipah made from the same fabric used for the full dress uniforms they were wearing the day of the party.

According to Schwartz, the president said, “I have several yarmulkes, but none like this one.”

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

What young Jews do on Christmas Eve


Sitting in front of the television eating Chinese food and watching reruns of “It’s A Wonderful Life” isn’t exactly what young Jews are doing this Christmas Eve.

A new trend that started years ago—big blowout parties with lots of time to mingle and network—has become tradition. Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza are two of the biggest of these types of holiday events.

Matzo Ball is a project of the Society of Young Jewish Professionals (SYJP), the nation’s largest and most successful membership organization for Jewish Professionals.

Presented by SYJP, JDate and SLEEK Medspa, the 25th annual Matzo Ball promises a night of high-energy networking and matchmaking for singles ages 21-49.

According to Andy Rudnick, founder of Matzo Ball, the event offers men and women the opportunity to meet in an environment conducive to developing networking opportunities, long lasting friendships and romantic relationships. On Dec. 24, singles in New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Boston will take part in the nationwide event.

Founded in 1987 by Rudnick, SYJP is his brainchild, and the idea developed from one man’s desire to bring Jewish people together and find a nice Jewish girl along the way. “I met the woman who became my wife at a Matzo Ball,” he said. To date, Rudnick said SYJP has “sparked more than 1,000 marriages and thousands of friendships.” 

With a background in marketing and communications, Rudnick runs a chain of plastic surgery centers called SLEEK MedSpa, one of Matzo Ball’s sponsors.

“When I was in college in 1986 I bartended in a hot night club that was closed on Christmas Eve, so I went to this singles party at a hotel,” Rudnick recalled. “Many young Jewish kids thought it was great but they did not like the environment. People had to wait in line to buy drink tickets and wait again to get drinks. The lights were high. The environment was not conducive to lowering your inhibitions and having a good time and meeting people. It felt like the prom.”

The following year Rudnick worked in a Boston real estate company and noticed that a nearby nightclub closed. He convinced the nightclub to do the event. His mother, who thought it cute and conceptual, inspired the name “Matzo Ball.”

Launched with limited marketing, Matzo Ball picked up steam.

“Boston radio stations got a kick out of it and put me on the radio and promoted it,” Rudnick said. “The first night we had over 2,000 people show up in Boston. They were not prepared for it. We knew from that one event that Christmas Eve was the night where we could bring all these Jewish kids together and turn over to them the number one nightclub in town. The event was born. As we grew and developed it from city to city we kept the same theme.”

Although JDate (the leading Jewish online singles community) helps sponsor Matzo Ball, the online dating service has its own event on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. JDate is the presenting sponsor of Stu & Lew’s Schmooz-a-Palooza.

Held for the Jewish community for the past 18 years, Schmooz-a-Palooza attracts more than 1,000 attendees. According to JDate’s director of public relations, Arielle Schechtman, the event is known as one of the hippest parties in Los Angeles for those looking to make new friends, meet someone special and spend time with fellow Jews on a night not typically associated with the Jewish community.

“Schmooz-a-Palooza started 18 years ago, so it’s not so much a trend as it is a tradition,” Schechtman explained. “One of the terrific things about Schmooz-a-Palooza is that it is not just for singles. Whether you are single or in a relationship, Schmooz-a-Palooza is the place to be on a night where there are not a lot of other options for Jews. JDate is involved in Schmooz-a-Palooza because it is one of the biggest Jewish events of the year and a fun way to build and connect with the Jewish community. This is your chance to party like a celebrity, indulge in VIP-style revelry and toast ‘l’chaim’ with your friends inside one of the hottest venues on the West Coast.”

Schechtman said Schmooz-a-Palooza’s venue, The Roosevelt Hotel, has onsite restaurants for attendees, and since the event starts at 8 p.m., they have the opportunity to have an early dinner with friends and family before the party begins.

“In 2009, we partnered with the 92nd Street Y on a Chinese food and movie event on Christmas Day,” she said. “We also feature Brandon Walker’s Chinese Food and a music video on Jdate TV.”

This year’s Schmooz-a-Palooza features a “lucky” theme as the number 18 represents “Chai” (life) and is significant in Judaism. Attendees will be able to participate in casino games (with fake money), dance the night away to tunes by DJ Ian Gotler, and live the “chai” life, hanging out in the exclusive Teddy’s Nightclub.

However, Jdate is not only about fun and games. Building the community, Schechtman added, is critical to JDate’s mission. This year, the company is proud to be partnering with The Concern Foundation (www.concernfoundation.org), an independent, volunteer driven non-profit organization dedicated to raising and granting funds to support cancer research for all types of cancer worldwide.

“In the past, we’ve also donated a portion of Schmooz-a-Palooza’s proceeds to Bet Tzedek, the premier public-interest law firm which provides free legal services to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds,” she said.

So how did Chinese food get mixed up in Jewish tradition? According to Marc Tracy of Tablet, The Hebrew year is 5771 and the Chinese year is 4707.

“That must mean, the joke goes, that against all odds, the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years,” Tracy wrote. “In fact, Jewish love for Chinese food is neither hallucinated nor arbitrary. It is very real and very determined, and it originates roughly a century ago in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

The predominant groups in the Lower East Side were Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. 

According to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. “The Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. In addition, they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?” Goodman wrote. 

Chinese restaurants also offered poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants the opportunity to feel cosmopolitan and sophisticated.

Part of the appeal of Matzo Ball and Schmooz-a-Palooza is feeling sophisticated, but also catching up with old friends.

“People do their own thing,” Rudnick said. “It has become a mainstay for summer camp reunions. They always meet at the Matzo Ball.”

QB’s signature pose has Jews and gentiles ‘Tebowing’


The biggest story in the NFL this season is Tim Tebow, a devout Christian quarterback who doesn’t throw very well but has helped the Denver Broncos pull off a string of last-second victories.

But the rugged Tebow’s signature move comes when play has stopped—taking a knee in prayer after scoring a touchdown. The pose has become a popular Internet meme, with fans “Tebowing” all over the world. That includes Jewish fans.

“In Denver, people see football as religion; Tebow unites people of all faiths,” said Jared Kleinstein, creator of the website Tebowing.com, in an interview with JTA.

Kleinstein, a Jewish Coloradan, created the site after watching Tebow’s TD celebration and being inspired to re-create the now iconic pose. Although some may think of it as nothing more than a sports-oriented version of planking, an analogous practice in which one lies face down in an odd place, Kleinstein believes that Tebowing is a physical manifestation of how football fans are inspired by the quarterback.

Tebowing, Kleinstein said, “is the prime example of someone not having any shame and inspiring people to be OK with whatever religion they follow.”

Tebowing has become a popular way for young fans to express pride in their beloved hero. Kleinstein says he receives an average of 10,000 pictures per day of people Tebowing and has to sift through piles to find the exceptional ones. While many of the pictures are silly, such as Tebowing in the office or in front of the U.S. Capitol, many have inspired others.

“Tebowing.com is 100 percent pride,” Kleinstein says proudly. “If you’re Jewish and you see this, I think you can be inspired to be as open about your religion as he is.”

During a recent trip to Israel, the 10th-grade class at Denver’s Jewish Day School—Kleinstein’s alma mater, incidentally—was photographed Tebowing in front of the Western Wall.

“They knew that their Tebowing would identify them as being from Denver,” said Sara Caine Kornfeld, a teacher at the school. Tebowing, she said, is “clearly a source of pride.”

Indeed, the Colorado Jewish community has warmed to Tebow despite their difference in religious beliefs.

Rabbi Marc Gitler of the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue described the 24-year-old quarterback as a source of pride for anyone who could be mocked for their devotion.

“Even from people who are very [religious Jews], they are happy to just have a guy who is religious and a good role model,” he said.

“I think it’s a great story, a person who was doubted and showed that he can win games in this miraculous fashion. It’s great for this country and great for this religious, moral human being.”

As a Heisman Trophy winner and first round draft choice, the Broncos and their fans had high hopes for Tim Tebow when he entered the National Football League last season. But his sloppy form and poor statistics cast doubt on the University of Florida graduate. Tebow saw little action, and many assumed his quarterbacking career would be short-lived.

But after the Broncos started the 2011 season with a 1-4 record, new coach John Fox benched Kyle Orton halfway through a game against the San Diego Chargers. Tebow, for better or for worse, now was the starting quarterback.

Not surprisingly, Tebow has come up short statistically. His completion rate of 48.5 percent this season is well below par for an NFL starter, and he has only 1,290 passing yards. In comparison, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best quarterback in the league, has a nearly 70 percent completion rate with 4,125 yards.

Yet Tebow in his second season has seen an astronomical rise to fame based on his late-game heroics. Led by their lefthander, as well as a solid defense, the Broncos have won seven of their last eight games with Tebow as a starter—some of the victories can only be described as miraculous—to vault into first place in the American Football Conference’s Western Division.

Add in Tebow’s wholesome persona and some fans and commentators are left wondering what role faith has had in his unlikely success.

“He isn’t the football player who says ‘I love Jesus’ and then is found with a stripper the next day,” Gitler said. “He presumably isn’t just paying lip service to his beliefs but actually does what he says he does, and that is front and center.”

Tebow’s public displays of faith are not ecumenical—he is unabashed in stressing his faith in Jesus. But that hasn’t turned off Jewish fans, said Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News.

“For those who are Christian, [Tebow’s fame] has been positive,” Goldberg said. “For those who are Jewish, it hasn’t been negative.”

Though admittedly ambivalent about football, Goldberg says he recognizes that Tebow has infused a different spirit into the city.

“This is a long religion—and by that I mean football-starved city,” Goldberg said. “Whoever revived it has made things better for all.”

Heller letter claims Yossarian of ‘Catch-22’ not Jewish


Yossarian, the central character in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” was not Jewish, the author wrote in a 40-year-old letter.

In a private letter auctioned off last month in Los Angeles, Heller clarified the point, though in his characteristically ambiguous style.

In the postscript to a 1972 letter, addressed to Professor James Nagel at Northwestern University, Heller wrote, “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be. On the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else. He is largely an extension of my own sensibility and I am [Jewish].”

Heller, like his fictional alter ego in the 1960s novel, was a B-25 bombardier in World War II and stationed on an island off the Italian coast. Yossarian of the U.S. Army Air Force claims to be an Assyrian in “Catch-22” and an Armenian in the sequel, “Closing Time.”

As the squadron’s missions escalated in numbers and death toll, one of Yossarian’s crewmates seeks to be relieved of flying duty and sent home on grounds of insanity. But making such a request to escape likely death was obviously a rational move, so he was diagnosed as sane and told to keep flying.

The book’s title quickly entered the general and psychological vocabulary to denote a no-win or double bind situation, and the term was considered a close relative to George Orwell’s “double think” in his novel “1984.”

Heller’s 1972 letter to Nagler, together with a later note to the same academic, was put up for bids by the Nate D. Sanders auction house and sold for $4,884.

In the second letter, written in 1974, Heller reflected on the mood of the early World War II years.

“How did I feel about the war when I was in it?” he wrote. “In truth, I enjoyed it, and so did just about everyone else I served with, in training and even in combat.  What is hard to get across to younger people today is that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was virtually no opposition to the war in this country. … I was young, it was adventurous, there was much hoopla and glamour.”

Heller, a Brooklyn native, started writing “Catch-22” in 1953 under the original title of “Catch-18.” But shortly before its publication in 1961, “Milo 18,” Leon Uris’ novel about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, reached bookstores and Heller changed his title to avoid confusion.

Heller died in 1999 at 76.

Amar’e Stoudemire thinking about opening a Hebrew school


According to the New York Daily News gossip page, Amar’e Stoudemire of the New York Knicks “is interested in opening a Hebrew school, which would focus on teaching the language and Jewish history. The insider says the idea appears to be on the back burner for the time being but that Stoudemire has discussed it seriously.”

Another source told the Daily News that Amar’e is “always looking for ways to improve education and resources for all children,” but “no school of any kind is currently in the works.”

A Stoudemire Hebrew school wouldn’t be as surprising as it sounds. Amar’e visited Israel last summer, has a Star of David tattoo and dressed up as King Solomon for Halloween this year.

Passing of Evelyn Lauder marked by Jewish activists against breast cancer


It’s hard to find a Jewish woman without a direct connection to breast cancer. With nearly one in 40 women of Ashkenazi descent possessing a genetic mutation that greatly increases their chances of contracting the disease, breast cancer, like Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s, is a disproportionately Jewish disease.

So it’s little surprise that the passing this weekend of Evelyn Lauder, the refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe credited with inventing the pink ribbon—the global symbol of breast cancer awareness—took on a special Jewish significance.

“All across the breast cancer world, we are feeling the loss of Evelyn,” said Rochelle Shoretz, founder and executive director of Sharsheret, an organization that offers support to young Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. “There is not a woman who has faced breast cancer or will face it who has not been impacted by her work.”

Born in Vienna in 1936, Lauder fled Austria as a child. Her family arrived in New York City in the 1940s and Lauder grew up on the Upper West Side. As a college student she met Leonard Lauder, who would go on to earn a fortune from his family’s cosmetics company and become one of New York’s leading patrons of the arts. The couple married in 1959.

In 1989, Lauder was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she has been reluctant to speak about her own experience with the disease, Lauder has nonetheless become a major figure in the fight against it, founding in 1993 the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and helping to popularize the pink ribbon. In 2007, Lauder was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the complications of which led to her death on Saturday.

“We are great fans of Evelyn and the whole organization,” said Nancy Brinker, the founder and chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the organization established in 1982 in memory of Brinker’s older sister, Susan, who passed away from the disease in 1980.”[Her passing] is very sad and a loss for all of us.”

Like Lauder, Brinker is both Jewish and a survivor of breast cancer. Her organization and the BCRF have funded many of the same scientists over the years, including those in Israel doing groundbreaking research on the disease’s genetic component. In Israel, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all new cancer cases in the country, according to the Komen website.

To help raise awareness and support breast cancer research efforts in Israel, Komen partnered with Hadassah and other Jewish organizations, and held its first Race for the Cure in Jerusalem last year.

Shoretz founded Sharsheret in November 2001 after her own diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 28. The organization, she said, has not been a direct benefit of the monies raised by Lauder and the BCRF. But her personal oncologist was honored recently at the foundation’s gala dinner in New York.

“By their nature, Jewish women are strong advocates,” Shoretz said. “To meld our personal passions with a professional calling—Evelyn Lauder was a tremendous example of that.”

‘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-owned painting returned to heirs


A painting sold under duress by its Jewish owners during World War II was restituted to his heirs.

The painting, “Madame La Suire” by Albert von Keller, was returned Tuesday to the estate of Alfred Sommerguth with the help of New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office. It was sold by Sommerguth under duress on Feb. 7, 1939 at the Hans W. Lange auction in Berlin. It was the fourth painting returned to the Sommerguth estate in the past three years.

Sommerguth, director and co-owner of the tobacco company Loeser & Wolff, was an official of the Ministry of Interior in Berlin in charge of city planning when the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s he was forced to register all of his assets with Nazi authorities, including his art collection of 106 assorted Renaissance masterpieces and Impressionist works. Evading internment at a concentration camp, Sommerguth fled Germany to Cuba in 1941. He eventually moved to New York, where he died in 1950.

The painting, which was located in the Zurich Kunstgesellschaft Museum in Switzerland, will remain in the collection as a donation, with its provenance indicating that Sommerguth was deprived of the painting by the Nazis in 1939.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office, created in 1997, is a joint venture of the New York State Banking Department and the New York State Insurance Department.

Mexican cousin of Ben-Gurion is newest Jewish star


Mexican singer Adam Kleinberg, a distant cousin of David Ben-Gurion, became the Jewish world’s newest star.

Kleinberg, 21, whose great-grandmother was Ben-Gurion’s first cousin, beat out 30 finalists from around the world to win the Hallelujah music contest. He sang the song “Zeh Lo Kal,” or “It’s Not Easy” by Israeli band HaYehudim.

The finals were held on Aug. 25 in front of a live audience in Hod Hasharon.

The 30 finalists spent three weeks in Israel touring and performing.

Some 260 Jewish young people ages 16-26 from around the world submitted video auditions for the contest, resurrected after nearly 20 years.

Kleinberg won the top prize of $8,000 and will record a duet with a popular Israeli singer; the song will be distributed to Jewish radio stations throughout the world. He will also go on tour, singing in Jewish venues around the world.

Oliver Ghnassia, 20, from Brussels, was the first runner-up, and David Kobiashvili of Russia came in third place. They were awarded $4,000 and $2,000 respectively.

With the Center for Jewish History debt free, its founding chairman steps down


One night back in 1985, businessman Bruce Slovin was walking home from a corporate board meeting with a lawyer named Joe Greenberger when Greenberger asked him about his involvement in the Jewish world.

Slovin responded that he wasn’t at all active, so Greenberger invited him to attend the next board meeting of YIVO, the research institute in New York on East European Jewry and Yiddish.

Slovin, who had recently lost his grandfather and father, attended the meeting and found himself spellbound.

“There was sitting my grandfather and father, who had just died—another Shlomo and a Yaakov,” he said, invoking his father and grandfather’s names.

“They were smoking with cigarettes like this”—he said, making an overhand gesture with his own Parliament cigarette. “They would drink schnapps after they had the board meeting. They were great storytellers. My father and grandfather were alive again.”

The flash of nostalgia set Slovin, a Brooklyn native, on a course that led to his joining the board of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and ultimately becoming the founding chairman of the Center for Jewish History in New York.

The center is a partnership of five historical organizations: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO. It features the largest repository of Jewish historical artifacts in the Diaspora, with an impressive building near New York’s Union Square that contains 100 million artifacts and documents, and a library with half a million volumes.

More than 250 people gathered May 10 at a dinner to fete Slovin, 75, as he steps down as the center’s chairman.

The gala, held on the occasion of the center’s 10th anniversary, served as an opportunity to recognize the New Yorker’s lead role in the long, bumpy road to creating the center and putting it on sound financial footing.

An event that raised $1.2 million for the center also featured the unveiling of a stone plaque engraved with Slovin’s profile that will hang in its lobby.

“There would be no Center for Jewish History without Bruce Slovin,” Michael Glickman, the center’s chief operating officer, told JTA.

After attending that first board meeting in 1985, Slovin was shocked to discover that the documents in the YIVO archives were not well preserved.

“I saw these records degrading. There was no proper humidification, the warehouses were a mess,” he said. “We were broke all the time; that’s all we could afford.”

Slovin, then the president of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings and of the Revlon Group, was soon installed as YIVO chairman. He began to push the often-resistant board to sell the building and move to a lower-priced area.

Greenberger, however, was thinking bigger: He suggested bringing in other Jewish organizations.

The idea for the Center for Jewish History was born.

Between 1994 and 2000, when the center opened to the public, Slovin had raised $67 million using strategies that many at the gala joked were “unique.”

“He came to my office and asked me for money,” Simon Ziff, whose name now adorns the center’s Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogical Institute, told JTA at the gala. “I’m not a big giver, but Bruce is tireless.”

“I was astounded by the amount of time he put into this venture,” added Ted Mirvis, co-chair of the board of trustees for Yeshiva University Museum and secretary of the center’s board of directors, at the gala.

Slovin, who received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell University and a law degree from Harvard, had honed his ability to raise money as a child. He was so adept that eventually he was banned from a fundraising competition for planting trees in British Mandate Palestine because he won so often.

Despite his prowess, the center faced consistent financial difficulties. In 2007 there was controversy over a proposed takeover by New York University of the financially troubled center.

More recently, the Forward reported that Slovin was asked to step down from the YIVO board amid a string of painful layoffs. Slovin described the story as untrue and “dead wrong.”

The center also faced accusations of mismanagement and detractors who questioned its very raison d’etre.

Among the critics was Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and a prominent historian of American Judaism. Sarna repeatedly called for the center to be dissolved into its constituent parts.

But Sarna, among others, reconsidered his position with the announcement in January that the center had raised more than $30 million in 15 months from 22 donors—allowing it to wipe out its debts for the first time.

In February, Sarna called the center one of the most important Jewish archives in the world.

“Now that it’s financially viable,” he said, “it’s perfectly clear that it has found a place.”

Slovin points to the academic’s endorsement as a benchmark for the center.

It is this relative peace from debtors and critics that has allowed “everyone to relax a little bit,” he said, and made him comfortable with stepping down as chairman.

The chair will pass to William Ackman and Joseph Steinberg, who together led the recent capital campaign and were its largest donors.

While he will remain on the center’s board and as YIVO’s chairman, Slovin plans to focus on his business, the real estate and financial holdings company 1 Eleven Associates, as well as bringing in more scholars to the center and writing its history.

“Bruce doesn’t claim to be a scholar,” Mirvis said, “but he understands the needs of scholars.”

Hearing this, Slovin smiles wryly.

“I’m just smart enough to understand the need to have a history,” he said. “As a people as valuable to human kind as the Jewish people are, it seemed dead wrong not to have as much of history as we can save—and we have tons more work to do.”

N.Y. safety inspectors taking over kosher duties


New York safety inspectors will be trained to do the work of kosher inspectors, after budget cuts depleted the state’s kosher division.

Rabbi Luzer Weiss, the director of the now defunct Kosher Division of the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, will train the 85 inspectors to ensure that the proper disclosures are posted in kosher retail establishments, The New York Jewish Week reported.

A 2004 change in the state’s kosher law prevents state inspectors from enforcing Orthodox standards of kashrut. According to the new law, kosher establishments must disclose the standards they use and under whose authority they operate, but are not required to adhere to Orthodox regulations.

Weiss is the only employee left in the kosher division, which once employed 11 inspectors, following budget cuts and retirements in the past year. The cuts will save up to $1 million a year in salary, benefits and services, according to reports.

Lawmakers, Jewish leaders and kosher businesses are lobbying New York’s new governor, Andrew Cuomo, to restore the division.

Sholem Aleichem, Gogol Show Two Views of Shtetl Jews


Russians, Jews and literature scholars get excited about jubilee years, and for those who fit any of these categories, 2009 is a big year. One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a writer who would immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916) — better known by his literary persona, Sholem Aleichem — was born in the town of Pereyaslav, near Kyiv. This spring also marks the 200th birthday of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), who was born about 100 miles to the east of Kyiv, in the town of Sorochintsy. Gogol, too, helped to immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, but in a more problematic way: the Jews who crop up around the margins of his stories, most of them crafty market vendors, money-lenders and tavern keepers, are anti-Semitic stereotypes, an unsettling detail in the work of one of the greatest comic writers of modern literature.

Literary history rarely moves in a straight line. Gogol and Sholem Aleichem may have written in different languages and represented different cultures, but their lives, remembered together, offer a vivid picture of the interplay of Russian and Jewish cultural history, and their stories, read side by side, appear as if in conversation. Both writers were obsessed with the dangers of commerce and capital, a theme that renders them all the more current in 2009. Both hail from what is now Ukraine, and each came to be viewed as a literary ambassador from an ethnic group within Russian culture. Gogol knew Russian and Ukrainian, attended a Russian school, moved to Petersburg to become a writer and spent years traveling in Western Europe. Sholem Aleichem attended both a Jewish cheder and a Russian secondary school, a marker of assimilation in a Jewish family. He began writing in Russian and Hebrew, but found success in Yiddish. Like Gogol’s tales of Ukraine, which sounded quaint to the Russian elite, Sholem Aleichem exported tales of the Jewish Pale of Settlement to cosmopolitan readers via publications in Warsaw and Petersburg, and visits to the United States.

Best known in the United States for his Tevye character, who became a symbol of the Jewish departure from Eastern Europe thanks to the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sholem Aleichem was canonized in the Soviet Union as the representative Yiddish writer, and an abridged six-volume Soviet edition of his works, in Russian translation, was as expected a collection in any Soviet Jewish household (and in many non-Jewish households) as the collected works of Lenin or Tolstoy.

Gogol, now best known for his later works, like “Dead Souls,” “The Overcoat” and “The Inspector General,” first became famous for his tales of provincial Ukraine, which he peopled with an amalgam of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles and Gypsies. In his first successful story, “The Sorochintsy Fair” (1830), we marvel at how “a gypsy and peasant smacked hands then squealed from pain; how a drunken Jew slapped a woman on the backside; how vendors who had been arguing hurled profanities … and crayfish; how a Russian stroked his goatish beard with one hand, while with his other … “ In this story, a Jew buys and sells a demon’s coat, infecting an entire fair with evil. Gogol’s Jewish characters increase the sensation of a tale told from the margins of the Czarist Empire and often provide a moral lesson about overzealous trade.

Jewish stock characters later appear in Gogol’s epic novel, “Taras Bulba” (1835 and 1842), based loosely on Bohdan Chmielnicki’s Cossack uprising against Polish Magnates in 1648, an event in which thousands of Jews were killed. “‘Hang all the Jews!’ rang out from the crowd, ‘don’t let their Jewesses sew skirts out of our priests’ garments!’” In this story, a Jew, Yankel, escapes a pogrom in his shtetl but eagerly betrays his community by offering products and services to the Cossack warriors for the right price. “Taras saw that his protégé Yankel had already managed to erect a stall with an awning for himself and was selling flints, handfuls of gunpowder in paper cones, and other military items — even bread rolls and dumplings.”

Little surprise, given the stereotypes sprinkled throughout his work, that Gogol has been dismissed by Jewish readers, from the Russian historian Dubnow to the Soviet critic Mashinsky, as one of Russia’s many literary anti-Semites. But Sholem Aleichem chose to model much of his writing, and even his appearance, on Gogol. Ruth Wisse, in “The Modern Jewish Canon” (University of Chicago Press, 2003), has called Sholem Aleichem “the Jewish Gogol.” David Roskies, in “A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling” (Harvard University Press, 1995), reminds us, “Rabinovich kept a box marked ‘Gogol’ on his desk for work in progress, often quoted Gogol in private correspondence, and even wore his hair as Gogol did.” Had the two writers, with their dandyish bobs and whiskers, lived at the same time, they might have been mistaken for one another.

What Sholem Aleichem was borrowing from Gogol was a rural East European landscape that may have been dangerous, but could unite readers through the power of collective memory. He also learned from Gogol to soften this danger through laughter, and he often rewrites Gogol’s Jewish characters, correcting anti-Semitic stereotypes and narrating history from a Jewish perspective. Gogol’s heavily caricatured Jew tends to profit against all odds at Ukrainians’ expense, but Sholem Aleichem’s characters (like the author, who lost his inheritance in the Kiev Stock Exchange in 1890) are usually failures at trade, and their living conditions are squalid.

Sholem Aleichem devotes numerous stories and two full volumes to “Kasrilevka,” a fictional shtetl based, in part, on his childhood village, Voronka. The first, “Old-New Kasrilevka,” is a parodic Baedeker: “They turn out ‘A Guide to Moscow,’ ‘A Guide to Berlin,’ ‘A Guide to Paris,’ so why shouldn’t we have ‘A Guide to Kasrilevka?’ The guidebook includes seven sections, decreasing in appeal: “Transportation,” “Hotels,” “Restaurants,” “Liquor,” “Theater,” “Fires,” and “Bandits.” Eastern Europe was increasingly threatening to Jews, and Sholem Aleichem subtly expresses this by depicting the most despicable elements of the shtetl. Sholem Aleichem’s popular Menachem-Mendl stories (written between 1896-1913) find the title character traveling the world inventing get-rich-quick schemes. His adventures begin when he is given, in place of a promised dowry, a small sum of cash, two promissory notes and an illegitimate “draft” on bad credit (to be redeemed in Odessa). Menachem-Mendl’s wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, remains at home in Kasrilevka, alternately scolding her husband for his bad investments and sending him money when his ventures fail. Gogolian characters occasionally appear in her shtetl. In one letter, she writes that a government inspector has arrived in town to ascertain what has become of certain sums of money meant for charity, an echo of Gogol’s “Inspector General,” whose anticipated arrival shakes a town to its core, unearthing the illegitimate finances of its provincial elite.

Sholem Aleichem’s 1900 “The Haunted Tailor” begins with a mock-biblical description of a community’s poverty:

And it came to pass that Tsippa-Beyla-Rayza was returning one summer day with her basket from the market, she threw down her bundle of garlic with a little parsley and potatoes that she had bought, and cried angrily, “This can all go to hell! Enough of thinking up what to cook for dinner. You have to have the head of a prime minister! Dumplings with beans and again dumplings with beans. May God not punish me for these words! But even Nekhame-Bruchkhe, who is destitute, miserable, a charity case, she has a goat!

For all their apparent misery, Sholem Aleichem’s hapless characters inspire the Yiddish reader to imagine a world that is not limited to the confines of the shtetl. This incitement to imagination looks something like the conversation, in Sholem Aleichem’s 1902 story set in Kasrilevka, “Seventy-Five Thousand,” between Yankev-Yosl and his wife, Ziporah, when the former has (erroneously) decided he has won a jackpot of 75,000 rubles:

“How much have we won?” she says, gazing right into my eyes, as if saying: “Aha! You’re lying, but you’re not gonna get away with it!”

“Gimme a for instance — how much do you figure we’ve won?”

“I have no idea,” she says. “Maybe a few hundred rubles?”

“Why not,” I say, “a few thousand rubles?”

“What do you mean by a few thousand?” she says. “Five? Six? Maybe as much as seven?”

“You can’t,” I say, “imagine more?”

(Translation by J. Neugroschel in “No Star Too Beautiful: A Treasury of Jewish Stories,” W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

Sholem Aleichem wants his readers to imagine more, even if the ticket to get there proves to be one number off. His fiction, borrowed in part from Jewish literary sources and in part from Russian writers like Gogol, was, in its own way, revolutionary.

On May 15, 1916, when Sholem Aleichem was buried in the Mount Neboh Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens, his headstone was inscribed with his original epitaph, which ends with the following lines:

“And just as the public was

Laughing, chortling, and making merry

He suffered — this only God knows —

In secret, so that no one should see.

(Un davke demolt ven der oylem hot

gelakht, geklatsht, un fleg zikh freyen,

hot er gekrenkt — dos veys nor got —

besod, az keyner zol nit zeyen.)

The epitaph echoes Gogol’s famous “laughter through tears” passage from “Dead Souls,” which Sholem Aleichem used to keep, in a Yiddish translation, on his desk:

And for a long time still I am destined by a wondrous power to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to view the whole of hugely rushing life, to view it through laughter visible to the world and tears invisible and unknown to it! (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library, 2004).

As a writer, Gogol struggled with his simultaneous terror of a changing world and desire to entertain his readers through comedy. According to Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997: what did I tell you about 2009?), Gogol’s world vision was as single-minded as Tolstoy’s was. Sholem Aleichem was not nearly so single-minded. Rather than worrying about the dangers of foreign influence on the Russian Empire, he worried about the dangers in Russia for Jews, its perennial foreigners. But he did share Gogol’s struggle between tradition and creativity. The fine line separating Yiddish literature as a means of inciting social change, and social change as a force destroying Yiddish, gave Sholem Aleichem the fear of loss that he would take with him, quite literally, to the grave.

Sholem Aleichem enclosed his epitaph in his Last Will and Testament, written a few months before his death. In the first of 10 points outlined in his will, the Yiddish writer specified that:

Wherever I die, I wish to be buried not among aristocrats, big shots, or wealthy people, but precisely among ordinary folk, workers, the real Jewish people, so that the gravestone which will be placed on my grave will beautify the simple graves around me, and the simple graves will beautify my grave, just as the simple, honest folk during my life beautified their folk-writer. (Translation by Zuckerman and Herbst in “Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Jewish Literature, V. II,” Joseph Simon Pangloss Press, 1994.)

With this final wish, Sholem Aleichem promises to remain near those readers whose spirit he sought to evoke through the shtetls of his fiction, and, of course, in a more subtle way, he also remains with the memory of Nikolai Gogol.

 

Amelia Glaser is assistant professor of Russian and comparative literature at UC San Diego. She is currently completing a book about rural commerce in Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish literature. She also translates poetry and prose from Russian and Yiddish; her translations include an anthology of Yiddish poetry, “Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets” (U. Wisconsin Press, 2005).

 

Dual Identity, Double the Questions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book can help kick off successful year of study


Each week, children around the world partake in the b’nai mitzvah, a life-altering event that normally paves the way for greater Jewish participation. But how many of them actually know the meaning and origin of the simcha?

Given my own experience as a b’nai mitzvah instructor, I would expect it to be a relatively small number.

And before Bert Metter’s three sons went through their respective bar mitzvahs, he said he knew very little as well. Metter never had a bar mitzvah of his own, but he said after going through the experience with his children, he emerged a bit of an expert.

In 1984, Metter wrote “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age,” a guide specifically geared toward the b’nai mitzvah student. But more than two decades later, Metter said the book deserved an update, because it no longer reflects contemporary ceremonies, especially since practices and celebrations have evolved.

“The whole position of the ceremony and cultural life has changed over the last 25 years,” said Metter, a 79-year-old Connecticut resident. “Many more non-Jewish people attend the ceremony, there’s more diversity now and the meaning of the ceremony has grown in importance.”

With the August release of his revised, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be” (Clarion Books), Metter hopes to impart some timely clarity before young adults take to the bimah, by providing a “concise background” for those with a vague understanding of the b’nai mitzvah.

“Most books are too complicated,” said Metter, who has written the book at a fourth-grade level. Instead, he wants “to bridge the gap between kids that are going through the ceremony and the more secular kids without the religious training.”

Framing the b’nai mitzvah as similar to coming-of-age rites the world over and throughout history, Metter explores the evolution of the Jewish ceremony. Less physical and more spiritual than its counterparts, the age for b’nai mitzvah was set at 13 for boys and 12 more recently for girls, because these were considered turning-point ages. He writes that this stands in contrast to Jewish law, which put draft and tax ages at 20.

And while the bar mitzvah has been a tradition for boys since the Middle Ages, Metter devoted equal time to the more recent active roles women have taken in synagogue life, from Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, the first female to become bat mitzvah, to passages about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi.

In an effort to inspire students, Metter includes celebrity b’nai mitzvah testimonials from stars like Jamie Gertz, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marlee Matlin, Jeremy Piven, Ben Stiller and Zoe Weizenbaum.

Metter writes that Gyllenhaal’s party was in a homeless shelter, because his parents wanted him to appreciate how good his life was. But for Gertz, her bat mitzvah day was one disaster after another. She ran a 103-degree temperature, and a snowstorm kept half of her relatives from attending the ceremony. “I enjoyed my son’s bar mitzvah much more,” she says.

Covering ceremony basics, from the Torah scrolls and tallit to prayers, the book also provides insight as to what the student may be thinking on the nights prior to the ceremony.

“You lie in bed, and in your mind you go over the prayers that you are to read tomorrow. And you recite lines from your speech you will have to give,” wrote Metter, who spent several months researching the topic and interviewed one Reform and two Conservative rabbis to ensure the guide’s accuracy.

And besides the traditional reasons for the b’nai mitzvah — among them, publicly affirming one’s faith — Metter introduces young readers to the concept that preparation for the ceremony is helpful in that it helps them face “moral questions.” “The religious study encouraged by and required for the ceremony helps prepare them for facing these questions,” he writes.

Helpful to students, parents and tutors, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah” provides an excellent overview of what the b’nai mitzvah is about. in addition to getting them excited about the whole process.

In addition to discussing the different b’nai mitzvah traditions and practices from cultures throughout the world, Metter also covers the growing practice of celebrating a b’nai mitzvah in Israel or in a congregation in the United States or abroad that has specific historical significance.

Although he’s more in favor of standard ceremonies and modest parties, Metter remains moderately balanced when explaining the different customs and styles of celebration. For every extravagant party that might feature Ja Rule or Ashanti, there is a modest small-town celebration, he writes, and yet both students will likely enjoy their simchas.

Written with a more religiously liberal crowd in mind, this book is one that can help kick off a successful year of b’nai mitzvah study.

Metter, an advertising executive, is currently at work on a book about helping kids improve their SAT scores. Expanding on the Jewish celebrations theme, he is also mulling over a book about the Passover seder.

As far as an adult bar mitzvah, another topic covered in his 80-page “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah,” Metter isn’t ruling out the possibility of studying to become a son of the commandment.

“I plan on doing one in near future,” he said.

Rite of passage is not a free pass


About a year ago, I received a call from a motion picture marketing executive who asked me to preview the soon-to-be-released “Keeping Up With the Steins,” a
“commentary” on b’nai mitzvah as they are celebrated in North America.

My interest was piqued: A mainstream movie about the commercialization of b’nai mitzvah. Perhaps this would engender a “teachable moment,” particularly in light of these propositions, which experience has shown increasingly to be true:

  • Adults are spending too much of their disposable income on b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
  • B’nai mitzvah children internalize the message that the religious ceremony is less meaningful than the party that follows.
  • Families believe that bar and bat mitzvah represent the end of formal Jewish education.
  • Parents are living vicariously through their children and, consequently, creating celebrations that are more for adults than for middle school students.
  • American Judaism has assimilated values that are more consonant with America than with Judaism.

While I defer to the judgment of others, I left the movie feeling profoundly underwhelmed but hopeful that viewers would be moved to converse with family members and friends about just how much, in this particular case, art imitates life. We have turned a rite of passage into a right of passage; the responsibility of attaining religious status into the entitlement of social status.

“Keeping Up With the Steins” is an unlikely candidate for an Academy Award, but it has served a purpose if it causes us to pause and consider the cultural phenomenon that prompted its production and distribution.

According to Avot de Rabbi Natan (Chapter 16), at the age of 13, the yetzer tov (good impulse) is born, and with it our capacity for conscious pro-social, empathic and compassionate behavior. B’nai mitzvah are intended to catalyze a character-building process that lasts a lifetime. It is therefore painfully ironic that we may be party (pun intended) to the yetzer hara (evil impulse) running amok at precisely the moment when the yetzer tov first sees the light of day.

I realize that I am skating on thin ice — or treading on sacred ground — by criticizing the manner in which b’nai mitzvah are being celebrated by America’s Jewish families, many, if not most, of whom have yet to embrace the idea that a bar or bat mitzvah is a simcha that marks the beginning of a choice to lead a Jewish life.

Arguably, the greatest challenge we face in Jewish education inheres to the perception that a bar or bat mitzvah represents an end point. We successfully have created an artificial bubble of Jewish learning between grades three and seven by mandating minimum expectations for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. The bar or bat mitzvah party for the youngest child in the family too often celebrates the end of synagogue affiliation.

“Mitoch lo lishma ba lishma” — Out of an ulterior motive (might) come a pure motive. This principle adduced in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:5) epitomizes our assignment as Jewish educators. We have three or four years in which to teach families who came for a service that they really came for a covenant. We will not always win, but I hope we never will give up. Some of us who are now teachers of Torah may have arrested temporarily our Jewish study at age 13.

I realize that cultural change is a complex, foreboding process and that urging families to infuse their children’s b’nai mitzvah with religious meaning and significance designed to last a lifetime is akin to pointing a hose at a tidal wave. However, the hose we are using draws water from sacred sources that regenerate, so I choose to believe that we are reaching one extreme that is destined to moderate and, thus, achieve a dynamic equilibrium.

As we live longer, it becomes less reasonable that one’s Jewish life should reach its apex at age 13. Instead, we can help to place bar and bat mitzvah in the perspective of lifelong Jewish learning and living-an acceptance of communal responsibility, a beginning of conscious commitment and a promise to make a meaningful contribution to the people of Israel in covenant with the God of Israel. A rich Jewish life does not have to be expensive — at least it should not have to be expensive.

We are already b’nai mitzvah. Our children, on the other hand, are just in the process of becoming. Bar and bat mitzvah is a process and a status that regrettably has devolved too often into a product and an event.

It is our collective challenge to take a population of episodic Jews and help them live continual Jewish lives, so that life’s celebrations and tribulations will be seamless parts of their Jewish identities, rather than an interruption in their “normal” lives.


Rabbi Jan Katzew is the director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s department of lifelong Jewish learning.

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.

Choose Grrl Power over beauty pageants, grrlz


As children we loved to put on my mother’s old nightgowns, makeup and heels and pretend we were Queen Esther. Somewhere around adolescence this became a little more
uncomfortable.

Why was Vashti banished for refusing to dance — according to some, wearing only her crown — for the drunken King Achashverosh and his buddies? Wasn’t that the right thing to do? And what was a nice Jewish girl like Esther doing in a beauty contest for the Persian king?

Today, in a world saturated by images of beauty and still uncomfortable with a woman asserting her power, these remain relevant questions. How are Jewish girls faring amid this sea of contradiction?

By many measures, Jewish girls are thriving. They are leading extracurricular activities, bettering the world around them, excelling in sports and studying at elite universities. At the same time such success often comes at a cost for girls.

Research and anecdotal evidence point to girls’ perception of intense pressure to accrue academic and extracurricular distinctions. Simultaneously, girls feel bound by the constraints of feminine “niceness,” through which individual ambition becomes untenable, aggressive and selfish.

For some girls, the impact of these contradictions causes suffering.

For others it can lead to the development of eating disorders, cutting, relational bullying, precocious sexuality, abusive relationships and low self-esteem.

Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project is founded on the belief that it is critical to help girls, and those who work with girls, address these contradictions.

Take for example, the case of the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the Reform youth group. Recent reports have sounded the “boy” alarm: 60 percent to 80 percent of participants in Reform youth groups, leadership training, camp and Israel programs are girls. The Union for Reform Judaism has inaugurated a Young Men’s Project to address the dearth of male participants.

What is heard less often is that this year — and it appears not to be atypical — all of the national NFTY officers are boys. An organization in which the overwhelming majority of participants are girls is still led by boys. Leaders involved with the program report that the girls are content with this arrangement, do not seek leadership and are happy to do the behind-the-scenes work.

In other words boys, though few in number, are eager to lead and are apparently groomed to be leaders.

Girls, like women in Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, do not seek leadership, presumably out of fear of being seen as “bossy” or “presumptuous,” or unwilling to set themselves apart from their female peers. Despite their strength in numbers, the girls say they prefer a more collaborative model of leadership.

What future is predicated here? Do we want girls to grow to be women who collaborate nicely and plan events while the men are given center stage? Do we want girls to grow to be women who comprise the backbone of the workforce while the male CEO occupies the corner office? What does it mean if boys, so few in number, still rise to the top?

It is these questions we wish to explore. The Jewish community of late appears to be more interested in questions that concern boys’ absence rather than girls’ lack of leadership. Picking up on national news trends, the Jewish community has sounded its version of the “boy crisis” alarm. Boys are the new girls and are depicted as failing academically, suffering emotionally and dropping out of all things Jewish. Implicit in these arguments is the assumption that attention to girls has served its purpose and should now return where it was always due — to boys.

Although pundits typically lump all boys’ issues into one puddle and declare it a “crisis,” the reality is that Jewish boys are not, and never have been, failing academically. If we are really concerned about boys in crisis, we should turn our attention to poor boys and boys of color, who are truly suffering.

Boys and boys’ issues are worthy of attention, and the Jewish community is surely not serving its sons as well as it could — just as there are gaps in our attention to girls’ needs. Indeed, if it is the case that young men’s participation falls off precipitously after the age of bar mitzvah, it is definitely worth looking at what it takes to engage young men and their interests.

I am agnostic on the question of inherent difference between boys and girls. It is clear, however, that boys and girls from the earliest age are subject to vastly different experiences, which in turn shape them. To truly meet the needs of both boys and girls, we will have to pay specific attention to gender socialization.

Boys and girls must be given the opportunity to explore the social construction of gender, challenge gender norms, examine gender privilege and create a balance of power between boys and girls. We must prepare our daughters to be strong leaders well armed against the sexism they will face in the media and employment at the same time that we raise young men who share an interest in their sisters’ achievements, who have full access to their feelings and who are engaged by Jewish life.

Toward this end, Ma’yan recently launched Koach Banot, Girl Power!

Through training, advocacy and education, we aim to raise the profile of Jewish girls in the community, make excellent resources including curricula and programs more widely available, and to train those who work with girls to better understand issues that confront girls and learn how they can utilize resources to best serve their population.

By exploring these issues and questions together, we can steer clear of the zero-sum game of boys vs. girls and enter into a rich exploration of gender and its implications for our community.

Rabbi Rona Shapiro serves as a senior associate at Undressed up

Theater: ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ — populism through a post-punk prism


“Populism, yea, yea!
Populism, yea, yea!”

Sung to an urgent pop beat, this rousing refrain from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is bound to stick in your head. Not just because it’s so catchy, but because the show gets you thinking about populism — what it meant to early 19th century America, and what it means to us today. Written and directed by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, “Bloody Bloody” is a rollicking, irreverent new bio-musical about Andrew Jackson’s life and leadership — viewed through the lens of “emo” music and 20th century pop culture.

The first American president from humble origins, Jackson pitted himself against authority and privilege. Scarred by early violent encounters, one of which left a bullet in his chest for life, Jackson bled himself in vain attempts to ease his pain. And long before Bill Clinton “felt our pain,” Jackson fashioned his wounds, youthful disappointments and family tragedy into an empathetic persona that appealed to those who felt powerless.

Although this is their first collaboration, Friedman and Timbers each bring impressive credentials to the production. Timbers, 29, is artistic director of the New York-based, Obie Award-winning avant-garde company Les ” target=”_blank”>The Civilians, a New York-based off-Broadway company that conducts extensive interviews to create theater that raises questions about contemporary cultural phenomena. Friedman, composer and lyricist for numerous Civilians productions, most recently penned pop music for the upcoming “This Beautiful City,” an inside look at evangelical Christian churches that probes the intersection of religion and civic life in America, premiering this March at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Friedman and Timbers share the conviction that emo — which they describe as hyper-emotional, post-punk rock that’s “so sincere it’s ridiculous, and so ridiculous, it’s heartbreaking” — is an ideal aesthetic to apply to Jackson and his era.

“There’s an entire language of the American presidency that’s invented during Jackson’s presidency,” Friedman said. And the invention of populism, he added, can be seen as “disenfranchised boys who didn’t think they were popular in high school getting their revenge.”

By using contemporary teenage idioms and post-punk music alongside 19th century speech and period details, Friedman believes “Bloody Bloody” highlights qualities of each period that might not otherwise be apparent.

“Often, the most simplistic things we come up with — like introducing Monroe’s cabinet to the strains of a Spice Girls song — are really helpful at focusing in on what the thing itself is,” Friedman said.

These pop culture motifs also add lightness and humor to what is — beneath a gloss of irony and absurdity — a serious subject.

A classically trained pianist who didn’t write his first song until he was 24, Friedman thrives on intensive research — whether it’s the hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Civilians’ plays, or historical research for “Bloody Bloody” — and draws musical inspiration from a seemingly limitless range of styles.

“I approach my work anthropologically,” Friedman said.

For one project, he immersed himself in Senegalese rap — not expecting to actually write a Senegalese rap song, but instead to absorb the sounds in order to pick up a new trick or two.

“It might be about structure, or rhythm, or the way a melody works,” Friedman said.

Listening to other music also helps him concentrate while composing, and anything he hears might suggest an idea for works in progress: “I’ll be listening to my iPod and finally figure out what I want to do on a song … often it’s not even a direct correlation — I’ll hear a Mahler symphony and I’ll think, ‘Oh, “Trail of Tears” [from “Bloody Bloody”] should have a key change right here.'”

With his wide-ranging forays into musical style and his flair for eclecticism, Friedman has created a style that’s not easy to categorize.

“I’m kind of chameleon-like,” he said. For The Civilians’ “Gone Missing,” which recently completed a six-month run at New York’s Barrow Street Theater, Friedman called his score a “pastiche … there’s a Noel-Coward-esque song, a Mariachi number in Spanish, a big rock ballad….”

Friedman’s upbringing may have planted the seeds for his interest in, and facile navigation of, disparate cultural sources.

Raised in Philadelphia by a Jewish father of German descent and a non-Jewish, “Yankee, New England” mother, Friedman attended a Quaker school until college at Harvard. His father is from a family of “fiercely proud” German Jews who identified culturally, but not religiously, with Judaism.

“I was half-Jewish, half-Christian in a confusing way, both sides a little bit nonobservant, went to a Quaker school in the ’70s, when everything like that was very much up in the air,” Friedman said. This gave him a “sense of religious — and nonreligious — possibility” for his own identity.

Although he doesn’t believe that any particular “faith background” influences his work, Friedman believes he’s got his father’s German Jewish sense of “intellectual questioning, of learning for learning’s sake.”

That said, no one in his father’s family has any connection with their European roots, so they are, more than anything else, “Americans first,” he added.

“At this point — after so many generations — what else are you?” Friedman asked.

A very contemporary question, but one that also harkens back to the Jacksonian era, when the presence of Native Americans, Spaniards and African slaves within our borders challenged our ideals of democracy and raised issues of race and ethnicity in America.

What did we then, and what do we now, make of these “foreigners” on our soil?