A letter to my daughters in college


To My Daughters:

We didn’t mean to lie to you — it just happened. 

We raised you with a rich sense of Jewish life. We sent you to Jewish schools, to Jewish camps, to Israel. We helped found a synagogue in L.A., in no small measure because of you. We wanted to give you the Jewish literacy that we were deprived of as children. We wanted you to experience Judaism both as a source of joy and also as a call to action.

We taught you about the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracle of 1948. We also demanded that you remember that the history of the Jews, your history, compels you to understand that the story of the Exodus is, sadly, never ending, for Jews and non-Jews alike. We boasted of the role of the Jews in the great civil rights movements of the last century and shared the stories of the young Jews who worked to tear down Jim Crow. We proudly showed you pictures of our Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with the great Martin Luther King Jr. 

We taught you that you should not be embarrassed by your privilege, but that your privilege calls on you to understand and act on the suffering of others. We taught you to honor your heritage, but we demanded that you avoid the dangers of parochialism and tribalism, of reflexively preferring the interests of your own to the exclusion of the interests of others, especially those less fortunate than you. …

We told you that anti-Semitism exists, but that you should not look for anti-Semitism under every rock. 

We taught you of the importance of Israel and to love Israel with all of your heart, while, at the same time, decrying the immorality of the occupation. We taught you that to be constructively critical of Israel is not anti-Semitic, but is rather, an act of chesed, loving kindness, for the people and country of Israel, our people. We told you that if you seek to heal the world, you would be joined by like-minded individuals finding common cause in righting the wrongs of the world — that only through joining forces across religious, national and ethnic lines could the world be restored.

You listened and have focused your passion and intellect on understanding and addressing oppression, in all of its forms.  However, despite the best of our intentions, we have let you down.

We’ve recently seen a spate of incidents on college campuses and elsewhere attacking Israel. The tenor of these attacks, whether the anti-Semitic rantings of an Oberlin professor or the pink-washing allegations in Chicago, has fundamentally altered the liberal landscape. It does not matter whether you are supportive of the occupation or opposed to it with all of your heart, if you support and love Israel, according to the logic of these protesters, you’re on the side of the oppressors. Indeed, the mere fact of being Jewish makes you suspect to many of the dominant voices on the far left today. We’ve told you to dismiss such behavior as anti-Semitic. But you’re smart enough to see that as reductive, as some of the criticism of Israel is manifestly justified and some of those people leveling such attacks are Jewish, and not just born Jewish, but feel their Judaism in much the same way you feel it. They, you tell me, feel the same moral imperative of the Exodus story to make the world a better place.

We’ve told you that there are organizations where you can find your people, people who don’t see any contradiction between a commitment to social justice and a commitment to Israel. However, joining organizations such as J Street or New Israel Fund is viewed in some pro-Israel circles as an act of treason. Yet, perversely, membership in such groups does not pass muster with the more extreme elements on the left, where anything short of calling for the destruction of Israel constitutes a rejection of Palestinian rights. 

The once-concentric circles of your Jewish community and your social justice community are now more like Venn diagrams with an ever-receding area of commonality. Yet, mercifully, you have not changed — you’re still the living manifestation of our greatest hopes and aspirations, galvanized by the Jewish spirit and imperative of narrowing the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

I wish I had an easy answer for you. The easiest path would be to pick one of the circles and forget the other. That’s the path that many would take and will take. However, you must not allow yourselves to be bullied into giving up a part of yourself for the sake of ease or social comfort. Such an outcome would be a tragic capitulation to a false choice and a rejection of your birthright. Instead you must join with others in forging a new path — a path that honors the singularity of your Judaism, love and concern for Israel, and the ethical and moral imperatives that guide you. Only by following that path do we have a chance of bringing the once concentric circles back into alignment. 

Love,

Dad


Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.

Tending the roots: Making meaning of the heritage of the Holocaust in my family


I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors on my mother’s side. Both her parents survived with one sibling. The rest — brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — did not survive. On my father’s side, though his parents and grandparents immigrated to Israel before 1939, many of his relatives who did not were slain. As a grandchild, this decimation of my ancestors was not visible. I had parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts and uncles. Everything. The damage to our family tree was invisible. Underground, so to speak.

I knew that my grandparents suffered through and survived the Holocaust. My grandfather Chaim escaped from a transport early on and lived under an assumed identity until the end of the war. My grandmother survived several camps, including Auschwitz. I wore their survival as a badge of honor. I know other grandchildren of survivors who feel the same way. It’s a private pride — we are the descendants of those who lived.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school in psychology that I began to wonder about my family’s past and the effect it had on me. I began wondering about the intergenerational transmission of trauma, this notion that emotional patterns are passed down from parents to children. Did I carry baggage that originally belonged to my grandparents? This was a hard question to answer. I had always suffered from anxiety, even as a small child. So did my sisters. How could we know if it was our anxiety of someone else’s? After all, we did grow up in Israel; we had to scramble downstairs to our apartment building’s bomb shelter and put on gas masks during the first Gulf war; we saw familiar street corners littered with bus parts and body parts on the news in the mid-’90s. There were things to be scared about. But not everyone was as anxious as we were.

I wonder about it. As a young child, I already had certain ideas, ones I had taken for granted for many years, until I realized they were not obvious, to children or adults. Death, for example. I thought about it from early on. Not as an abstract concept, but as a real and imminent reality. I had a very particular image of death — it was the absolute end of consciousness. A truly terrifying image that still rattles me to the core to this day. There was no doubt in my mind that one day my parents would die, and so will I. When this idea crept into my mind, I was stricken with such life-crushing panic that only sleep, when it finally came, could release me from its grip. This imbued a preciousness into time spent with family, even during my adolescence. The funny thing is, even though we never talked about it as children and teenagers, my sisters felt and still feel the same way. So does my mother. So did my grandparents — I heard. It would make a lot of sense that they would feel this way. They lost many loved ones without being able to say goodbye. How fascinating that we somehow took up the same perspective!

It amazes me that this highly specific experience of death and loss trickled down the generations in my family without being explicitly discussed. When I met my wife, I discovered her family had a different culture regarding death and dying from my own, one that sees death as a part of life. It is as if some basic human wisdom about the cycle of life has gotten lost in my family. My grandparents did not get to sit at their own grandparents’ and parents’ death bed. To experience death as natural, timely, even, yes, necessary. What else was lost with the decimation of my ancestry?

My wife shared with me an image that occurred to her in relation to my family — a tree with no roots. The image resonated with me immediately. I could identify with it immediately. There is a kind of security that comes from being deeply rooted that has been lost in my family. I don’t mean necessarily rooted in space, having a place to call our own, though relocation is certainly part of my family’s story, even my own. I mean rooted in time — having a sense of continuity stretching into the past, along with knowledge, traditions, even wisdom, feeding into the present from the depths of the past. How can we not be anxious trying to face life’s weather without being rooted in this way? Holding ourselves up with the power of our will without being able to rely on the ground to support us, anxious at the possibility of a strong wind knocking us over.

I see myself, my sisters and other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors struggle with this predicament. Many highly functioning people straining in the effort to stay upright in the midst of life’s blows.

There is healing taking place, however. As a therapist, I have seen over and over again the human psyche’s natural tendency toward healing. In our case, healing is happening through our efforts to mend our links with our ancestors. This is happening spontaneously, without conscious intention. I’m seeing this drive in many grandchildren, myself included. A pull toward the grandparents, their story, their life. A need to know in an intimate way, in our hearts. A need to feel. We are being driven by a fascination with our ancestors. Driven to reconnect and reclaim. This is an important word. Reclaim. To take back what is rightfully ours, what has been taken from us by the atrocities of the Holocaust.

I see this as a generational task. A responsibility, not so much to right the wrongs that were done to our families — what’s done is done — rather, to reconnect the thread to the past. How this task is to be accomplished is yet to be determined. We must find creative ways into our heritage. We have been tasked with tending the roots of our trees. 

Dedicated to my grandparents Chaim and Hela Hofman.


Nattan Hollander, MFT, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Tending the Roots, an organization dedicated to promoting healing from the intergenerational impact of genocide. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are invited to continue the conversation in a workshop on May 3: Healing the Intergenerational Wounds of the Holocaust. For more information visit TendingtheRoots.com.

A cartoonist’s tribute to his father


From Israel, a Holocaust survivor worries about her Gazan daughter


In her living room in the Israeli town of Ramle, Sarah says she wants a peaceful life. At 79, she deserves one.

A Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, Sarah was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in Serbia as a child, arriving in Israel at age 17. Her entire family perished in the Holocaust.

Now she watches from her armchair as her family is threatened once again. Sarah — not her real name — is now a Muslim, and her daughter lives in Gaza City.

“The whole city is in ruins,” Sarah says. “Everyone is just trying to find a piece of bread.”

Sarah arrived in Israel in 1950, one of the tens of thousands of Jewish survivors who found refuge in the young Jewish state. From there, her story departs from the conventional narrative.

In 1962, she married an Arab Israeli and, with no surviving family of her own, converted to Islam to join his. Neither of them were particularly religious.

“In my time it wasn’t Arab or Jew,” said Sarah, who speaks Hebrew with a slight European accent. “We knew there was no problem between Jews and Israeli Arabs. I’m very liberal; my husband was the same. We felt no discrimination.”

Light-haired and soft-spoken, Sarah has lived for decades in the same Ramle apartment, which she now shares with her daughter, Nora. Both women leave their hair uncovered, and Nora said not to worry as she set out tea and cookies on the last day of Ramadan. She wasn’t fasting.

Sarah’s other daughter, also an Israeli citizen, moved to Gaza in 1984 after she married. On Sunday, Sarah and Nora waited by the phone as the Arabic news network Al Jazeera played on the television.

In the first days of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Sarah’s daughter took her six children and one grandchild and fled their home in the Zeitoun district of Gaza City for a calmer area in the southern Gaza Strip. The day they left, their four-story home was destroyed, most likely by an Israeli airstrike. Since then, the family has survived on dry goods and whatever they can scrounge up during brief cease-fires.

Along with food, electricity is scarce in Gaza, so Sarah has a hard time getting in touch with her daughter. She learned the house was destroyed only when another relative posted on Facebook a picture of the rubble. She hopes for the rare phone call when her daughter manages to charge her phone. But sometimes, no call at all is better.

“With every phone call, we pray that she’s charged so we can reach them, talk to them, see how they are,” said Nora. “Every call jolts us, that we won’t hear bad news.”

Neither women would agree to be photographed or give many personal details out of fear of retribution from Israeli authorities or Hamas, the reigning power in Gaza. Only Nora would give her first name.

Though they have lived through such conflicts before — Protective Edge is the third such campaign in Gaza in six years — Sarah says this round has been harder than previous ones. Anti-Muslim discrimination flared up during previous conflicts, but Sarah said the antagonism seems stronger this time.

“I go to day centers [for the elderly], and they don’t talk to me,” Sarah said. “Behind my back, they curse me. I hear it. I hear ‘Their name should be erased. They should die.’”

Sarah and Nora used to enjoy driving to Gaza City to visit Sarah’s daughter. But Nora hasn’t been allowed to visit since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Sarah was allowed only once, for a five-day visit several years ago.

Will the family return to Zeitoun to rebuild its home? When will Sarah’s daughter be allowed to visit the family in Ramle? Will Sarah ever be able to visit her grandchildren and great-grandchild in Gaza?

They don’t know.

Is there still hope for peace? At that question, Nora shakes her head.

“Honestly, no. I don’t think the situation will get better after this war,” Nora said. “There’s tension between me and my Jewish friends. They want to justify themselves and this war. I never encounter a person that says, ‘Enough spilled blood’ or ‘Poor civilians.’ I haven’t heard that.”

Like most Israelis, Nora has coped with the sirens that warn of incoming missiles for a month now. She opposes Hamas, she says, and understands that Israel needs to protect its citizens, though she wishes the government would scale back its operation and pursue diplomacy more aggressively. Her family in Gaza, she said, is not affiliated with any movement — not Hamas, not Fatah, not any other.

“Israel has the full right to self-defense,” Nora said. “The missiles don’t differentiate between Jew and Arab. We don’t need to see houses destroyed, women crying, dead soldiers. A soldier is the son of a mother. Anywhere in the world, the pain of a mother is the same pain.”

Both Sarah and Nora say they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both wish their Gaza family could visit Israel to eat Bamba and Bissli, the classic Israeli snack foods they love. Both wish they could hop into a cab and drive to Gaza City to eat fish on the coast.

But Sarah says that because of Hamas, because of the war, because of the antagonism born of decades of separation between Israelis and Palestinians, a hopeful future seems less likely than ever. She scoffed at the occasional peace negotiations.

“It’s all nonsense,” she said, then in Yiddish: “Bubbe meises.”

 

Confessions of an ex-hoarder


I’ve run out of excuses for hanging on to stuff.

No, I haven’t achieved Zen non-attachment to material things, but I’m no longer on the road to “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”

It was easiest to get rid of the piles of unread magazines.  Those now get the heave-ho every few months.  The fear that had made me their custodian, which I’d confused with the theoretical pleasure I’d have when I’d eventually read them, was the chance I’d miss something important.  The reality, it turns out, is that if I do overlook some essential, or just juicy, journalism, I’ll hear about it from a friend, or online, and saving a link to it for reading later, even if later never comes, requires no real estate from my non-virtual life.

Clothes were harder to let go.  I didn’t really believe that wide ties would come back, or that someday I’d be glad I saved those tap shoes (don’t ask).  But it was easy for me to mistake my closet for a scrapbook, to treat old clothes like souvenirs of where, when and who I was when I got them. When that happens now, I remind myself that if I’m warehousing something I haven’t touched for years in order to keep alive the guy who once wore it, it’s less punishing to put a selfie of it on my hard drive than to be sentenced to a lifetime of curating my personal wardrobe museum. 

Book-hoarder has been an even tougher role to jailbreak.  It’s intellectually respectable to have your own library.  I love looking at all those spines on all those shelves; they map the cultural journey I’ve taken, and no Kindle can duplicate that experience.  But shelving books three-deep, which I’d been reduced to, was a labor of guilt, not love.  I still can’t throw books away; it feels sinful, even if I didn’t like them, even if I never have or will read them.  But I’ve learned that I can drop off cartons of books at the local public library with a perfectly clear conscience.  If they end up in a dumpster, my hands are clean.

But these were all baby steps.  My big problem, the ball I’ve chained myself to for decades, is the stack of boxes, currently numbering 33, in my garage.  Every move I’ve made – from my parents’ home, to dorm rooms, to apartments and houses and homes of my own – has included the fiction that it’ll be easier to deal with those multiplying cardboard boxes at the other end, when I unpack.  Of course, I never do. 

At first, it was just mail that I saved.  When I was a kid, getting a letter was as unusual, though for different reasons, as it is today.  I loved mail.  Corresponding with someone beyond the bounds of my family bunker was evidence of my growing autonomy, a validation of my nascent identity.  I could no more throw letters away than I could toss a Kodachrome in the trash.  Yes, I saved pictures, too.  And postcards.  And comic books, baseball cards, Mad magazines, geometry projects, ticket stubs, lists of books I’d read and places I wanted to go – anything that testified to my existence.

In college, I couldn’t bear to throw away the spiral notebooks I had filled so carefully with notes, not to mention the course catalogues, term papers, student publications that ran what I wrote, calendars, address books, I.D. cards. Travel added new categories of ephemera to save – odd matchbooks, cool baggage tags, train schedules, hostel receipts, shells from Greek islands and sand from Israeli deserts.  I don’t think it was OCD; it was proof of my cosmopolitanism, and prophylaxis against amnesia.

Once in the work world, it was effortless to justify the files I kept amassing.  Those pieces of paper made up a personal archive, priceless material for the memoirs I’d one day write and the biographies that would doubtless be written about me.  Surely future historians would be grateful for the 18 drafts of Vice President Mondale’s acceptance speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, the relentless pre-production script notes I wrote on “Three Men and a Baby,” the letters I got from baffled friends and newfound fans when Time published a piece I wrote in praise of mysticism. 

It’s a wonder I was able confine this monument to me to 33 boxes. 

Today I’m on the road to recovery.  Marvels like document scanning and cloud storage are enabling my rehab, and though I suppose there’s still the risk that I might turn Dropbox into my digital garage, I’m now throwing away more stuff than I’m converting to PDFs.  But it isn’t technology that’s motivated my self-intervention, or the panic of seeing myself in the mirror of a Discovery Channel hoarding show.  It’s the freedom I’ve given myself to entertain some humbling thoughts.

The truth is that pretty much no one is going to need this stuff I’ve saved, least of all me.  I’m not going to use the 1978 White House phone directory to recall the names that will trigger the anecdotes that will make Chapter 4 of my hypothetical memoir sing.  (Those 18 drafts, though, are going to the Minnesota Historical Society.)  Shakespeare’s tax records may be gold, and Ben Franklin’s juvenilia may inspire entire dissertations, but the list of dishes I ate on my first trip to Italy are biographically fascinating to no one.  The day when I finally have the time to savor the call sheets of the first movie I wrote will likely also be the day I’m evaluated for dementia.  Maybe, out of all the mail I’ve hoarded, there’s a way to reconstruct who I was then to the person who wrote it, but I’d rather give those packets of letters back to their authors – which I’ve actually begun doing – than disappear down the forensic rabbit hole of reading them.

There’s no mystery why I’ve saved so much stuff: to prove that I’m alive, that I’m someone, that my trail on this earth is worth preserving.  My fear of letting go of those boxes is the fear of mortality, the fear of not having become worthy enough to investigate and document.  What’s taken me too long to recognize is that the present moment is more than enough time to manifest and appreciate that worth; that its measure is not what some stranger may someday find riveting; that its meaning and poignancy derive not from the fear of death, but the love of life. 


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Family problems? Turn to Genesis


If you have family problems, there is a book that can provide a good deal of consolation. That book, you might be surprised to learn, is the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah.

Genesis makes it abundantly clear that you are not alone, that what we now call dysfunctional families are the norm, not the exception. Every family in that biblical book is deeply troubled. 

Let’s begin with the first family, that of Adam and Eve. Adam defends (to God, no less) his eating from the forbidden tree by blaming his wife: “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Adam blaming his spouse for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden would be bad enough. But things get worse: One of their two sons, Cain, kills the other, Abel.

The next family is that of Noah, the one righteous man of his generation. After leaving the ark, the youngest of his three sons, Ham, does something very wrong to him while Noah is in a drunken stupor: He “saw the nakedness of his father.  … And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him.”

The next family is that of Abraham. His marriage to Sarah is fraught with tension, especially after the birth of his two children, Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah had given her servant, Hagar, to Abraham to impregnate so as to give Sarah a child. After Hagar became pregnant, “she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai [Sarah’s original name] tells Abraham, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”

So Sarah finally demands that Abraham eject Hagar and Ishmael from their home, and “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.” 

Finally, after Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, his son with Sarah, he and his wife separate forever. This was pointed out to me by a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi, the late Pinchas Peli.

He was right. After nearly sacrificing Isaac, “Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.”

Just five verses later, Genesis informs us that Sarah “died at Kiriath Arba — that is, Hebron — in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.”

In other words, Abraham and Sarah went to live in separate cities and never spoke to one another again.

The next family is Isaac’s. He and his wife, Rebecca, were deeply upset by their older son Esau’s choice of two Hittite wives: “They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.”

Then, in old age, Rebecca and the younger twin, Jacob, plot to trick the now-blind Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob rather than to Esau. When Esau learns of the deception, Esau said to himself, “I will kill my brother Jacob.”

Later on, Jacob is tricked by his uncle Laban into marrying Laban’s older daughter Leah, rather than Rachel, the younger daughter for whom Jacob had worked seven years. Laban forces Jacob into working for him another seven years in order to marry Rachel.

After Leah repeatedly gives birth, tension builds between Jacob and Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”

Finally Rachel gives birth to Joseph, but that only creates a terrible rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, because their father, Jacob, “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons.”

The brothers plot to kill Joseph, but instead decide to sell him as a slave and then tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Upon seeing the bloodied robe, Jacob became inconsolable: “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” 

Why does Genesis portray every one of its families as dysfunctional? 

First, because they were. The Hebrew Bible is painfully honest about the Jews generally and about the heroes of the Jewish people specifically — the patriarchs, the matriarchs and later about Moses, Aaron, King David, etc.  (This self-critical honesty — unique among the world’s religious texts — is a primary reason I believe in the veracity of the Torah.)

Second, to show us that even great men and women have family problems.

And third, to make it clear that family pain and tragedy are the human norm, not the exception.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

High Holy Days: Sharing the love, handling the holidays


Every day in my office, I see parents, embittered by divorce and so grateful to finally be physically and legally apart from a partner they once loved and now hate, struggling to co-parent and jointly make decisions about their children.

Every day, adults who once loved each other so much that they promised to stay together until the end of time storm into my office, dragging behind them children dejected and battered by Mom and Dad’s rage toward each other.

The out-of-control battles parents wage over raising children after divorce leave deep and dangerous open wounds and scars on their children long after the parents have moved on, making their children the real casualties of that war. I see these wounds every day in the children who come into my office. Their grades have plummeted. They act out at school and on the ball field. They are angry or sad. Their physicians raise red flags. Their teachers are concerned. I see children, emotionally and behaviorally hurt by the war between their parents, trying frantically to create stability as their world changes too quickly for them to keep up — and so they fall.

Handling the holidays creates tremendous conflicts in families of divorce. Differences in religious beliefs and observances, demands of extended families and commitments to new relationships all serve to increase the conflicts between separated parents.

There are several different approaches to managing holidays. Sometimes parents alternate years. For others, if the child spends Rosh Hashanah with Father, then she spends Passover seder with Mother that year. Other times, parents prefer to divide up the significant days — Rosh Hashanah with Mother until 3 p.m. and then with Father after 3 p.m. This allows the child to celebrate each holiday with both families. To ensure that domestic law attorneys remain well employed in interpreting documents, both approaches are sometimes combined, alternating years and alternating times. A third approach, especially popular with parents of younger children, may be to try to spend holidays together, believing that maintaining family traditions are better for their children. 

In examining which approach might be the best for the children, one must explore the key factors that influence the impact of divorce on children. 

The co-parenting relationship rests on three broad principles that guide parents after divorce to promote positive growth and development in their children. First, research confirms that children of divorce do better if they maintain positive, meaningful, real and consistent relationships with both of their parents. What parents consider equal parenting means nothing to the child. 

Second, the parental relationship has to be as free of conflict as possible. Both parents are still the child’s parents, and they must model conflict-free parenting. 

Third, parents must work to assure that both parents are actively involved in the life of the child and making decisions for the child. Children are hurt by the divorce, but they are far more damaged by how parents behave following the separation. And one of the biggest sources of that pain is the difficulty parents have in making decisions, or in simply being together at important times of the children’s lives.

The bottom line is that when adults fight — and when they cannot together effectively set consistent boundaries, rules and expectations that will allow active and meaningful relationships with both parents — the child suffers.

The key is flexibility and responsiveness to the child.  

The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?


When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.

A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.

“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.

“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”

In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.

In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.

That’s true from the Reform movement to Chabad, with the exception of some haredi Orthodox. Where the denominations differ is how far one may go in that embrace, and how strongly — if at all — to push for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

At Orthodox synagogues, non-Jews cannot ascend to the bimah, and many synagogues go so far as to deny certain ritual roles to Jews married to non-Jews.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism leaves it to the discretion of its member synagogues to set the rules on how to treat non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the association’s executive vice president, says conversion of the non-Jewish spouse should be a goal. The only question is tactical — how and when to bring it up.

“Do you have the conversation about conversion first, or do you welcome them in and then have the conversation about conversion?” Wernick said. “You build the relationship first and then you have the conversation.”

In the Reform movement, there is some question about the significance of formal conversion.

“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has advocated a vision for the movement as a big tent with the flaps wide open.

“He’s living in the Jewish community. He’s trying on Jewish commitments,” Jacobs said. “Conversion can’t be the only thing we talk about, but it also should not be off the table. We’d be delighted to have people join the Jewish people.”

Perhaps more than anything, the shift in attitudes has changed the conventional view of intermarriage as a net loss to the Jewish community, in the form of the out-marrying Jew, to a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.

“Once you’ve intermarried, it doesn’t mean you’ve left the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

“As times go on, we have to constantly evaluate what is the best response,” he said. “Given that it happens, what’s the best way for the community to approach it? The last thing we’d want that person to do is to throw everything away just because they’re intermarried.”

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper


It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

A mitzvah called shmooze


In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Yom HaShoah: An eternal nation, bound together by our faith


A few months after my bar mitzvah, my father disappeared.

We didn’t know what had happened to him.

In our apartment in Budapest, there was a couch under the window and I would stand on it day after day looking into the street, watching, waiting for my father to appear.

In a way, I waited for almost 50 years.

In all that time, I never forgot him.

Even in my dreams.

As I slept, I would feel him bending over me.

And I would wake relieved that he was there … and then confused that he wasn’t.

I had this dream on and off for almost 50 years.

It was only when my family found out what happened to him that the dreams stopped.

Once I knew what happened, I wanted to do something.

I wanted to honor his memory. 

But mostly, I wanted to stand in the place where he perished to see if I could feel him.

So here I am, with all of you in Birkenau.

I know he was also here, under this same sky.

Just like almost half a million Hungarian Jews, he came to this place in a wagon, and almost immediately after arriving, disappeared as smoke into this sky

I was 13 when I lost my father and now I am 82 and, you know, I still miss him.

To the young people here today, I want to say that your mother and father always matter — even when you get to my age.

And honoring your parents matters very much while they are alive — and when they are no longer with us.

I still feel the loss of my father, but there is something I have gained.

You see, there were things about him that i did not know. 

I knew he was a good man, a good father, a religious Jew who believed in God.

He worked as a travelling salesman and he was modest.

I never realized that he had strength — the spiritual strength — to take on the brutal guards here in Birkenau.

No matter how hard they hit him, he protected the sanctity of his tallit and tefillin.

They could break his body but they could not break his spirit.

The tallit and tefillin were part of him, part of his personal relationship with god and he was ready to die for them.

And he did.

He did so in front of others who knew what was in his little bag and who tried to stop him from protecting it.

In front of all his people, he fought for his faith with a spiritual courage I never knew he had.

You see, my father was an ordinary man.

But in extra-ordinary times, people do extra-ordinary things, if they have it in them in the first place — well,  he certainly did.

Hugo’s legacy lives on in four generations. Besides me,  three grandsons and a great-granddaughter represent them here today.

Also here today are two people who are important to my father’s story.

Allan Lowy, who you just saw on the film, is the son of Meyer Lowy who witnessed what happened to my father and told us about it.

Meyer Lowy was not a relative but grew close to my father on this journey and lived to tell the story.

And Dr. Roland Huser, from Germany, is also here with us.

We found the wagon at his museum and he gave it to us to restore and place it here in Birkenau.

Three years ago when the wagon was brought here, I had the privilege to place my own tallis and tefillin in the wagon, to replace those torn from my father’s hands.

For me, this helps to heal the brokenness of the past.

Some two centuries ago, Rabbi Nachman of Breslev taught, “If you believe the world can be broken, then know that it can also be fixed.”

Fixing means understanding what happened, healing the pain, and building a better future.

The Nazi’s wanted not only to destroy the physical presence of the Jewish people, but to wipe us out spiritually as well, and leave no trace.

But look at us here today.

Perhaps all those Hungarian Jews, including my father, who disappeared into this sky are looking down on us today.

They see how young, how strong, and how full of promise you are.

They see how the plan to break and crush us, has made us stronger.

Throughout history, others have tried to destroy us as a nation but none have succeeded.

We are an eternal nation, bound together by our faith.

Am yisroel chai!


Frank Lowy, co-founder of the Westfield group, delivered this speech at the March of the Living ceremony held April 8, 2013 in Auschwitz, Poland.  The ceremony honored his father, Hugo Lowy, who was murdered in the concentration camp.  The speech followed a six minute film entitled, “Spiritual Resistance” which tells the story of Hugo Lowy. The video begins at 1:11.

Shabbat without religion


How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Days: Father and son


On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …

Dear Dad,

This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.

I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back. 

I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,

Your son.

An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:

Dear Son,

One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together. 

There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.

Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply. 

My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.

It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, 

Your father.

E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral. 

In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel. 

Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!

You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?

When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. 

You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,

Your son. 

E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur: 

Dear Son,

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.

We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love. 

You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox. 

Dad.

Text message sent immediately:

Is there really room for us? 

Text message sent in reply:

There is always room for you.

Text message sent in reply:

Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.

Text message sent in reply:

I love you, too. 


This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.

From Rosh Hashanah in a tent to standing on my own two feet


A growing number of once proud, working-class Israeli families are being transformed into the “working poor,” as they’ve failed to keep up with increased taxes as well as rising food and gas prices. Without the assistance of outreach social service organizations such as Meir Panim, the Mirilashvili family might have endured more than one Rosh Hashanah on the streets of Israel. Instead, they are not only regaining their independence but are giving back to the community too.

Sometimes, a chance encounter with someone special can change the course of a lifetime. Such was the meeting between Ilanit Hafuta, director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim in Northern Israel, and Ilan Mirilashvili, a resident of the city, who four years ago found himself in a dire financial and housing crisis. What began as a charitable gesture to help a family of six who had set up a makeshift ‘home’ in a tent outside the City Hall, has developed into a lifelong relationship, leading Ilan to join the cycle of giving in aiding Israel’s most needy people.

“I help my dad deliver bread to families on Fridays and it makes me feel really good” says Sandy Mirilashvili. From left: Lishai, Hodayah and Sandy Mirilashvili.

“Four years ago, we spent Rosh Hashanah in a tent on the grass outside the City Hall,” recounts 35 year-old Ilan. “We’d been made homeless after a long and drawn out financial and bureaucratic nightmare. I had four little children to feed, two of whom were sick, and my wife was eight months pregnant. I felt as though I’d been pushed up against a wall and had no choice but to ‘cry out’ for help. We sat in that tent for three weeks. I was working every night and would come back to the tent, exhausted, during the day. I was a broken man.”

“Toward the end of the three weeks, I was told there was a woman from an organization called Meir Panim who would be able to help us,” continues Ilan. “Ilanit came to our tent and sat with us patiently while I explained our situation. She then looked me in the eye and said ‘We have a long battle ahead. We’re going to do this together and I’m going to need your help.’ Using her strong connections with the local administrative system, she literally walked us through the entire bureaucratic process and one month later, we had a new home. And this apartment didn’t look the way it looks now,” he adds. “Ilanit organized a whole group of volunteers from Meir Panim to come and renovate it for us. Some volunteers brought furniture and others came to paint. It was all literally a miracle.”

The relationship between Ilan and Ilanit did not end with the acquisition of the apartment. “Ilanit has been like an older sister to me, guiding me and my family every step of the way. After we moved and as soon as things got back to routine, I started volunteering for Meir Panim. I’m a truck driver by profession and am therefore able to use my van to pick up food from companies, shops and bakeries and then deliver it to families in need. I have no other way of thanking Meir Panim besides giving back,” Ilan says with emotion. “The organization helps so many families with such a big and full heart and it made me want to do the same. I didn’t want to leave this loving family once things were okay for me—I only wanted to stay and help.”

In fact, two years ago, Ilan won the organization’s ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award for the energy and amount of hours he was putting in to his volunteering.  “I learned from Ilanit and from Meir Panim just how important it is to help those who need it. One of the people I take food to, for example, is a widowed father who is bringing up his four daughters alone. Being able to provide a family like that with hot meals is a feeling that fills you up inside and gives you the strength to deal with your own troubles. My children have also become part of the cycle of giving, and it is the best education they could ever receive.”

]The Mirilashvili family together with Ilanit Hafuta, Director of Meir Panim in Or Akiva.

Ilanit has been director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim for the last eight years. The charity, which operates a network of food and social service centers throughout Israel, is particularly active in Or Akiva. Activities include running after-school clubs and summer camps for kids, organizing weddings and other celebrations for needy families, providing food shopping cards to enable people to purchase their own groceries, distributing food packages for the Jewish holidays and a plethora of other formal and informal assistance. “Our goal is not only to meet the vital needs of the disadvantaged population, but to do so while preserving people’s dignity and enabling them to become self-sufficient,” shares Dudi Roth, President of American Friends of Meir Panim. “And it’s amazing to see how a cycle of social responsibility has developed. Almost all of the people we have helped give back in some way. Or Akiva is one big warm family and everyone has something to give. Everyone has a talent that someone else can benefit from. For example, Ilan’s wife Sam is a fantastic baker and she regularly bakes delicious cakes for the children who attend Meir Panim’s after-school clubs.”

Although it would be unrealistic to expect these families to suddenly be living picture-perfect lives, it is evident just what a strong and positive impact Meir Panim is having on so many of Israel’s neediest people. “I leave for work every morning at 6am and often don’t return until midnight and I’m still only earning very minimally,” admits Ilan. “The kids hardly see me, I work very hard, and it’s sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But I thank G-d a million times over that Meir Panim has helped me regain my independence.” Ilanit adds, “There is a lot of pain with this work but there is also a lot of happiness. To help a family to be able to stand on their own two feet is the most rewarding thing.”

For more information about Meir Panim, please visit www.meirpanim.org.

Family murder-suicide devastates Arizona Jewish community


Following a businessman’s destruction of his family, the Jewish community of Tempe, Ariz., has “no answers,” according to a local rabbi.

Sometime during the early hours Shabbat, June 1-2, James Butwin murdered his 40-year-old wife, Yafit, and their three children—Malissa, 16; Daniel, 14; and Matthew, 7. Then, he killed himself.

“There are no answers for something this tragic,” Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel, where James Butwin was a member of the synagogue board, told mourners during a June 6 service. “It is time to come together, to be together in our shock and horror and fear… Expect no answers tonight.”

Although in the process of divorce, Yafit had celebrated her husband’s birthday, posting a photo and a message—“Happy Birthday Jim, I am so proud of my three children :) and they know why”—on Facebook.  Hours later, in the middle of the desert, all were dead. Pinal County officers found the burned SUV holding their five unrecognizable corpses June 2.

The Butwin family was an active part of the Jewish community in Tempe, Ariz. Rabbi Shapiro said the family had a “circle of friends full to bursting.” Only friends mourned the Butwin family; no relatives had yet arrived from Israel, Yafit’s homeland, or from New Jersey, where James is from. JointMedia News Service spoke with Temple Emanuel member Paul White June 6, just prior to a “service of grief.” More than 600 attended “a very brief service, bringing the community, the schools together,” White said.

The service was not a funeral. In the tradition of placing a stone on a grave, for more than 20 minutes the 600 mourners filed past five holders, placing symbolic glass beads.

Temple Emanuel board member Steven Gotfried has been designated as the congregation’s spokesperson, a role he called “very challenging and difficult.” In an interview with JointMedia News Service, he said “the word that comes to mind is shock.” “Disbelief and a sort of a numbness…We are trying to grasp this, to get an understanding…sad,” he said.

Gotfried said a Butwin neighbor had commented that “this was not the Jim that we know. There was something going on that caused this—something physically going on with his brain and his mind. The Jim we knew and loved and played with was not the Jim that did this.” James Butwin, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, was described by Gotfried as having been a “warm, personable person… just a nice guy, kind, very laid-back, a man who listened more than he spoke.” 

“There was a profound sense of shock and grief when the news was known,” said Gotfried. “A need for people to get together, to comfort each other.”

JointMedia News Service asked Gotfried, whose daughter had shared a Hebrew school class with Daniel Butwin, the older boy, if anyone in the family had sought help, either from the rabbi or any other community resource. “Even if so,” he said, “they were private conversations, not to be shared.”

Now, after the tragedy, Jewish Family Services of Phoenix has responded very publicly, providing counselors for adults and children and helping form a Jewish community crisis group, offering advice to staff and lay leaders “trying to make sense of it,” and providing “advice on how to talk to your children,” Gotfried said. 

Gotfried noted that the investigation is revealing “more and more information” about the Butwins’ once private lives. Court records confirm the divorce proceedings, but with no history of domestic violence. Jim Butwin’s divorce lawyer, Bill Bishop, told the Arizona Republic that domestic and financial issues “were being handled professionally,” and that “there was no indication whatsoever that he was upset or anything.” He said “this is one of the most cowardly acts that anybody could ever do.”

Cowardly, but not unplanned. Tempe police revealed that during the week before the devastating murder-suicide, James Butwin had sent a key to the family’s Corona Estates home and a letter to his business partner. Sgt. Jeff Glover of the Tempe Police Department on June 7 said a police inspection of the home revealed “suspicious and concerning evidence” including blood and shell casings in bedrooms and two guns inside the torched SUV found in the Sonoran desert June 2. A second suicide letter has also been found.

Steven Wolfson, Yafit’s attorney, confirmed that the Butwins’ continued to share their home during the divorce proceedings. An order issued by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jay Polk charged that “both parties shall be cordial to each other in the marital residence and respect each other’s privacy.” 

“This is out of the blue as far as we’re concerned,” said Wolfson.

James Butwin was involved in commercial-property deals. Yafit Butwin, a devoted mother, had recently graduated from Northern Arizona University and started an interior design business.

Neighbor Robert Kempton, speaking to the Associated Press, called the tragedy “totally unexpected to the point of almost being unbelievable.”

Old becomes new as couples personalize wedding ceremonies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her husband is an identical twin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You, with a kid


I’ll never forget asking my therapist the following question when I found out I was pregnant: “Who am I going to be?”

“You,” she answered. “With a kid.”

That was comforting that day, on that couch, staring at those Matisse prints, being that person who was terrified of mom jeans and my life thrown into a bouncy house to sprain its ankle and barf.

Now, that’s not so comforting.

In fact, there are days I don’t want to be just me, with a kid. I want to be a version of me that knows how to cook, so I won’t be defrosting gluten-free microwaveable burritos and calling it dinner. That’s right, preservatives and cost overruns, my friends. I’m not proud. But I had a baby, and I didn’t become that lady who subscribes to Real Simple, and I don’t understand what it means to “blanch” or even “julienne” a vegetable.

What’s more, I also didn’t become a fun, wildly animated lady. I’m still the pretty serious, reading a book on the history of fonts, inhibited, never even sings karaoke kind of lady. The woman who swings her child upside down over a sandcastle as she does a perfect Cookie Monster voice? I didn’t become her, and now sometimes I want to.

I’ve seen progress, which I’ll get to.

(And by the way, “progress” is just the kind of buzzword therapists love. It’s their catnip. It sounds very self-reflective, but not grandiose.)

The rush of love for your kid, not to mention the constant exposure to other parents to whom you can’t help but compare yourself, can make you feel like a real bummer, like you aren’t doing it right or aren’t doing enough, or having enough fun, or serving enough kale. If you can’t cook or maybe teach the essentials of good pitching technique or tutor in algebra or even play a decent game of hide and seek, you might be hard on yourself, as I can be, because I just want to be good, like a kid just wants to be good. I just want to be ebullient and have a minor in childhood development and maybe another in the art of drawing with sidewalk chalk. Is that too much to ask?

I am who I was before, and I wasn’t exactly making balloon animals and singing songs that require accompanying hand gestures.

What my therapist didn’t mention, because her purpose in that moment was to stop me from panicking about changing, is that what I used to be wasn’t all that glamorous, and that maybe a few changes would do me good.

My son loves rocks, loves trucks, loves being outdoors, loves watching motorcycles whiz by. I don’t inherently enjoy any of these things. The progress is that I’m starting to get it. A pile of rocks has its charm.

Last night, my son stopped his tricycle on the sidewalk and spread himself out on a bed of rocks, staring up at the sky. He motioned to me, and I spread myself out on the pile of rocks right next to him, and we both looked up, saying, “Sky. Trees. Airplane. Birds.” And I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of those rocks against my back, the setting sun on my face. There are times I see a motorcycle and genuinely find myself thinking, “Those are cool.”

Who is this? Did I change a little? Open myself to the little wonders a toddler digs because I want to love him the right way, and to do so I have to get dirty? Am I making the slowest, most imperceptible progress toward being one of the moms I admire? Have I become so lame at expressing myself I just ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to point toward some conclusion? I am still who I was, because I was always decent at experimenting, failing, trying again.

Looking up at the birds, that sounds idyllic and all for most people, but it was just never my thing. Now that my son is my thing, so are his birds and his rocks. I’m just me, with a kid, and grass stains on my heels.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Finding their place [VIDEO]


Lauren Levine is settling in with a group of friends apartment to watch “American Idol,” when a look of panic comes over her face. She rummages around, finds her keys and darts out.

“I left the hair thing on,” she says when she returns, breathless, from her own apartment downstairs. “I was straightening Jasmine’s hair before we came up here, and I forgot to turn it off. Wow. That was close.”

Levine has wide blue eyes accentuated with sparkly eye shadow, and her voice is spiced with a sense of interested wonder. She wants to be a cosmetologist — she’s taken some classes — but for now she is just happy to be living on her own, and working the front desk at a gym in Century City.

Levine’s developmental delays are less obvious than those of her roommate, Jasmine Banayan, who has Down syndrome. Banayan is gregarious and warm and asserts herself as something of a leader among the dozen or so friends who live in a cluster of apartments in Westwood.

The group gets together every night to hang out at one or another of their homes, or to go out to dinner, and, on Friday nights, the five Jewish members of the group are regulars at Shabbat dinner and services at nearby UCLA Hillel.

All are participants in a parent-led experiment in independent living for adults with developmental or cognitive disabilities.

Today’s 20-somethings with disabilities have grown up at the vanguard of a successful mainstreaming model, and they and their parents now are determined to continue to break the mold, to live adult lives with high expectations, in keeping with the ideal that not only is there a place for them within mainstream society, but that they can contribute in meaningful and enriching ways.

While the impetus for change exists, needed funds won’t necessarily follow. Government budget cuts are endangering existing programs, and start-up costs for new programs can be prohibitive.

Story continues after the video.