After School Is Prime Game Time for Kids of All Needs


Kathryn Gaskin’s blonde braid bounces against her sweatshirt as she rounds second base under the afternoon sun. The 12-year-old’s obvious enthusiasm is not for her own athletic pursuits but for those of Angeline, a teen with Down syndrome, whom Gaskin coaches in an after-school program called Prime Time Games.

When the batter hits a grounder, Gaskin gently prompts a beaming Angeline to run. The excited youngster, clad in pink sweats and a T-shirt, jogs down the softball field and plants herself firmly on third base. She looks back at Gaskin, who claps and whoops. The two share a smile.

“I wanted to be a coach because I like sports,” said Gaskin of her involvement with the Prime Time Games program.

The Pacific Palisades resident initially took on the responsibly to fulfill an outreach requirement for her bat mitzvah last spring. The experience has satisfied more than a ceremonial obligation.

“I feel good because I’m helping other people,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin is among a group of preteens and teenagers who serve as peer sports coaches for Prime Time Games, a program of the Los Angeles-based Team Prime Time. Most of the coaches are at-risk children from low-income areas of the city, taking part in Team Prime Time’s intervention programs that combine academics, athletics and leadership training. Prime Time Games was created a year ago to include students with special needs. While the athletes clearly get a chance to shine in group sports, the young coaches thrive, as well.

“The coaches are truly responsible — with the knowledge that adults are there to support them — for the total experience of another child, and they are treated with respect and acknowledged for what they accomplish,” said executive director Peter Straus. “We have yet to figure out who benefits more, coach or athlete.”

While the majority of Prime Time Games coaches are at-risk kids from the Daniel Webster Middle School in West Los Angeles, a Title I school where the weekly after-school program is held, a small percentage are Jewish children fulfilling the community service portion of their bar and bat mitzvah requirements. The respectful interaction between the athletes and coaches is also reflected in the interaction between the Webster students and their Jewish co-coaches.

Straus, a veteran teacher and sports coach at various L.A. schools, also runs a summer camp called Prime Time Sports Camp. He noticed the void in after-school programs for at-risk kids at the middle school level and in 2001 created Team Prime Time to do something about it.

“The emphasis is not on the outcome of the games,” said Straus, adding that no one keeps score. “It’s the interaction of the kids. They bring out the best in each other.”

Prime Time Games began attracting the pre-bar mitzvah crowd as Jewish kids filtered through Straus’ summer camp. Other coaches discovered the program because of their siblings’ participation.

Adam Sperber-Compean, who will become a bar mitzvah in September, learned about the program when his autistic brother became involved. “I’m here for him, and he listens to me,” said Adam, on coaching his younger sibling.

Some of the coaches know one another from Straus’ summer camp and others attend the same school. Straus attempts to pair together coaches with these commonalities. When that’s not possible, Straus is optimistic.

“With the focus being on sports and the kids you’re helping, it breaks down barriers pretty quickly,” he said.

When the program resumes in October, coaches and athletes will meet one afternoon a week at Webster School. The coaches will attend a training program, where they will learn about working with special-needs children.

Mady Goldberg’s daughter, Elena, an 8-year-old with motor and processing issues, has blossomed in the program.

“She loves it,” said Goldberg, a Pacific Palisades resident. “She’s had the opportunity to play team sports, and in any typical scenario, that would be difficult for her.”

Goldberg said that practicing her skills in a supportive environment has helped Elena progress physically. In addition, she developed a close bond with her two coaches. As a result, Elena’s self-esteem has soared.

Jonah Gadinsky, 12, who has volunteered since December, vows to continue coaching after his bar mitzvah in November. “I definitely see how lucky I am do to be able to do the things that others can’t do,” said Jonah, a Westwood resident who is starting seventh grade.

After working almost exclusively with Bobby, a budding basketball player, Jonah is hooked.

“I feel really good for kids when they make a basket, just seeing their faces light up,” said the young coach.

Prime Time Games will resume in October.

The Bittersweet Meaning of Mud


Mud

I had been waiting seven years, and my machon summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai was finally here. It would be different from every other summer, because we would finally be the oldest group, and camp domination would be ours. I knew it would be bittersweet, and I looked forward to making every moment of this incredible summer count.

Natalie KatzThere is one program in particular that embodies all of the emotionalism and meaning of machon summer: Tza’adah. Tza’adah is a five-day, four-night overnight trip that takes campers far from the boundaries of camp and into the nature of Northern California, where we bond with friends, while experiencing the outdoors. I was a little skeptical about not showering for five days, but before I knew it, the day finally came — we were ready to embark on a wild adventure.
We drove for what felt like a lifetime to Big Sur in Northern California. The next morning, we had our first day — and only day — in Big Sur. The morning started with a bowl of Rice Krispies and some scrambled eggs. Following breakfast, we were given the choice between a hard, medium or easy hike.

Assuming the hard hike was going to be well, hard, I set off with the rest of the adventurous campers on the hard hike. We trekked all the way up a beautiful cliff overlooking the ocean, singing songs to pass then time and admiring the scenery.

We walked along the beach and came to an astounding discovery. Earlier that day, a beached whale had died and was now lying on the sand. Staring with amazement at the gargantuan creature, we developed one of the verses of our machon song, “This Tza’adah of Mine,” sung to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Later that evening, after arriving at Lake Casitas, our campsite for the next three nights, we sat around the bonfire and sang cliched camp songs, aided by packets of the best songs hand selected by our wonderful counselors. We could all sing along and learn the words. I will keep the songbook forever as a memento of this journey.

The next day, we took a bus to a beautiful beach. As my two friends and I were walking along the shore, we found a rock shaped like a heart. We took it with us, promising to start a new tradition of passing the rock, along with a letter, among us so we can keep in touch after camp.

The last day, we were given a choice between kayaking, rock-climbing and mountain-biking. I chose kayaking.

The group leader gave us the task of fitting as many people in one kayak as possible without it tipping over. This may not seem to be difficult, but it was unbelievably hilarious and so hard! Try to imagine people laughing hysterically while squeezing their way onto a little kayak. Meanwhile, it’s sinking, and we’re desperately trying not to tip it over.

I was sitting near the front, and after the ninth or 10th person climbed on, the kayak flipped over. Everyone fell in the water — and to top off a perfect day, the water was the perfect temperature.

Then we had one last task: To stand up straight on the kayak and paddle it like a gondola in Venice. I succeeded after falling in a couple of times!
Tza’adah had finally come to a close, but we were not going to finish without a huge hurrah. As is tradition at Camp Ramah, the machon campers run into the chadar ochel, the dining hall, at the end of lunch, giving mud hugs to friends and family. On our last day, we trudged eight miles back to camp from Lake Casitas, singing, laughing and stopping for POWERade along the way, a necessity in the sweltering heat.

We finally got to camp, jumped in the mud pit and got ready to run into the chadar. I will especially remember being the first to do a belly flop in the mud.

Once everyone was finished getting muddy, we formed platoons and began to march to the chadar. The platoons lined up at different entrances. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins.

The counselors yelled, “Charge!” and we sprinted for the doors. It was complete pandemonium inside. I ran around yelling, cheering and giving mud hugs to all my friends, making sure to squeeze extra tight to ensure they were truly covered in mud.

Looking back
is so hard, because I know I will never again have the chance to run through the dinning hall covered in mud. Tza’adah defined my camp experience, and I know that even though I will never be a camper again, the memories I created this summer will last forever.

Natalie Katz, a 10th-grader from Manhattan Beach, has attended Camp Ramah for seven years.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the Ocotber issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Summer Tours to Israel Rerouted, But Not By Much


Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel’s northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY’s base in Jerusalem.

That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.

“All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation,” said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. “We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe.”

So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides’ grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.

Few Kids Have Returned Home

Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY’s Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.

The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b’Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.

Administrators worried about heightening participants’ anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.

Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.

“Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it’s an hour-by-hour reevaluation,” said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.

IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries

Israel Experience adjusts the groups’ schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience — and most do — is tracked by GPS.

“They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move,” said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.

Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.

Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.

Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.

“We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region,” she said.

— JGF

The Making of a Jewish Teen


Community
by Lauren Schein, Tribe Contributor

I am a stubborn person. I get it from my dad. I also get many of my beliefs from my dad, who disregards all religion as not only mostly useless, but harmful.

I also have influences from my grandparents, who are big players in their temple. They insist on carrying on the Jewish traditions. My mom pushes the idea of Jewish community and how good it feels to be part of something larger.

Among all of these influences, my dad’s beliefs seemed most believable to me. I had seen evidence of the problems that religion had caused in the world and was ready and willing to go without. I didn’t see the point of being a part of anything bigger if it could invoke wars.

That is, until I had some chicken.

Chicken, you ask? Why is chicken symbolic of my joining of the Jewish community? The answer begins with the Religious Action Center trip to Washington, D.C. in February 2006.

I had not wanted to go along in the first place, but had been convinced. I walked into the situation firmly believing that there was no fun or learning to be had, and was ready to be stubborn enough to stick to that belief.

My mind was quickly changed the moment I walked into a large dining hall full of laughing, happy people who were all ready to get to know each other. I was enjoying myself even before dinner. The people I met were interesting, and I had a lot in common with them.

Then the food came. It was … chicken. That’s when Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, my rabbi from Leo Baeck Temple, said, “It wouldn’t be a Jewish convention without chicken.”

Everyone at my table was laughing, including me.

That’s when it hit me: I am a Jew. I was eating chicken with people I had immediate connections to, laughing over stereotypes and feeling pride in being part of such a great group. I became a part of the Jewish community that weekend. Whether it was the chicken, the friends, the senators, or the research; I had come to realize the reason for religion in the world.

I no longer view the idea of religion and community as only harmful. I have learned that a community can be the most important thing a person can have. A community is there for support and comfort in times of celebration and in times of need. Everyone — anywhere in the world — needs a community.

I am actually surprised to feel how fulfilling it is to tell people that I am a Jew and belong to the Jewish people. Thanks to that piece of white-meat chicken, I now have a community I will be able to rely on my whole life.

Lauren Schein, a junior at Santa Monica High School, was confirmed at Leo Baeck Temple.

Jewish Identity
by Mickey Brown, Tribe Contributor

I’m Jewish everywhere I go, but it always feels a little different depending on if I’m at my synagogue, at my camp or at my school.

When I’m at synagogue at Congregation Ner Tamid, I don’t feel unique. Being Jewish is typical and ordinary. I know everyone, and I simply take it for granted that everyone is here because they’re Jewish, and that everyone is Jewish because they’re here.

At Camp Hess Kramer, it feels completely different. I know that everyone is Jewish, but I don’t know anyone, and at first it’s strange. We know all the same prayers, all the same games and all the same rituals. The interesting part for me is that these things have less to do with being Jewish and more to do with being at camp.

It’s such a great feeling to be there and know that it is where I belong. People accept me at camp, and sometimes I just stand and ponder the idea that, “Wow, they’re all Jewish, every single one of them. I am not the minority, or even the majority, but the entire population! I am the religion!” Being able to say that feels really good.

School is another story, and to be honest, school is where I truly feel proud to be Jewish. I am part of a small minority at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, and I am treated a little differently for it. People see me in some of my classes as “the Jew” or “one of the Jews” and, truthfully, I love it! I am proud when I am at school to be known as “the Jew.”

The different ways people see me are mostly based on stereotypes. If someone were to point me out in a crowd to one of his friends and tell him that I am Jewish, the person would very likely assume I was smart, hard working, and fairly wealthy — and I have absolutely no problem with that assumption. I am proud to be thought of that way because those are valuable and honorable qualities that all people would want to have, and the fact that somebody would simply assume that I have them is quite flattering to me.

The truth is, however, that being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with those stereotypes. It’s about what I believe in and how I view myself. I have come to realize that my parents didn’t decide that I would be Jewish; I decided that I would be Jewish, and that I had to want it for myself. It didn’t matter how many people wanted it for me as long as I made my choice.

And as I stand here on the night of my confirmation, I think that it is obvious which choice I’ve made. I have nothing to prove to anyone regarding my religion, my beliefs, my faith, or my Jewish heritage, and I am very proud of who I am.

Mickey Brown, a junior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, was confirmed at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Israel
by Kevin Senet, Tribe Contributor

It was my first time in Israel, and on one of my first evenings there, I went to a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game. That night, Maccabi was playing Jerusalem HaPoel for the Israeli basketball championship. This rivalry is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rivalries in Israeli sports. The stadium was divided; the Tel Aviv fans were standing on one side in yellow, while the Jerusalem fans were standing on the other in red.

All of the sudden, before the game, the arena lights dimmed. I was amazed to see tens of thousands of people stop whatever they were doing — mostly chanting and cussing at the other side — to stand united and sing “HaTikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Not only did everyone sing, but they sang with pride and wholeheartedly.

Listening to this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I could feel the love of the Jewish nation in everyone’s voices, the love that has kept the hope for Israel alive in the Jewish people for thousands of years and through many difficulties. From this I understood why the Israelis have such extreme national pride and risk so much in order to live in the Jewish homeland.

I had never heard “HaTikvah” sung in public by tens of thousands of people. Being in Israel taught me not to hide my Jewish pride, but to show it in public. After living in Tel Aviv with an Israeli family for two months on the Milken-Lady Davis Israel Exchange Program, my pride in Israel and in Judaism has risen greatly.

I have also never seen fans as passionate as the Maccabi fans in any sports game in America. During the exchange program this spring, I attended every Maccabi game. When I saw that Maccabi was going to the final four in Europe, I was amazed. A team from the small country of Israel was going to Prague to play against teams from Russia and Spain. This shows the world that the Israelis and Jews are strong and can compete in sports, like basketball. When European countries see an Israeli team as one of the best teams in Europe, they must respect Israel and Jews.

Israelis are so proud of Maccabi doing well that more than 10,000 Israelis, including my host family, the Dekels, and I, went to the Euroleague Finals in Prague to cheer them on. Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball was one of the highlights of my stay in Israel. Not only was it fun to go to the games, but it taught me how different the Israeli culture is from American culture, and how to be proud of who I am.

Kevin Senet, a junior at Milken Community High School, was confirmed at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

God
by Natalie Paige Karic, Tribe Contributor

One night a few months ago, I was talking with two of my closest friends, whom I have known for as long as I can remember. Both of these girls are relatively religious Christians who frequently attend church and have a strong belief in God. Soon our conversation came to the subject of religion.

My friends asked me if I believed in God. I quickly answered that I wasn’t sure. Recently, I have asked myself how I could believe in God if I had never had a personal experience in which God spoke directly to me or guided me in some way.

I told them that to be a Jew you didn’t have to believe in God. I was certain about this, but I still couldn’t explain more. My friends didn’t grasp how I could be Jewish and be an active participant in my Jewish community yet not believe in God. They didn’t understand what I feel in services when the congregation is praying and singing to God. How is Judaism even a religion, they asked, if you aren’t praying to anything?

After thinking about it I came to the realization that most people don’t understand this important part of Judaism. Our religion is, of course, based on the monotheistic principle in which people unite to pray to one God, but a bigger part of Judaism, which my Christian friends overlooked, is the moral code, tikkun olam and other mitzvot that our religion promotes.

Of the ethics and values we are taught in Judaism, the most important to me is the learning and discovery integral to our Jewish religion. As we learn about the ideals and history of Judaism, we are better prepared to make educated decisions based on our beliefs about God and life.

After this year in Confirmation class, I feel as though I am more prepared to think about my belief in God. To be honest, I’m still questioning, but being a part of our Jewish community and trying to understand my religion has given me exactly what I wanted.

I know I won’t be judged by our community on the basis of faith, and I am always being asked to question my beliefs until I achieve what I consider to be the best understanding possible.

As I have grown as a Jewish woman, I have learned that being a part of Jewish community is what makes me a Jew. The people here are joined together by something great that cannot be explained. While we may not all believe the same things about God and life, we are all in this together.

Natalie Paige Karic, a junior at Harvard-Westlake School, was confirmed at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Sderot Attack Interrupts Villaraigosa’s Call


On Thursday, July 6, at 9 a.m., Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of Israel, was interrupted twice in attempts to place a call to Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot.

Palestinian terrorists have been attacking the city almost daily with Kassam rockets in recent weeks. Moyal had to interrupt both calls because of rocket attacks.

Villaraigosa wanted to reach out to the people of the Jewish state, and he chose Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has a population of 20,000, after conferring with local Jewish leaders. On hand for the pre-planned call were City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.

The conversation barely got beyond the introductions.

Just as Villaraigosa began to move to substantive matters, Moyal interrupted, saying: “I’m sorry. We’re going to have to have this conversation some other time. We’ve just been attacked by seven Kassam rockets,” he said over speaker phone.

Five to 10 minutes later, Consul General Danoch called Moyal a second time and reached him on his cell phone. Just as Danoch was about to push the speaker phone button, Moyal again cut the conversation short because of another barrage of rockets.

“This experience shook all of us to our core,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “I have tremendous respect for Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot, who live their lives in the shadow of terror. It makes you grateful for the peace and safety that we have here in Los Angeles.”

The attempt by the mayor of America’s second-largest city to reach out to the people of a nation he so admires became a lesson in the explosiveness and unpredictability of the Middle East.

Weiss said that the immediacy of the circumstances behind the termination of Villaraigosa’s call with Sderot’s mayor “really brought home the suddenness of terrorism.” Weiss represents Los Angeles’ Fifth Council District, which includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The Kassam attacks also underscore the escalation of Palestinian attacks on Sderot and elsewhere in the region, and the dangers these attacks represent to Israeli citizens, Fishel said.

“Most folks here in Los Angeles don’t necessarily understand Israel’s geography and how close Sderot is to [Gaza] and the attacks’ impact on the normalcy of the lives of men, women and children,” Fishel said.

Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year. The targets have recently included schools during school hours, Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, causing Sderot’s student population to drop by more than 15 percent over the past year.

In response to news of the call, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter said that Villaraigosa has every right to call city officials around the world to express his solidarity with them, especially when they face the consequences of war and natural disasters. But given that the mayor has called Israeli civic leaders, he has an obligation to call Palestinians, Ayloush said.

“When it comes to the Middle East, it is important to remember that there are two sides who are suffering due to this conflict,” Ayloush said. “But there is one side that’s suffering even more: that is the Palestinians, because of the occupation.”

To date, Villaraigosa has not yet called any Palestinian officials but hasn’t ruled out doing so in the future, spokesman Ben Golombek said.

Los Angeles’ mayor has twice visited Israel and hopes to make another trip there again soon.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

Wandering Jew – The Hit Parade


Here it is: 5,000 years after Moses wandered the Sinai, his people have finally found a home in Reseda, no less, at the Jewish Home for the Aging, the largest continuing residential care facility for the elderly in the Western United States. Yet while these Jews are no longer wandering, they are today wondering when the big simchah begins.

“We’re so excited!” says Mimi Kolmer. “We’ve been waiting for this all year!” In her mid-70s, she is one of close to 1,000 residents here at Eisenberg Village, most past their 90th birthday, and here they are today, watching guys in their 30s and 40s playing softball.

“What’s this about?” I ask Doug Gellerman, and he tells me this is the Spring Classic Event sponsored by the Synagogue Softball League.

“The league consists of 32 teams,” he says, “made up of 620 guys from temples all over the San Fernando Valley and West L.A. Four years ago we decided to give something back to our Jewish community, and each year it’s gotten bigger. We raise money for the home and bring our families so the kids and elders experience each other.”

Gellerman points to a kid about 10 years old talking with an old guy on a bench: “It’s a mitzvah for the kids to learn about giving back.”

“Is this your grandfather?” I ask the kid.

“Yeah,” he says. “He’s telling me about when he was a kid, but he can’t remember. He thinks maybe he has old-timer’s disease.”

“It’s Alzheimer’s, not old-timers,” Gramps says. “Maybe you have young-timers disease?”

Then he grabs his grandson and kisses him hard on the cheek.

Next event is senior softball, and I watch a bunch of elders swatting a whiffle ball with a big plastic bat, with pitching and fielding handled by the kids. The pitcher, who looks like he’s ready for his bar mitzvah, throws Morton Symans a soft pitch, and he misses.

“Hey kid!” yells Symans, who’s 85 years old. “I might be a senior citizen but don’t throw me no soft pitch! The road ahead of you is not the road that I’m on. It’s not a soft road. So toughen up!”

The kid shrugs, winds up, throws with all he’s got, and Symans slams the ball over everyone’s heads.

“Smart kid,” Symans says. “He’ll do just fine.”

Hilda Foodman, 72 years old and a self-proclaimed tomboy, is up next.

“I’ll tell you a wonderful story that happened to me,” she says, “but you must promise not to tell.”

“Hilda,” her friend interrupts, “you’re telling a reporter!”

“Oy!” says Hilda, and grabbing the bat, hits everything pitched her way.

Up next in a “Be Cool” T-shirt is Shelly Balzac. At 78, he walks with a cane but he swats a long one.

“Any relation to the writer?” I ask.

“Balzac was married in the Ukraine,” he says, “and my parents were from Kiev.”

“So that makes Balzac…”

“Dead.”

A kibitzer. Everyone here is a kibitzer.

Next event is the talent show. First up is Bill Mednick. A youthful 82, he wails, “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger….”

Well, for most residents, the hearing isn’t what it used to be, so the PA is set very, very loud. Good-natured Ida Greenbaum, the accompanying pianist, is like a city bus in that she tends to slow down and speed up unexpectedly, which obligates Bill to turn to her pleading, “Where are you?”

Bill concludes, and master of ceremonies Ellis (“Not the Island!”) Simon introduces Muriel Tuckman. She finishes to loud applause but not as loud as her singing: “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…someone to watch over me….”

“And who would that be, dear?” I ask. “George Bush?”

“That louse,” says Simon, and everyone agrees.

“When I was in the Marines,” he says, “a G.I. called me ‘a dirty Jew’ so I kicked his ass.”

Simon now asks us to show some love for “The Bird Lady” — and up steps Mildred Cadish, wearing a long, red feather boa. Looking like a bird, she takes the mike, puckers her lips and makes so many high-pitched squeals, some of the residents begin sprouting feathers. “I’ve been chirping 79 years,” she announces to great applause.

Muriel is a hard act to follow, but here’s Howard Hersh, 85, marauding his way through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Amazingly, each note Howard sings is in a different key.

Give it up now for Lee Miro, who while disavowing any relationship to the surrealist painter, nonetheless presents a surrealistic performance sitting in her wheelchair and belting out in an operatic voice, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

“We thank you all for being with us today,” she tells the appreciative crowd, while Adam, a lad of 14, takes the stage and juggles oranges. He tosses one under his leg, and the room roars.

“Maybe he’ll wind up a produce man at Ralphs,” says Mimi Kolmer, who then asks me what temple I’m from.

I tell her Shirley Temple and she smiles.

“This is the most outstanding place,” she says. “I have lots of friends. And everyone has a smile or a greeting. I’m very lucky.”

But not as lucky as those of us now being pummeled by Al Heyman, “singing” a little ditty that was popular around the time Noah built his ark. “Because, you come to me, with naught save love, and hold my hand and lift mine eyes above….”

As Al hits his last note, I can hear corneal implants shatter.

“Every time he sings,” Simon tells the crowd, “my hernia kills me. Next week he’ll sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and your head will explode!”

The talent show now ends with Simon himself singing “My Way.”

“If it wasn’t for Frank Sinatra,” he says, “I would have been famous!”

Someone yells, “Ellis, was your family rich or poor?” And without missing a beat, Simon tells the room “You know, my family was so poor, if I hadn’t been a boy, I’d have had nothing to play with.”

Gellerman now hands out checks totaling $3,300, money raised by the softball teams to be used by the home for the residents. Before he leaves, Gellerman asks Ellis to “return the money.”

Jewish humor.

On my way out, as I head for my nearest Beltone dealer, I run into Symans, the guy who told the kid to toughen up.

“Old people are like Don Quixote,” he says. “They think they’re still independent but they wind up tilting at windmills. I accept what I have and who I am — so I try to help others adjust.”

And then suddenly, from the PA, comes one last announcement, the one proclamation that bridges all senior politics, religion and age: “Bingo will begin in the library in 15 minutes!”

“Gotta run,” Symans says. “Zey gezunt!”

Visit to Ethiopia Changes His Life


In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah — to immigrate to Israel.

Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry — Fishel vowed that he would do something.

Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel’s commitment to Jewish people worldwide.

After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group’s recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.

“John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. “He’s always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement.”

On that trip, Fishel’s second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw,” said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.

Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“I see Jewish issues as global in scope,” Fishel said. “I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state.”–MB

 

Kids Learn Burial Rites From Barney


Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica’s Sha’arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.

His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.

With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.

A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a “paramedic,” in vest and plastic firefighter’s hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.

This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.

“What do we now? ” the rabbi asks.

The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.

“Well,” Marx says. “As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried.”

When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the “Man From the Mortuary.” Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.

The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.

It’s an impressive transformation.

With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.

Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

“I’ve wanted to do a program on death for a long time,” Marx says on the way to the cemetery. “It’s good for the kids, but lots of parents haven’t had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world,” he said.

The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.

“Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body,” he says. “We hit on Barney as the perfect solution — he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him.”

Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.

Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn’t really important for people in their 40s.

“But, in fact,” he now says, “I learned things I assumed I wouldn’t need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion,” he said.

“Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we’d gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult,” he says. “As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it’s almost essential.”

Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.

“It’s always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life,” said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.

“Children in the fourth and fifth grade don’t yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions,” she added.

When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside’s Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary’s director of community outreach is waiting.

She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.

In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.

This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris’ gravestone.

All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations — ones that will no doubt continue.

 

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

PASSOVER: Try to Avoid Asking the Fifth Question


While there are only four questions posed in the haggadah, most seders struggle with the unasked fifth question, “When are we going to eat?” It is asked, not only by hungry children, but also by adults who feel disconnected to the rituals of their ancestors. As if reenacting the hurried way in which the Israelites left Egypt with Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, families today rush through the seder. While they are supposed to be reenacting the Exodus through the rituals of the haggadah, instead, unbeknownst to them, they emphasize the hurried nature of the experience. Whether due to hunger or boredom, Jewish families are fast-forwarding to the food and neglecting the command to “see themselves as if they left Egypt.”

I remember my own childhood seders, when eating prior to the motzee (blessing) over the matzah was strictly forbidden. How could a 7-year-old sit for an hour or more in a seder that was largely done by rote and in Hebrew? I was able to remain focused only because I was mesmerized by my zayde (and slightly terrified by the glare he would give if any of his grandchildren got out of order). If I would dare reach for a carrot or any other food item on the table, an adult hand, like one of the Divine plagues unleashed against the Egyptians, would quickly respond with a light slap on my hand. My family did not know about the rabbinic rule stipulating that after reciting the blessing over the karpas (parsley or any green) at the beginning of the seder that any food grown from the ground may be eaten. With great wisdom the ancient rabbis created this rule in order to avoid the fifth question. Therefore, at our seders today we put carrots and celery on the table for people to eat after the parsley.

Once the question of hunger has been resolved, then the issue of boredom can be addressed. Abbreviating the haggadah is fine, if relevance is found in other ways. Ask your own questions, like “Why is it important to remember the Exodus?” and “When do we feel enslaved in our own lives?” as a means of making the seder relevant. Why are questions so important? Because they reflect interest and concern. We ask questions when we care about things. To make the seder relevant, we must ask our own questions and let the answers (there should be no singular answer) give us new meaning.

Reducing the need for the dreaded fifth question beforehand makes us more relaxed until it’s time for the bountiful food, family inside jokes and the rest of a warm and celebratory evening. The seder guests become sated, coffee is served, conversation is plentiful until the announcement, “It is time for the second half of the seder.” During my childhood seders, we never had to make the announcement, because at some point after the meal my uncle would walk a couple of steps over to the couch and take a nap. Some time later (I have no idea whether it was 15 minutes or an hour) when he would wake up, we all knew it was time for the second half of the seder.

Through classes and discussion groups I have discovered that many families do not complete the seder. “Is there really a second half to the seder?” I am asked. But how is this possible? Without the second half, there are only two cups of wine, no afikomen and no opening of the door for Elijah. Without the second half of the seder, there is no completion — there is no hope. So how can families fulfill these second-half rituals? Don’t serve dessert until the very end.

I want to preface this suggestion with an acknowledgement that it is contrary to the traditional Jewish law to eat dessert after partaking of the afikomen. But for families who do not usually complete the rituals of the seder, I would rather they embrace my suggestion. It has become clear to me that most seders fall apart over coffee and cake. Just as the national anthem indicates for many people the beginning of a ball game, dessert means that it is time to go home. With the coffee cup empty and only crumbs remaining on the dessert plate, people begin to think about the next day.

Excuses begin to be offered: “The children need to wake up for school tomorrow” (I would love for children to tell their parents that Passover should be a day off from school), “I have a busy day tomorrow.” Before the haggadot can be brought out again, coats are on, lips are puckered and another Exodus begins. Therefore, finish the meal, clean up some of the plates and then just as they are expecting dessert, bring out the haggadot again. Be gentle with them the first time — perhaps only 15 minutes. But you can do enough in 15 minutes; eat the afikomen, open the door and welcome Elijah, drink two more cups of wine and even sing a couple of songs at the end of the seder. Finally, bring out the coffee and dessert and enjoy the end of an evening that is no longer rushed. Who knows, perhaps they will enjoy the second half so much that, within a couple of years, dessert can be put back in its proper place.

One of my favorite rituals actually occurs during the second half of the seder. Unbeknownst to many Jews, the Cup of Elijah is supposed to remain empty until the fourth cup of wine (see your haggadah). Rather than just pouring wine from the bottle for the Cup of Elijah, it is our custom to pass the Cup of Elijah around the table and each participant pours some wine from their cup into Elijah’s. We open the door each year at Passover with the hope the Elijah will come to announce the coming of a messianic era, a time when wars will cease, hunger will be nonexistent and peace will reign. But we are partners with God in creating this perfect world. So this year, pass around the Cup of Elijah, ask each person to pour a little bit from their cup and as they do, to think about how they will help to bring about the messianic era. What acts of kindness will they perform, how will they save the environment and in what ways will they contribute to the betterment of humanity? How do we acknowledge and thank God for the blessings of life? By engaging in tikkun olam — the perfecting of His world. The full Cup of Elijah represents the Divine-human partnership and serves as a reminder of what ultimately the Exodus should mean to us.

What should be the goal of your Passover seder this year? Make it more meaningful than last year. Ask more questions to show that you care. Challenge more people to reflect on the lessons of the Exodus. Help expedite the coming of Elijah. When your seder is more than just a rushed meal you can truly feel as if you were redeemed from Egypt.

Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel is spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah.

 

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti


“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books).

According to a Creole proverb, truth is like oil in water; it always comes to the surface. Kathie Klarreich’s first book, a memoir of her years in Haiti, is a tale of truths — personal, religious and political.

The title, “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti,” comes from the nickname given to her by the kids in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In Haitian tradition, women take on the first names of their husbands; in her case she was named for the dreadlocks of her boyfriend (who later became her husband). She also refers to herself as a “Voodoo Jew.”

The book is timely reading as Haitians took part in long-postponed national elections on Feb. 7, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Klarreich’s impressionistic writing goes far in explaining the ongoing political turbulence that rocks the Caribbean nation — once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

On the eve of the elections, Klarreich was in Haiti, reporting for Time magazine. In an e-mail she wrote, “It’s sort of bittersweet to be covering elections again, seeing how much people want change and how slow it’s been to come.”

From the time of the author’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, the place got under her skin in ways that go beyond words. Something about the warmth and graciousness of the people, the landscape, the vibrancy and color of the place and the music touched her in a profound way. A second visit in 1988, with the goal of spending three weeks researching handicrafts for her San Francisco shop, turned into a stay of more than 10 years.

The book opens in September 1988 with gunfire, when Klarreich found herself a front-row witness to a coup d’etat, the first of several she’d experience. Information was scarce, and she was not sure what had happened or where to find safety, but following her instincts she made her way to a friend’s home. She was then unsure whether to remain in Haiti, and it was her worried mother, who in a long-distance phone call advised either to “get involved or get out,” who convinced her to stay.

Another friend suggested that since she was in the midst of history being made, that she try reporting. She made contacts, wrote and rewrote, and got published in the San Francisco Chronicle and broadcast on Pacifica Radio. After a quick and determined study of what makes a good reporter, she took on more assignments and soon found that major newspapers, magazines and television networks were calling her. As years passed, she felt less the foreign journalist and more as though she were recounting the history of her own country.

Soon after the 1988 coup, she went with a friend to hear a traditional music group perform at the National Theater, and when she first saw the drummer, “it was as though someone sliced a vein from my heart into the center of his.” Several months later, she met Jean Raymond and, ever aware of their differences in culture, education and economics, fell deeply in love. Their first son was born on the same day as another coup d’etat, in 1991, while they were in San Francisco. Jean Raymond felt displaced in America, homesick for Haiti, so he returned and she joined him later on.

Klarreich writes with honesty and humility, aware of the privilege of her upper middle-class background and ability — not shared by her Haitian friends — to leave at any point if the dangers, frustrations, government corruption and violence were to become too difficult to bear. She writes of adjusting to weeks with only 10 random hours of electricity, being mistaken for a CIA agent, losing a dear friend to assassination and interviewing political leaders. The memoir is also the story of her self-discovery as she pushes herself “to pare down the clutter” of her life.

Her curiosity about all things Haitian led her to experience the voodoo tradition. She attended a five-day traditional ceremony and while dancing, was surprised at her writhing bodily reactions, as though spirits possessed her.

“I was not a nonbeliever, but at each foreign juncture with the spiritual, I had only my Jewish spiritual upbringing as a frame of reference. This didn’t fit in that box. It didn’t fit anywhere. No feelings any rabbi evoked though any sermon I’d ever heard came close to reaching this kind of religious experience,” she writes.

Her husband is a practitioner of voodoo and she is not, although she says that learning about voodoo has helped her to better understand the country and it history. In their home in Haiti, she would light Shabbat candles, with his ritual items nearby. She now lives mostly in Florida, where her 14-year-old son goes to school, and she travels frequently to their home in Haiti, where her husband is primarily based.

In a telephone interview from Key Biscayne as she was about to leave for Haiti, she explains that voodoo is very much misunderstood, promoted by Hollywood as having to do with sticking pins into dolls and some sort of black magic. She’s pleased that her openness “allowed me to just observe and take in what it was. In this post-9/11 world, we have to come to other people’s religions with open minds and not be judgmental.”

Klarreich, 50, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland where her father served as a city councilman, and she says that one of the gifts her family gave her was travel, exposing her to many places from a young age. Her Jewish upbringing prepared her for her adventure in Haiti, and “for life in general. My parents set the stage for me to feel confident in making decisions and gave me space to do so.”

Now, when she looks at photos of her earlier self in Haiti, she sees how much her white skin makes her stand out, but she always felt accepted. Most Haitians, she says, don’t know much about Judaism, or Middle East politics.

“It’s a very isolated island, with its own language,” she said. “I’ve often thought this to be part of their larger political problem, that they’re so insular.”

Her mother suggested that she call the book “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The book took her about a decade to write, with several rewrites until she found a way to tell the story, which she does well. She begins each chapter with a Creole proverb — like “Love turns your head around” and “The lamp won’t light without a wick” — as Haitians invoke idiomatic sayings frequently.

“It’s part of Haitians’ charm; they see the world with humor, with joie de vivre,” she says. “We hear awful things about violence and poverty, but 8 million people get up and make do, often under great duress, and they do it with laughter and grace and creativity. I have tremendous respect for the way they have overcome so many difficulties.”

For Klarreich, Haiti remains a country “full of unpredictable flaws and wonders.” Each time she arrives, she’s enchanted anew.

“Haiti has taught me that there is not only one way to look at a situation, but infinite ways to create a solution, with humor and devotion, heart and determination as key ingredients.”

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

A Dying Language Comes to Life


“Gut morgn.”

Teacher Hannah Pollin greeted the group assembled in a large circle around her. Her nine high school students, armed with a page of interview questions and tape recorders, sat interspersed among 13 senior citizens at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. They formed groups of two or three, impatiently awaiting last-minute instructions.

“Ir volt redn nor af Yidish,” she reminded them.

But the admonition to speak only Yiddish was unnecessary as the students, from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, turned on their tape recorders and began firing off questions to their eager partners, native Yiddish speakers whom they were meeting for the first time.

“Vos makh stu?” they asked. “Fun vanen kumt ir?” “How are you?” and “Where are you from?”

Pollin’s class at New Community Jewish High School, an elective for 10th-, 11th- and 12th- graders, is possibly the only full-year, for-credit high school Yiddish language class currently being taught in the United States. Pollin, 23, also teaches Yiddish to the sixth-grade class at Shalhevet Middle School. Last fall she taught an elective Yiddish class to sixth- and seventh-graders at Sinai Akiba Academy, which she plans to continue in the spring.

The classes are part of a three-year pilot program funded by a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation. It was the idea of Aaron Paley, founder, and Dan Opatoshu, a board member, of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture.

To the students and seniors at the Jewish Home that Friday, those abstract goals had the immediate impact of building a bridge across generations.

The Yiddish words flew — sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly and occasionally “shreklich” or awful as the seniors reached for a word long forgotten or the students for a word they had not yet learned. They raised their voices, gesturing with their hands as they spoke.

“Vi heist ir?” asked senior Ami Kurzweil, 17.

He learned his partner’s name was Rose Levin. Now 100, she revealed that she spent the first 12 years of her life in Smargon, a shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, then after World War I immigrated to the United States via Japan.

Across the room, 12th-grader Ari Tuvia, 17, talked with Mildred Cadish, who admitted to being no older than 79. Born in New York City, Cadish told Tuvia how she grew up speaking Yiddish and how she used to read “Der Forverts,” the Yiddish newspaper.

“I understand 110 percent,” she said. “It is the most beautiful language in the world.”

Tuvia understood better than most first- semester language students — he was raised listening to his Romanian grandmother and father speaking the language.

But most of the students, who have been studying Yiddish for only one semester, are still confined to asking questions or describing events in the present tense. They want to learn the language their grandparents used to speak — the 1,000-year-old language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe — and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people.

“We should value this language for the adventure it takes us on,” said junior Zack Sher, 16, who hopes to spend a month this summer studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilna, Lithuania.

That morning, Sher learned the history of Sylvia Gottlieb, 89, originally named Shalamus, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up speaking Yiddish to her Ukrainian-born parents.

“You can go all over the world and find someone who speaks Yiddish,” she told him.

But today that’s less true. The 11 million Yiddish speakers that existed worldwide prior to World War II have diminished to only 1.85 million, according to sociolinguist Dr. Joshua A. Fishman, a visiting professor at Stanford University. Fishman categorizes them into two groups: elderly Jews, for whom Yiddish is the mother tongue, and members of ultra-Orthodox communities who use Yiddish as a daily language.

Pollin approaches Yiddish as a living language and brought her students, even as novice learners, to the Eisenberg campus of Jewish Home for the Aging to experience talking with native speakers.

“The most important goal is to form a relationship,” she said.

Pollin herself, who helped found the first undergraduate Yiddish major at Columbia University, significantly improved her speaking skills when she spent a year in Lithuania on a Fulbright scholarship, doing oral histories of Jews living there. And, in fact, her high school students will be writing histories of the people they interviewed, based on their tape-recorded conversations.

As the students began preparing to leave the Jewish Home, the seniors asked, “When are you coming back? Can we chip in for the bus to bring you here?” They exchanged phone numbers and “zayt gezunts,” hoping to meet again soon.

“It’s good to talk Yiddish,” observed Sara Litmanovich, 81, who was liberated from a concentration camp at age 16, the sole survivor of a large family. “It gives me varemkayt [warmth] and makes me feel again like I have mishpockhe [family].”

 

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!


Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with “y’all.” But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.

In his documentary film, “Shalom Y’all,” Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.

“Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey,” Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.

“Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South.”

“Shalom Y’all” explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant — a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.

“Except when the student rabbi comes,” says the husband. “Then we get eight.”

Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.

“Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents’ generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community” in the South, he said. “I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening “Shalom Y’all” on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit

Where the Boys Aren’t


The Chanukah party for Adat Ari El’s junior United Synagogue Youth group had all the elements the seventh- and eighth-grade members had requested: latkes, a gift exchange and a fierce board game competition. Yet, said, Julee Snitzer, the synagogue’s youth activities director, of the 13 who participated — only two were male.

Her experience is not unusual. Many of the informal Jewish education activities geared to teens in the greater Los Angeles area — such as camps, synagogue youth groups, school clubs and Jewish community centers — draw more girls than boys. The ratio in formal Jewish activities, such as Jewish high school and religious school, appears to be more gender balanced.

“Looking at what’s happening locally and nationally, we’ve found that fewer teen boys enroll in informal Jewish activities than they did in previous years,” said Lori Harrison Port, senior associate director for planning and allocations at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

A survey done by her department showed that informal Jewish education programs generally attract 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. The lack of participation among boys could lead to a weakening of their Jewish affiliation over time, some fear.

A special report analyzing results from the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01 indicates that participation in camping and youth groups may impact Jewish identity as much as or more than attending up to six years of supplementary religious school. The impact is directly linked to the length of involvement in those youth-oriented activities.

Last fall, The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education hosted a conference for Jewish youth professionals to explore the issue and generate ideas for cultivating greater male involvement in informal Jewish activities. Held at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the program was an outgrowth of the bureau’s Youth Professional Advisory Council, which facilitates sharing of ideas and resources for those serving Jewish teens.

Keynote speaker Bob Ditter, a Boston-based psychotherapist who consults nationally with camps and other youth-targeted agencies, shared insights about boys’ development and led attendees in discussing how to design their programming and marketing to attract boys.

“The central [element] in boys’ development is task and action. Boys want to feel that they’re good at something,” Ditter said. “Boys develop friendships through the stuff they do. Girls develop friendships and then go do stuff.”

Ditter said that boys engage in activities — such as tossing a ball or comparing video games — as a way to connect. He suggested that youth group leaders and counselors allow boys to do an activity first before expecting them to sit and talk.

He also urged group leaders to recognize that boys initiate connection through a challenge or dare. For example, Ditter witnessed a teen participant make a sarcastic comment to his counselor at a camp’s opening campfire. Rather than feeling threatened or insulted by such remarks, leaders “need to hear the invitation [to engage] rather than the challenge” he said.

“It’s a myth that adolescents distrust or don’t respect adults,” he added. “They’re hungry for meaningful connections to adults they respect and feel respected by.”

The group also discussed the underlying pressures that children of all ages face to compete and excel, whether that means getting into the right preschool or taking the most Advanced Placement courses.

“At social events, they just want to hang out,” Ditter said. “They need to depressurize.”

Looking at how these factors might affect marketing to teen boys, the conference participants agreed that programs — and their promotional materials — must reflect teens’ reality and clearly state the benefits of participation, such as providing community service hours or leadership opportunities.

Ellie Klein, Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth director, noted that many students are attracted to participate in the synagogue’s Wednesday night program, which consists of dinner, a recreational elective and a Jewish-themed seminar, because there is excellent tutoring available through the program’s supervised study room.

Wilshire Boulevard bucks the norm by attracting more boys than girls at its programs. Klein said she’s baffled by the male-to-female ratio, although it helps that eight of her 11 staff members are men and one of the synagogue’s rabbis, Dennis Eisner, is popular with the youngsters and actively recruits participants.

“I’m not selling basketball,” she said. “I’m selling community and connection.”

Temple Sinai’s Sinai High, an educational program for eighth through 12th-graders that draws from the synagogue’s religious school graduates, also boasts a good ratio between boys and girls. Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei, who oversees youth programs, said programming is specifically geared to attract boys. As an example, he noted a popular series of classes that examined Jewish values as evidenced in “The Simpsons.”

Schuldenfrei said the trend of females outnumbering males is not limited to the teen realm. Sinai’s ATID group for young professionals in their 20s and 30s struggles to attract a male audience. For Sukkot, ATID held a Sukkah Sports Night, offering a televised game and beer, as well as a holiday teaching under the sukkah, and was rewarded with more male participants than normal. Schuldenfrei said that programming “needs to speak to males, as well as females.”

This advice may apply throughout the age spectrum. “In liberal communities,” said Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, “60 percent to 70 percent of people participating in adult education are women.”

 

Vienna Glories in Past and Present


Sixty years after the end of World War II, Vienna has reclaimed its roots as a city of culture. Not the culture of stoic monuments to faded glory or landmarks illuminated by historical plaques, but in a living, breathing, heart-still-pumping way. Grand-yet-graceful music, art and architecture are the lifeblood of this city and those fortunate enough to live here.

Strolling along the wide pedestrian mall of the Kartnerstrasse, you cannot help but feel swept up in the art and culture of this elegant city. The impressive architecture rises up and surrounds you as the beauty of the city embraces you.

As the sun sets on the Kartnerstrasse, Viennese girls window shop Euro chain stores for platform shoes and designer scruff denim, shadowed by elegant palaces that line the cobbled street. A girl plays Strauss on a grand piano. Down the street, a man plays a symphony on crystal glasses of water, as students in black tie and spiked hair saunter past with cellos. The street comes to life with people who seem to not be in a hurry to go anywhere in particular.

Music is at the heart of Vienna, and since 2006 is being celebrated as the Mozart Year in Austria, the most rewarding Mozart experience is the city that inspired him. By all means, visit Mozart’s statue and the house he lived in, but to really experience Mozart’s Vienna, wander the cobbled lanes like the Blutgasse, where Mozart lived and worked. While away a morning by lingering over café and strudel in a plush coffee house (complete with charmingly polite tuxedoed waiters).

The best way to discover Mozart here might be a night at the Vienna Opera. I was lucky enough to attend a performance of “The Magic Flute” during my visit, which was sponsored by Austria Tourism. This was classical Mozart through and through in terms of the music, but the performance was strikingly modern.

A minimalist industrial set was the backdrop for bearded ladies painted blue and dressed in 18th-century industrial corsetry, while the priests of Sarastro were done up in white, minimalist hazmat suits. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll concede, but that completely sums up a city that glories in its past but revels in its modernity.

Lets remember that Mozart was cutting-edge cool in his day. It’s fitting that this city still pushes the artistic envelope while embracing its artistic history. Vienna is a place where the elegant Hofburg Palace can stand alongside stunning Hundertwasser House.

Vienna’s influence as a cultural center also drew such Jewish composers as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zelimsky, in addition to numerous Jewish writers, actors, artists and doctors. And while the city’s Jewish history has been a tumultuous one — only 2,000 of the city’s pre-World War II population of 183,000 Jews survived the Shoah — Vienna today boasts a very active community of about 7,000 Jews.

The city features 15 synagogues (including a Sephardic congregation), a yeshiva, a Jewish museum and an office of Jewish Welcome Service. Most of Vienna’s Jews live in the city’s Second District, where you’ll find kosher supermarkets, butchers and restaurants.

The other must-see on any Austrian Mozart tour is the quaint city of his birth, Salzburg, where the Hohensalzberg fortress looms over the Salzach River, and the pastel shades of the shops in the Aldstadt are undeniably photogenic.

In Salzburg, you’ll have the opportunity to see the house where Mozart was born and visit the Mozart museum, which struggles to understand the composer’s genius. Both are worth a look, but the truly hot ticket in Salzburg is the Marionetten Theater, which regularly stages Mozart’s operas.

Appreciating the preservation of a centuries-old art is the key to enjoying Salzburg, a town that seems content to linger in its past. And provided that a look into a time capsule is all you expect, you may not be disappointed.

Jewishly speaking, Salzburg never fully recovered following the Holocaust. Only about 100 Jews inhabit the city, which features a single synagogue at Lasserstrasse 8. But despite its anti-Semitic reputation, the city was host to such Jewish luminaries as dramatists Max Reinhardt and Carl Zuckmayer, who were drawn to its Salzburg Festival and its cultural scene.

However, Mozart himself preferred the energy and vibrancy of cosmopolitan Vienna. Like a deep breath of fresh air, it’s a city that will make you sigh.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


Aries (March 21-April 20)

Notable Jewish Aries:
William Shatner

You know that security camera designed to catch thieves at the ATM? It also catches that special cringe you get on your face this week when you see your bank balance. The dollar amount left in your checking account is almost criminal. Don’t panic. Just hold off on purchases this week, or if you have to buy, find a cheaper version of what you want. Listen, we all love the fancy $22 shampoo, but lather yourself in some dime-store Suave this week and wash those financial fears right out of your hair. If you’re thinking of relocating or taking a trip, the end of this week is a perfect time for Aries to be on the move. Remember, you can still have a good time in coach.

Taurus (April 21-May 20)

Notable Jewish Taurus:
Golda Meir

Taureans love the familiar. This week in particular, that couch and those pajamas are looking mighty cozy. Luckily for you, the planetary pull of social activity is strong enough (just barely) to yank you away from watching five TiVo’d episodes of "Project Runway." Interaction with children and family members will suck you out of the vortex of comfort your living room has become. On Wednesday, you may feel the desire to become extra forceful at work. Keep in mind: initiative is good, being a wrecking ball and treating other people’s ideas like uninhabited tenements is bad. Be a bull, but don’t make the rest of the world your china shop.

Gemini (May 21 — June 20)

Notable Jewish Gemini:

Mel Blanc

If you’ve ever found yourself walking away from a Marc Jacobs bag, new iPod or some other tempting purchase and then fantasizing about whether or not to buy it in the next couple of days, this decision is easy. Hold off and wait until next week. The planetary action now suggests a lack of realism, which suggests a lack of flinging your credit card across the counter and worrying about it later would be wise. Sunday is a good time for religious or spiritual pursuits, even if it just means cracking open that old copy of "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Cancer (June 21-July 20)

Notable Jewish Cancer:
Marc Chagall

To best describe the tone of this week, I would have to say it’s a mixture between an Ingmar Bergman film and a vat of motor oil. Things will start off a bit dark in tone, but lighten up by midweek. Thursday is an ideal time to visit an elderly relative or friend. You’ve been putting it off, but who knows how long you’ll have? Leave it to a Jewish horoscope to provide not only astrological forecasting, but also guilt. By the way, on Friday, a woman with whom you are familiar will request a meeting. If you can, make her come to you.

Leo (July 21 — August 21)

Notable Jewish Leo:
Bernard Baruch

You won’t need to throw salt over your shoulder, knock on wood, cross your fingers or say some obscure Yiddish phrase. This week, luck is with you. The moon is in your own sign of Leo and that means roll the dice and buy the Lotto ticket. As for work, this is a bad time to get involved with office politics. When you hear negative chatter by the box of doughnuts or gossip by the fax machine, simply turn your emotional car around and find the entrance ramp for the high road. Don’t be rude about it. You can smile and nod, just don’t engage.

Virgo (August 22-September 22)

Notable Jewish Virgo:
Alan Dershowitz

Here’s a new word invented just to describe this week in Virgo-land: Noody. That means, you’re part needy and part moody. The only way out of this spiritual malaise is some form of written communication. If you must, use e-mail. If you can, buy a nice box of notecards, sit down with a hot beverage and write a letter the old-fashioned way to someone you trust. Saturday will find the mood lighter and the stars aligned with improvement, either of self, home or car. I leave you with this: Noodiness is only a passing mood state if you don’t take it seriously, and how can you when it sounds so stupid?

Libra (September 23-October 22)

Notable Jewish Libra:
Walter Mattheau

Libras love a party, and this week the parties will find you. The stars say to socialize, have a good time and power through slightly lower energy levels. As for your schedule, let’s just think about it a second. Other than the things you have to do — work and seeing friends and loved ones — are you truly enjoying all the things in your Filofax? If book group is starting to be a drag, this is the time to let it go. Not loving that weekly poker game? Toss it aside like a pair of threes. Athletic Libras will shine this week, so don’t drop the softball team or bowling league just yet.

Scorpio (October 23-November 22)

Notable Jewish Scorpio:
Calvin Klein

If there is such a thing is "good touch" and "bad touch," it’s not such a stretch that there can be both "good talk" and "bad talk." This is good for you to know, especially midweek when the stars have conversations dominating your life. On the upside, there won’t be any "Where is this relationship going?" or "Can you hand in a written description of exactly what it is you do here?" which are obviously "bad talk" topics. Your chats will be rife with listening, respect and acceptance. If you are thinking about a job interview or discussion about a promotion, this is the time to go for it.

Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)

Notable Jewish Sagittarius:

Steven Spielberg

Like the Fonz, Sagittarions sometimes face a challenge getting sappy with l -l -l -loved ones. Not this week. It suddenly seems easy getting sentimental with your inner circle. On top of that, like some people have a good hair day, you will have a good confidence week. Public speaking, for example, will come easily. If there are creative endeavors, perhaps in music, that you’ve been contemplating, celestial forces are with you. Even if it just means burning a CD for a friend, you will find the experience satisfying. This is the tough part of writing a horoscope but it would be a shonda if I didn’t mention this: watch your back on Thursday, as deceit will be all around you. Don’t say anything in public you wouldn’t want posted on the World Wide Web.

Capricorn (December 21-January 19)

Notable Jewish Capricorn:

Dave Attell

Capricorn charisma is spiking this week. If fact, your charisma is propping its elbows up on the bar, winking at the pretty bartender and downing a six-pack of Red Bulls. You are a bullet train of charm and there’s no stopping you. Just avoid introspection. Usually, it’s a good thing, but for now, it could lead to an annoying tendency toward self-involvement. To go with your superior charm, keep your presentation fierce (or just enjoy how much using that word makes you feel like Tyra Banks). Looks will play a part in how people assess you this week, so break out the iron or just throw the shirt in the dryer with a wet towel for all I care, just be rumple free.

Aquarius (January 20-February 18)

Notable Jewish Aquarius:
Ted Koppell

It’s not such a big deal when someone cuts in front of you on the freeway or there isn’t enough milk left for your cereal. It’s not life or death if a telemarketer calls you to see if you’re happy with your phone service and answering the call means you miss the end of the second quarter of the game. Still, this week it will feel like every little thing is driving you crazy. The mishegoss is simply temporary crankiness. Still, for the first few days of this week, there will be intense irritability. The only solution is to find some solitude. If you have to, sit in your car for a few minutes and listen to NPR before going home. Get up early and enjoy breakfast by yourself. Trust me, you need alone time this week and by Friday, annoyance will fade and romantic relationships will flourish.

Pisces (February 19-March 20)

Notable Jewish Pisces:
Josh Groban

Dreaming of being a great novelist but not exactly putting pen to paper? Seeing yourself as a starlet but not bothering to take a little old acting class? Fantasizing about running a marathon but limiting your training sessions to jogging around the block? Let go of unrealistic expectations this week and delusions of grandeur. Think about what you can actually accomplish and take steps to make it happen. Snap out of your happy place, that phony place in your mind where accomplishments take no effort. I know this all sounds kind of harsh, but sometimes a horoscope has to involve tough love. If you let go of false hopes, a brand new relationship will appear by Friday. If your feet are on the ground, you can run with it.

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help


 

At 6:30 p.m. on a chilly Wednesday night in December, more than 30 young Jewish professionals gathered on the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Romaine Street in West Hollywood to feed homeless people waiting in line for a hot meal.

There on behalf of the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, the volunteers looked with surprise at the growing line of nearly 200 people waiting for food — a sight already familiar to Jennifer Chadorchi, the young Persian Jewish woman who had single-handedly recruited the evening’s volunteers.

“The turnout of volunteers was amazing that night,” said Chadorchi, who regularly organizes volunteer groups for the Coalition. “It makes me feel so great to share the experience of helping others by bringing them in to volunteer.”

For the last eight years, Chadorchi, a Beverly Hills resident in her 20s, has become a rare jewel in the Persian Jewish community, quietly mobilizing a small army of friends, family members and local students to respond to the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles.

“Her compassion and her actions are contagious,” said Lida Tabibian, a volunteer recruited by Chadorchi. “She not only changes thousands of lives, but she’s also inspiring a whole generation to be leaders for this cause.”

Chadorchi’s journey in aiding the homeless began when she was 16, when, on a rainy night while driving in her brand-new car, she spotted Coalition volunteers serving food to the homeless.

“What caught my eye was the long line of these people just standing in the pouring rain with only newspapers over their heads,” Chadorchi said. “It didn’t seem fair to me that I had so much and they had nothing, so I decided I had to help.” Since 1987, coalition volunteers have been handing out excess food donated by Los Angeles area hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and caterers. In 2000, the coalition joined forces with UCLA medical students, who offer medical aid to sick, homeless individuals gathering at the street corner.

Chadorchi’s efforts also have included raising funds for the coalition, and she has organized clothing drives in her Beverly Hills neighborhood. She was also instrumental in organizing Project Feed, a campaign allowing Beverly Hills school district students to donate food and time to the coalition in exchange for school credit.

“She has had a tremendous impact on our organization. What she did was build a bridge between our group and Beverly Hills, especially the Iranian Jewish community,” said Ted Landreth, one of the coalition’s founders. “Without her I doubt we could have made these important connections.”

Those familiar with Chadorchi’s volunteer efforts said they wished she would enter the public sector and work with local government officials to help alleviate Los Angeles County’s difficulties with the homeless.

“I’ve known Jennifer since she was a junior at Beverly Hills High School. I think she is one of the most dedicated, incredible and passionate young people out there,” said former U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. “The people working out there [L.A. city officials] are doing alright, but if she was in charge of the homeless problem in Los Angeles County, I promise you’d see some real changes.”

Chadorchi said she is frequently approached by Jews in the community who question her for helping a non-Jewish cause like the coalition.

“It is our duty as Jews to heal the world one person at a time — tikkun olam,” Chadorchi said. “I’m here to let people out there know that one person can really make a difference.”

Individuals interested in joining Chadorchi’s efforts can contact her at (310) 288-0090.

Jennifer Chadorchi

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Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare


“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).

A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.

“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”

Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.

Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.

Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”

“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”

What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.

She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.

The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.

Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.

But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.

“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”

Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.

And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.

Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.

But it’s not only that.

“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”

Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.

 

Why a Novel?


“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).

I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.

Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.

But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.

But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.

In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.

The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.

On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.

On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.

L.A. Jewry Needs More Exploring


Like any self-respecting East Coast native, I arrived in Los Angeles more than a decade and a half ago armed with the usual stereotypes of this city — namely, it lacked intellectual and cultural “gravitas,” was distinguished by its traffic and smog and defied all known logic of urban organization. Almost immediately, I came to realize that while there was a grain of truth in all of these claims, Los Angeles had many virtues. To begin with, it was far more playful and open to reinvention than the solemn and self-serious East Coast cities in which I was raised and educated. More substantially, it is the site of immense cultural energy that encourages initiative and innovation.

Since arriving, I’ve also shed another stereotype that I had brought with me as a historian of the Jewish experience. Trained as a Europeanist, I had been inculcated to believe that Los Angeles was to New York as America was to Europe — a pale imitation of the real McCoy, a “parvenu” in a world in which antiquity and social stratification bestow merit. This view, unfortunately, is all too common among East Coast or Eurocentric academics.

It is quite surprising, for example, that Los Angeles, the site of frequent innovation, merits no place in the definitive account of American Judaism recently authored by Jonathan Sarna. What this lacuna suggests is that we are in need of more research on the L.A. Jewish experience leading to a new scholarly synthesis that blends cultural, political, social, religious, and institutional stories into one tale. This research must attend to both the local and national contexts of L.A. Jewry.

For it is hard to deny that America has been one of the most successful sites of Jewish settlement in history, if not the most successful of Diaspora communities. Nor can one quarrel with the premise that Los Angeles is one of the most interesting laboratories of urban experimentation today, including its Jewish community.

What make Los Angeles and its Jews so interesting and worthy of attention? Indeed, why should the L.A. Jewish community be a subject of serious study for researchers. Here are some reasons:

1) Size — Los Angeles is the second-largest Jewish city in North America and one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world. Starting with but eight young men in 1850, the L.A. Jewish community has exploded in population over the course of its 150-year history, reaching its current population of 500,000-600,000. It has developed a vast network of organizations to which Jews of different religious, cultural and political persuasions belong. It also has a sizable majority of Jews without affiliation of any sort, who represent an important and largely untapped source for those intent on studying the challenges facing the American Jewish future.

2) Diversity — Similar to the larger city, the L.A. Jewish community is blessed with rich cultural and human resources. The arrival of thousands of Jews from Iran, Israel and the former Soviet Union over the past 30 years has injected tremendous diversity and energy into Jewish communal and institutional life. In Los Angeles today are some of the most textured and diverse ethnic Jewish neighborhoods anywhere in the world. We have an opportunity to observe in these neighborhoods, and among the recent arrivals, familiar patterns from the history of immigration to this country — the initial desire to organize among one’s own group, followed by a desire for integration into the mainstream, followed by a desire to reclaim parts of a fading or lost native culture. We also have the opportunity to juxtapose these recent waves of migration with the internal American waves that brought thousands of Jews to Los Angeles in early- to mid-20th century.

3) The Sunny Side — Jews have come to Los Angeles for the same reasons that millions of others have: sunny weather and an accompanying sense of social optimism and economic opportunity. Los Angeles has been very good to its Jews, who have assumed positions of prominence in Hollywood, the real estate business and local politics. Moreover, Jews have thrived on the ethos of social mobility and cultural experimentation for which the city is known (and often mocked elsewhere). Thus, they have constantly moved, often westward, in search of open space. And they have constantly remolded themselves from new arrivals into city elders, political radicals, moviemakers, and neo-kabbalists. In this sense, the L.A Jewish experience may not diverge radically from the larger American Jewish template of opportunity and upward mobility. It is the same (in terms of seizing opportunity), just more so.

4) The Dark Side — Some have observed that the “sunshine” narrative of Los Angeles must be tempered by a healthy dose of the “noir.” According to that darker story, evoked by Mike Davis in “City of Quartz ” and more recently in the film, “Crash,” Los Angeles’ veneer of opportunity and mobility barely conceal the barrenness of a vast urban wasteland, marked by anomie, isolation and a glaringly absent center. This “noir” account of the L.A. Jewish experience cannot be dismissed out of hand. It pushes us to think not just of the Hollywood studio bosses, but of the blacklisted writers accused of communist sympathies; not just of the conspicuously affluent, but of the invisible working-class poor; not just of the self-assured guardians of the faith, but of those who struggle to find anything meaningful in their lives as Jews.

Ranging between the narrative extremes of sunshine and noir, the Jews of Los Angeles make for one of the most intriguing and complex Jewish urban centers around. This is all the more remarkable given how understudied L.A. Jewry is. To say this is not to diminish in any way the pioneering labors of Rabbi William Kramer and Norton Stern, who did much to preserve the historical legacy of L.A. Jewry. Nor is to take credit away from groups like the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly or the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, which work to continue the work of Kramer and Stern.

Rather, it is to say that the last major monograph devoted to the history of Jewish Los Angeles was written 35 years ago by Max Vorspan and Lloyd Gartner. Their “History of the Jews of Los Angeles” (1970) covers a great deal of ground, especially in tracing the institutional history of the community over the course of its first century. But much more remains to be studied and written, especially since the city has grown and changed in dramatic ways. Scholars ranging from Deborah Dash Moore to George Sanchez to Raphael Sonenshein have shed considerable light on one or another of the city’s Jewish history. But we need more.

A step in this direction will take place this weekend when leading scholars, community activists and political officials gather for a conference, “L.A. Jewry Then and Now,” to be held on consecutive days at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Autry National Center and the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. At the heart of the deliberations will be two sets of key questions. First, how do L.A. Jews, in all their ethnic diversity and geographic dispersion, fit into the larger cultural and social mosaic of Los Angeles? In what ways is the Jewish experience different from and similar to the experience of other groups in this explosively multicultural city (Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Armenians, etc.)? A second set of questions is refracted through a broader national lens: What is the place of L.A. Jewry in the larger narrative of American Jewish history? Is L.A. Jewry unique or typical of the American Jewish experience?

Answers to these questions will, of necessity, be provisional. But they will set the stage for more systematic work over the coming years, work that will begin to fill large gaps not only in the history of the city of Los Angeles, but also in the history of the modern Jewish experience.

For more information about the Nov.11-13 conference, contact UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies at (310) 267-5327 or visit www.cjs.ucla.edu.

 

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum


Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history, both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.

“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” said Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.

Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.

Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.

In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.

Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.

Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.

A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.

Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.

The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.

Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.

While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.

The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.

Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.

Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, said Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.

“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” said Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”

For more information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, visit

Spectator – Sweet Music Amid Turmoil


Those who have followed the documentaries produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center know what to expect: Films like “Genocide,” “Liberation” and “In Search of Peace” that hit you right between the eyes and in the solar plexus.

Thus, it is more the surprise that its Moriah Films division’s latest documentary, “Beautiful Music,” a 39-minute film narrated by Brooke Shields, proves to be sensitive and understated. “Beautiful Music,” directed and written by the Wiesenthal Center’s Richard Trank, was based on original material by Trank and Rabbi Marvin Hier.

It’s about a blind and autistic Arab girl who blossoms into a musical savant under the tutelage of a caring Jewish piano teacher.

Rasha Hamad, who is deaf and blind like her younger sister, is locked into a small room with her sibling by their parents and later abandoned. Traumatized and helpless, the girls are given a warm home in the Arab village of Beit Jala by a Dutch missionary couple, Edward and Helene Vollbehr.

The girls seem unable to respond to human contact, they beat themselves on the heads and they scream endlessly. But then the Vollbehrs notice that Rasha calms down when listening to classical music and shows an amazing aptitude for playing the piano.

The Vollbehrs turn to the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music, where Rasha is entrusted to Devorah Schramm — although the task is daunting even for this devoted teacher. While Rasha’s piano playing keeps improving, and she even starts to compose her own music, it takes two or three years of daily lessons before Rasha shows any signs of bonding with her teacher. Rasha also suffers when the larger world around her goes awry, when Scuds fall during the 1991 Gulf War or during the terror of the two intifadas.

With calmer days, Rasha picks up again, The last scene shows her performing a Chopin sonata, joined by Jewish classmates, to the applause of the Jewish audience, which had pitched in to pay for her lessons.

Summing up her experience, Schramm observes, “If we look at the headlines, we see generalities. But when we look at one individual, we see more deeply.”

The film will screen at the Hollywood Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arclight Theatres, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. For information visit www.hollywoodawards.com/screenings.

 

What to Ask a Jew


If you’re Jewish, this is not for you to read. Please clip this editorial and hand it off to a close non-Jewish friend. I’m certain some of your best friends aren’t Jews. And thanks for sharing.

Dear Non-Jewish Friend:

Every year around this time your friend disappears from work or school for a couple of days to mark the High Holidays. There are many Jews for whom this is a deeply spiritual, life-changing time that reconnects them to their faith, their people and their soul’s purpose here on earth.

Then there are most Jews.

Let’s assume your friend belongs to the larger group. You assume when he’s away from work on one of those holidays that local newscasters pronounce a different way each year, he’s living la vida Hebrew, cloaked in mystical garments, eyes drifting upward to heaven. You watched “A Price Above Rubies.” You channel-surfed the Chabad Telethon. You assume when we’re among our own, it’s all circle dancing and full-throated chanting.

It is not.

Too many sanctuaries have all the excitement of a physician’s waiting room, minus the excitement. Think of one of those interminable assemblies back in elementary school. After an hour of the fourth-grade orchestra, followed by mumbled student council skits, even the thrill of not having to go to class that day evaporated.

For too many of us, this is the situation come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Does your friend return to work after the holidays and — when you ask how they were — just shrug? Or does he roll his eyes and emit an “Ugh.” Or is it just an all purpose, “Oh, fine.”

In that case, I’m going to ask you to perform an intervention, a spiritual crisis intervention to stave off insanity.

Insanity is not too strong a word — because entering dumbly into the same soul-deflating, boredom-inducing behavior every year as though this year will somehow automatically be different is the definition of insanity.

Fellow Jews have tried to help by doing what we do best: We’ve formed committees. The committees investigate declining synagogue attendance and lack of enthusiasm among younger Jews, and very often their recommendations are spot-on and well meaning.

And we have innovated: rock ‘n’ roll services, meditation minyans, yoga amidahs (don’t ask), free services, elite services, singles services.

I keep waiting for the press release about the bullock sacrifice on mid-Wilshire. (Maybe at the site of the old Bullock’s department store.)

That ought to juice things up.

There are engaging services out there, innovative or not. If your friend’s rabbi presides over one of them, no need for he or she to take offense here. But the basic trope I hear from too many Jews year after year is that attending their service is more duty than delight.

Your job is to change things. With one High Holiday down and one more to go, you can help your Jewish friend. These interventions typically work around a series of questions. Because you care, but may not know what to ask, here are my suggestions:

Ask them if High Holiday services inspired them.

Be sure to register their immediate reaction. If they squint and screw up one side of their face, take this as a “no.” The truth is, most Jews sit through these services looking either intermittently bored or catatonic. Listen and you’ll hear the stampede of so many minds wandering so far so fast. At some services I’ve attended, the snoring is louder than the cantor.

Ask them, then, why they go.

Why accept the status quo? What do they wish they got out of going? What kind of experience are they looking for?

Ask them how they would improve it?

Is it the liturgy? The melodies? The sermons? Do they feel like a stranger to the Hebrew, words, the ideas?

Ask them if they’ve ever mentioned their boredom to their rabbi?

They might be surprised to find out that their rabbi senses it, can see it in a sea of faces — might even be bored, too. There, perhaps, is the beginning of a solution.

Ask them how involved they are in Jewish life, learning and prayer the other 360 days of the year.

Making Yom Kippur your only synagogue holiday is like making “Koyaanisqatsi” your only cinema-going experience. You need some background, some study, context and preparation. Otherwise you leave scratching your head.

Ask them if they think their ancestors would be happy knowing they are still going to shul, even though it makes them bored and miserable.

Never mind, skip that question.

Ask them why, if these days are so holy, we treat them so lightly.

Are they something we get through or, as we say in Los Angeles, get into?

Ask them what they will do to make next year’s High Holiday services a meaningful and profound experience.

These are questions for you, the non-Jewish friend, to ask. Don’t worry about imposing. Your friends will have plenty of time to ponder them in shul.

 

A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way


“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

 

A Smile Can Be Key to Temple Security


Will you feel safe going to synagogue this New Year?

The High Holidays bring a special dilemma to American congregations. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attract more Jews to synagogue — and more attention to American Jews in general — than at any other time of year.

The very prominence of this intensive Jewish season raises significant security concerns for clergy and lay leaders responsible for the safety of their members and guests. Yet the New Year is the single best opportunity to engage and welcome both new and returning members of the congregation.

Can synagogues protect and serve?

For 10 years, Synagogue 2000, a transdenominational project to envision the synagogue of the 21st century, worked with some 100 synagogues across America to re-imagine congregations as sacred, welcoming communities. Beginning this year, Synagogue 3000, its successor, is making that vision of an open tent available to every Jewish spiritual community in the country.

But at a time when virtually all the synagogues in North America have had to install some level of security screening at their front doors, is this welcoming vision realistic, let alone responsible?

We believe that the creation of a welcoming ambience is not only responsible; it is the surest way to keep our communities safe. Remember the origin of the handshake: mutual prevention of violence. Two hands grasping one another cannot wield a sword or a rock.

The reality is that a truly inviting community can be a truly secure community. The question is: how to balance the imperative for hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, with the imperative to protect against strangers who threaten to disrupt these Days of Awe?

These concerns are real. Here in Los Angeles, for example, recent threats against Jewish institutions have made synagogues into high-profile potential targets. The Anti-Defamation League’s September briefing for congregational leaders was at once sobering and reassuring. While we live in an uncertain environment, attendees were told, nevertheless we have the resources and the support to keep our communities as safe as possible.

Still, synagogue leaders were told, “Harden the target.”

So, we have erected guard houses, installed scanners and hired uniformed personnel to check our IDs, search our tallit bags and take our tickets. Running the gauntlet of security is not exactly the kind of “welcome” anyone has in mind.

The very barriers that guard our gates can discourage those taking new and tentative steps toward affiliated synagogue life. What good is praying for the gates of heaven to open, when the gates of the shul are shut?

Consider the steps that many police departments recommend to reduce institutional vulnerability: get involved in your surrounding community, get to know your neighbor and get to know your members. Would that most synagogues knew all of their members.

Let’s be honest. On the High Holidays, we see not only new faces, but also those of the many members who rarely come around during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, a synagogue that installs greeters just outside the security perimeter who offer a smile and a warm “Gut yontif” or “Happy New Year” can create an initial impression of welcome. A follow-up qualifying question to a newcomer can express genuine interest, such as, “Who recommended us to you?” or “What’s your favorite part of the New Year service?”

In Southern California, three of the five most recent hate crimes and terrorist incidents against Jews involved individuals with weapons searching for targets of opportunity. We learn from prison interviews with convicted perpetrators that a synagogue with people greeting one another at the front gate, on the front steps and at the front door is not a target of opportunity. A synagogue whose members care enough to greet one another is a synagogue whose members are its first and most important line of defense against the unusual, the people or vehicles that don’t look quite right, the potential threat.

Savvy synagogue leaders have turned this obstacle into an opportunity. The best congregations have trained their security personnel in the art of greeting. You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew or even be Jewish to say, “Shanah tovah.” Others deploy volunteers to mitigate delays and other inconveniences caused by security checks.

On Rosh Hashanah 2001, just days after Sept. 11, the Synagogue 2000 team at Temple Israel of Hollywood knew that their congregants would be forced to wait on a sidewalk for up to 15 minutes to go through security screening. They organized a crew of volunteers to “work the line,” offering trays laden with apples and honey to welcome the people to their congregation. Other volunteers brought guitars to pass the time with song.

Ultimately, all members of a sacred community have the responsibility of creating a culture of welcome and safety. Whom does a visitor or a congregant meet when entering a synagogue? A parking attendant, a security person, the custodian, the gift shop volunteer, the front office receptionist, the staff secretaries, the kitchen crew, the caterer, the school office assistant, the religious school teachers, the executive director, the cantor, the rabbi — every one of these people represents the congregation. Every one has the potential to make each interaction with members and guests a positive experience — or not. Everyone must greet and guard.

Perhaps the best way to harden the target is to soften our hearts. All it takes is a smile and a handshake.

Ron Wolfson is president and Shawn Landres is director of research at Synagogue 3000 (