Santa, the Easter bunny and raising a Jewish child


Last spring, I found myself averting my eyes when my 4-year-old mentioned something about the Easter bunny in front of my dad.

We were at my parents’ home in Michigan for Passover and my son said, “When I get back to Brooklyn, the Easter bunny is going to bring me a basket!”

I didn’t want to see the look on my dad’s face or hear him mutter under his breath.

Although my son is being raised as a Jew, he celebrates Christmas and Easter with his non-Jewish father, my ex. I know it bothers my dad to hear his grandson talk about these Christian icons. It bothers me, too.

During our four-year courtship prior to becoming engaged, my then-boyfriend and I came to an agreement about the religious upbringing of our future children. After taking two classes on Jewish culture and an interfaith couple’s workshop at the JCC, we agreed that our children would be raised according to Jewish tradition but could celebrate Christian holidays — in a secular way — with their non-Jewish grandparents. But after my husband and I separated and eventually divorced, some of the prenuptial agreements we made surrounding our interfaith family were no longer heeded.

Before our separation, my husband had begrudgingly agreed not to have a Christmas tree in our home. But since our separation, he has had a tree every winter. That means Santa doesn’t just bring gifts to my son’s grandparents’ homes in Seattle, but to his father’s home in Brooklyn, too.

I understand and respect that it is my ex’s right to observe his family’s traditions. I know he wants to share the holiday experiences he loved as a kid with our son, and that includes having the decorations and believing in the harmless characters associated with the holidays. But I struggle with it nonetheless.

Our son attends a Jewish preschool and has all kinds of children in his class – some with two Jewish parents, some from interfaith homes and others who are not Jewish at all. He already knows that families have their own ways of observing the holidays, and that you can be Jewish and still celebrate non-Jewish holidays with some of your family and friends.

Last December he rambled on and on about what Santa was going to bring him for Christmas. I was tempted to remind him that he is Jewish and explain that Jews don’t believe in Santa. But I went along with it because I didn’t want to burst his Christmas bubble.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to accept that our child won’t be raised according to the terms that my ex-husband and I had agreed upon before we married. And somehow I feel threatened that inserting these Christian traditions into my son’s home life will dilute his Jewish identity, even though I know a Christmas elf can’t come and stomp out thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

When April came around and my son informed me, “If I’m a good boy, the Easter bunny will bring me a basket of treats!” I decided not just to corroborate the Easter bunny’s existence but use him as a disciplinary tactic.

When my son began misbehaving, I said, “If you don’t act nicely, the Easter bunny may not bring you a basket!” But the tack didn’t feel right either.

Recently, I have been wondering whether my son could really understand what a character is. When we were watching “Shrek,” I decided to ask him.

“Is Shrek real?”

“No, Mommy!” he answered with an eye roll. “Shrek is a character!”

“Oh! Like Santa Claus?” I asked.

“No, Mommy! Santa Claus is real!”

“How do you know he’s real?” I said.

“Because he brings me presents!”

Do I break it to him that a fat bearded man will not actually squeeze himself through a chimney (especially considering there are very few chimneys in Brooklyn apartments)? Or do I let him figure it out when he gets a bit older, like he probably would if he were raised by two Christian parents?

And come spring, do I tell him that no giant Harvey-sized rabbit is going to show up with a basket full of treats, but that his grandmother will carefully pick out the treats in Seattle, put them in a priority mailbox and ship them to Brooklyn?

For the time being, I figure I’ll leave it alone, and age will take care of it.

I believe we will provide our son with a strong enough Jewish identity that these Christmas and Easter icons will not threaten his understanding of who he is. But ask me again later this month. I may change my mind.

(Annette Powers is a marketing and communications professional. In her free time, she writes about a variety of topics from co-parenting to Yom Kippur to compulsive texting.)

Modeh Ani, connecting thanksgiving and light


When people ask me to describe the God I believe in, I often start by using the image of a flame. We are taught that each of us has a divine spark within us. That divine spark at times burns brightly, often in the moments of our lives when we find ourselves in balance and in tune with our spiritual needs. Other times, our flames seem to burn a bit lower. There is much we can do to nurture the flames within us. Like hands cupped around a match on a windy night, when we acknowledge the blessings in our lives, when we take time for reflection or prayer or quiet, and when we notice everything as fundamental as the power of our own breath, our flames grow stronger.

My mother is currently battling stage IV melanoma, and like most families facing serious illness, her experiences have brought much in my life into new focus. The word “quarterly” has taken on new meaning, as each three months now bring new scans and new treatment plans.

My parents are both retired. And yet, as my mom was reflecting on her outlook on life a few weeks ago, she said to me, “Each day I wake your father early, saying ‘Get up, get up.’ When he asks me, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘I want to see the sunrise.’ ” Perhaps, one thing that living scan-to-scan teaches you is that when each moment is so very precious and each new day a radical gift, nurturing one’s divine light is not something that should be put off until tomorrow.

For me, this year’s once in our lifetime intersection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah seems fitting. As the days are growing shorter and the preciousness of life is drawn into sharper focus, a convergence of light and gratitude is exactly what I’ve been seeking.

One of our sacred tasks during Chanukah is pirsum hanes, or to publicize the miracle. This mitzvah to share our light is why we place our chanukiyot, our Chanukah menorahs, in our windows. These days are times when we are invited to share our light.

It seems to me that a lit up window is as apt a place for gratitude as a Thanksgiving table is for light.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are to begin each morning with the most basic of prayers, “Modeh Ani,” I am grateful. These words, which root us in gratitude, offer us a daily connection between thanksgiving and light. They are also intentionally offered in the first person singular: I am grateful. In difficult times or in moments of joy, the utterance is the same.

P’sikta D’Rav Kahanah provides a beautiful commentary on Psalm 57:9, which declares, “I will awaken the dawn.” The midrash explains, “I will awaken the dawn: that is, ‘I will awaken the dawn, the dawn will not wake me’” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahanah, Piska 7:4). And so, whether we jump to see the sunrise or enjoy our few extra moments of rest, the spiritual orientation remains the same. Each day we have a choice: Either to greet the day with gratitude or to allow the moment to pass.

This year, with our historic pairing of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we are given a powerful reminder: Gratitude nurtures our inner spark and our inner spark grows our gratitude. All we have to do is cup our hands and nurture the flame.


Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Chanukah: Filling our lives with an ancient light


When we are children, Chanukah often seems the most important holiday — after all, we get gifts and chocolate coins.  As adults, we learn that Chanukah commemorates a military victory as well as the miracle of the everlasting oil, and that it signifies our commitment to filling the darkest time of the year with light, even as we recognize that the holiday really isn’t very important spiritually.  Still, maybe the wisdom of the child is greater than the practicality of the adult. In fact, Chanukah is a deeply important holiday — not just because of the Maccabees, but because of its biblical importance.

Yes, it’s biblical importance.  The eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of Kislev is implied in the Bible itself, and its importance is clearly seen throughout our ancient texts.  As important, we can find a practice to invigorate and enlighten our modern lives through the celebration of this “minor” holiday…that really isn’t so minor.

To understand this, we need to take a look at the Jewish calendar and examine the life and death of our patriarch Jacob and his connection to what we celebrate during the Festival of Lights.

We are taught that Jacob is the patriarch most associated with the holiday of Sukkot, and that tradition has it that Jacob died on Erev Sukkot in the year 2255 (1506 BCE).  But, after his death, “Egypt bewailed him for 70 days” (Gen. 50:3).  After this period of mourning in Egypt, Joseph and his family travel for one day and hold an “imposing eulogy,” and then Joseph “ordained a seven day mourning period for his father.” (Gen. 50:7)  Which brings us to the direct relationship between Jacob and our Festival of Lights: Sukkot is on the 15th day of Tishrei, and 70 days later is the 25th of Kislev.  Our ancestors mourned Jacob for a total of eight days (one of traveling and a eulogy and seven for declared mourning), from the 25th of Kislev through the 2nd of Tevet…the exact dates that we now celebrate Chanukah.  They were observing a holiday on the same dates, but preceding the Maccabean revolt by more than 1300 years.

Our Sages of the Talmud recognized the relationship between Sukkot and Chanukah in their dialogues and tie the two holidays together multiple times.  We are taught of not reciting confession between Sukkot and Chanukah (Pesachim 36b); the description of the blessings said on both holidays in the same sentences (Sukkah 46a), and a discussion about the practical uses of the booths and the Chanukah lights are interspersed together (Shabbat 22a).  We even see that our ancient elders put Chanukah in the same category as the biblically commanded three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when discussing what days “the flute is played” (Arachin 10a).  And although Maccabees II is not considered canonical, we find that the text there states that Judah Maccabee himself wanted the Jews of Alexandria to observe a “holiday of booths” (“hag ha’Sukkot” 1:9) in the month of Kislev and ordained the Festival of Chanukah as “eight days in joy as the holiday of Sukkot” (10:6).  For our ancestors, who would be aware of the mourning period that was a commemoration of Jacob’s death, the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah are clearly linked. 

Jacob, who had built the first “House of God” (“Beth-El”, Gen. 28:17), comes back to Beth El when he and his family are commanded by God to return there and “remove the foreign gods that are within you and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2).   Similar to the practices of the Maccabees, he rejected foreign gods and dedicated himself to God.  It is easy to see how our ancestors saw the rededication of the Temple as a recapitulation of Jacob’s journey.

During Sukkot, we dwell in our booths.  We eat, sleep, study, and pray there.  Everything that can be found in a sanctuary is there, with one exception:  I have never seen a Ner Tamid, an eternal light in the Sukkah.  We are blessed to see the lights of the Eternal through the roof, but not in the booth itself.  On Sukkot we build the structure, and on Chanukah we light it up from the inside.  The 70 days in between are a time to prepare for that light.

In the same way that the counting of the Omer prepares us after Passover for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot; these 10 weeks between Sukkot and Chanukah are a time for us to prepare to truly enlighten ourselves.  It is a time of personal meditation to contemplate what we want to light up our lives with.  What are the passions, joys, and goals that we want to ignite?  What do we want to fill our own personal temples, our personal lives with?  These 70 days are an opportunity to focus on the light that we want to shine into the world.  The days in between are a powerful time to manifest what we truly believe in; a time to prepare to fill any emptiness in our lives with light.

Did the miracle of the oil happen on the exact same dates as the mourning period for Jacob?  Maybe.  Did the first Chanukah happen in the winter, and our Sages overlaid its celebration on to the same dates because of the clear parallels to Jacob?  Again, maybe.  Does it matter which is accurate?  Probably not.  What is more important today is that we use this time period to create a sacred structure within our lives:  as safe and joyous as our Sukkah, and as bright and insightful as our Chanukah candles.

Chanukah is a time to fully enliven and enlighten our lives; a time to fill our houses with a light that can never be extinguished.  It is a time to fully bring the wisdom of Jacob into our lives, and to create a sacred Temple in all of our physical spaces.  When we celebrate, and when we remember, we use candles.  May these candles be the reflection of the brightest parts of our souls, and may Chanukah have the deepest of meanings as we shine.


Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of the Conejo, and the author of “Sacred Relationships:  Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”.  He can be reached directly at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

Time to shop for Thanksgivukkah


Now that the parade of Jewish holidays has passed, it’s time to start planning for the impending arrival of an unprecedented hybrid: “Thanksgivukah” is coming! 

This year, the first day — and the second night — of Chanukah falls on Nov. 28, which also happens to be Thanksgiving. This particular coincidence, according to one calculation, won’t happen again for some 77,000 years, and some American Jews are pretty excited. 

“I’ve been thinking about it for so long,” said Dana Gitell, who first noticed this curiosity on her calendar about a year ago and has created a line of T-shirts and greeting cards to celebrate the holiday. “My kids can’t wait. They think everybody celebrates Thanksgivukah.”

Gitell, who lives in a suburb of Boston and works in marketing, loves imagining “mashups” of the two holidays — turkeys with latkes, pilgrims and rabbis, dreidel balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgivukah Day Parade. 

The hybrid holiday — which Gitell has chosen to spell with a double-K  “Thanksgivukkah” and holds two trademarks on the usage of that name — offers a chance to celebrate both Jewish and American values, she said. Her cards and T-shirts — designed by Los Angeles-based illustrator Kim DeMarco — use icons of both holidays, and in the spirit of the season, 10 percent of the proceeds from sales will be donated to MAZON, the Jewish anti-hunger nonprofit. 

Thanksgiving always falls on the fourth Thursday in November, and the next time American Jews will light Chanukah candles at Thanksgiving will be in 2070, when the first night of the festival begins at sundown on Nov. 27. That overlap hasn’t happened since 1918 — although in both 1945 and 1956, Jews in Texas and other states still celebrating “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday of November may have marked the combined holidays. 

Regardless, because the Jewish lunar calendar is slowly falling out of sync with the solar calendar — with Jewish holidays moving forward through the seasons at a rate of four days every 1,000 years — Chanukah has slowly but surely been moving deeper into winter and away from Thanksgiving.

This year, however, Chanukah begins at sundown on Wednesday, Nov. 27, which means that the entire day of Thanksgiving overlaps with the Jewish holiday. So on Thursday night — sometime during the first quarter of the Steelers-Ravens game, for those on the West Coast — families can fire up two candles in their menorahs, plus the shamash, of course. 

To do so, they may well use a “menurkey” — a ceramic menorah in the shape of a turkey, the brainchild of Asher Weintraub, 9. Asher and his father, Anthony, funded the $25,000 project through a Kickstarter campaign that concluded in early September. 

Then there’s the food — ideas for hybrids like sweet potato latkes and cranberry sauce-filled doughnuts abound. 

“Manischewitz broth is the official broth of Thanksgivukah,” said Courtney Manders, who works with Manischewitz as an account executive at The Bender Group, a public relations firm in New Jersey. The 125-year-old manufacturer known for its matzah and gefilte fish makes a full line of beef, chicken and vegetable broths, Manders said, and last year introduced a new broth — turkey. “That works out perfectly for a lot of Thanksgivukah dishes,” Manders said. 

Manischewitz tapped kosher chef Jamie Geller to come up with some appropriately hybridized dishes and is sponsoring a “mash-up recipe contest” starting in October to identify other culinary ways to celebrate Thanksgivukah. The company also launched an online contest to make a short video about Thanksgivukah, which so far has drawn a handful of ideas, including one titled “Close Encounters of the Thanksgivukah Kind.” The best video wins a prize of $6,000, second place gets $3,000, and videos must be submitted by Oct. 10 to be eligible. (No pilgrims, Native Americans or non-kosher animals, the online brief says — and don’t mention Manischewitz wine, because “that is actually a separate company.”) 

Like all things Chanukah-related, there’s a healthy dose of consumerism involved in this holiday. One listing on eBay describes a box of 12 Shabbat candles in “autumnal shades of Yellow, Orange, Green and Purple” as being ideal “for a peaceful Sabbath at ‘Thanksgivukah’ or throughout the year.” Another seller is hawking a plastic dreidel filled with kosher candy corn as a “Thanksgivukah Special.”

Deborah Gitell — sister-in-law of the Thanksgivukah greeting cards and T-shirts creator — is planning a Thanksgivukkah Festival for Nov. 29, to be hosted by Craig Taubman’s Pico Union Project in Los Angeles. 

She’s trying to raise $18,000 through the crowd-funding site Jewcer to make the festival happen, and said some musical acts — including the Moshav Band and Beit T’Shuvah Band — have already confirmed their participation. The Canter’s Deli food truck and Shmaltz Brewing Co. are also on board; proceeds from the event will support Pico Union’s theater programs and MAZON. 

Thanksgivukah’s attraction lies, for the most part, in its rarity.

“If the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way … [the first day of] Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, Nov. 28, in the year 79811,” Jonathan Mizrahi, who holds a doctorate in physics and works for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., wrote in a blog post in January of this year. 

Sure, Mizrahi notes, the Jewish calendar is likely to be modified long before then, since Passover must be in the spring. If the Jewish calendar were to be allowed to fall out of sync with the seasons and loop all the way around — Rosh Hashanah in July, anyone? — Chanukah and Thanksgiving would meet again in 76695, when the eighth day of Chanukah coincides with the autumnal American festival. 

“In all honesty, though, all of these dates are unfathomably far in the future,” Mizrahi writes, “which was really the point.”

Dana Gitell’s T-shirts — available for sale at ModernTribe.com ($36) — play up that aspect. 

“Our design is inspired by the logo for Woodstock,” Dana Gitell said of the T-shirts, and compared Thanksgivukah to another relatively recent, once-in-history moment. 

“It’s a bit like Y2K,” she said. “You were there, you lived through it, and it’ll never happen again.”

Making the sukkah beautiful


I built my first sukkah three years ago. It was your typical sukkah in a kit — a metal pole and tarp structure, stark white and generic. As I decorated it, I realized that no matter how many plastic fruits and vegetables I hung from the sides and ceiling, they seemed to get lost in the space. The big white tarps were just too visually dominant. 

This year, I was honored to decorate a sukkah in an outside plaza adjacent to the new home of the Jewish Journal, as well as the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services. All three organizations will share the sukkah throughout the week of Sukkot. Based on my earlier experience, I approached this sukkah with a strategy: to create dramatic, simple and inexpensive decorative elements that would break up all that whiteness. After all, no one has ever sung, “I’m Dreaming of a White Sukkot.”

Even if you don’t incorporate these specific projects in your own sukkah, I hope that the ideas inspire you to get creative. Let’s think outside the big white box.

(For more on the value of beauty in Judaism and on Sukkot, read David Suissa’s column here)

PINGPONG BALL GRAPES 

I started by covering much of the white tarp with curtain panels from IKEA. At $9.99 for two panels, they were a low-cost decorating solution, so I bought seven pairs. For curtain tiebacks, I decided to make my own grapes out of pingpong balls, which are available at the 99 Cents Only store.

Using a hot-glue gun, attach pingpong balls to one another, one at a time. Cluster them into a V shape so they look like a bunch of grapes rather than a science project. I used about 15 pingpong balls per bunch.

After spray painting the grape bunches a burgundy red color, hot-glue a twig to the top of each bunch. The twig actually adds a lot of realism to the grapes, so warn the kids — and spouse – not to eat them.

Tie one or two bunches of the pingpong grapes to each curtain panel with some fishing line or string. Then frame the grapes in some burlap ribbon and silk autumn leaves.

BRANCHES WITH DICTIONARY PAGE ROSES

I love hanging branches over the dining table. They add such drama while staying within the harvest theme. Before hanging the branches from the ceiling, I attached paper roses made from dictionary pages.

Fold two dictionary pages (or any two sheets of paper) lengthwise, so you now have four skinny pages held together by the bottom fold. Then tear each page at 1- to 2-inch intervals, being careful not to tear the page all the way to the fold.

Place a strip of double-stick tape across the bottom at the fold.

Roll the pages loosely while pinching the bottom where the tape is. The double-stick tape will keep the rose together.

Unfurl the petals, which you created when you tore the paper.

Hot-glue several flowers to a tree branch.

Tie some fishing line around the branch, and tie the other end of the fishing line to the bamboo in the ceiling. Secure two ends of the branch for balance and security.

FALLING LEAVES

 

Paper leaves strung together and suspended from the ceiling create a magical effect, and they complement the hanging branches so well. I’ve also used this technique with silk rose petals at various events.

Cut leaves out of paper. You can do this by hand, making simple oval leaf shapes. I actually used a die-cutting machine, so the leaves were more intricate. I then sprayed the leaves with some glimmer mist, which I bought at the crafts store, to give them some color.

Using a needle and thread, create strands of three to five leaves spaced a few inches apart. The more strands you make, the more it will look like leaves are falling from the heavens.

Where the thread meets each leaf, apply a dab of craft glue so that the leaf stays in place. Tie one end of each strand to the bamboo at the top of the ceiling. If the leaves tangle, don’t worry. From a distance, it still looks like the leaves are falling.

LOOP GARLANDS 

To decorate the sukkah, kids often make garlands out of construction paper loops. Here is an idea that takes that simple technique and turbo charges it. These aren’t just garlands — they’re modern art pieces.

Cut poster or construction paper into long strips that are about 2 inches wide.

Create loops with the strips, and hold them together with paper clips. Also, cut other strips to make smaller loops, and attach them to the larger loops with the paper clips. Connect several loops together to form a long garland. By using paper clips, you can keep changing your pattern before committing to the final design.

When you’re happy with how the garland looks, permanently attach loops to each other with a stapler, and remove the paper clips. Hang the garlands on the sukkah wall with some fishing line.

PALM LEAF STARBURSTS 

I found bunches of long palm leaves at IKEA and thought they would make stylish starbursts to accentuate the sukkah entrance. They also would make beautiful room decorations when Sukkot is over. 

Form a starburst pattern with the palm leaves, securing them in the middle with a hot-glue gun.

Tie some string around the spokes of the starburst to make sure the leaves don’t come apart. The string will also be useful later for hanging.

Cover the string with a paper rose like the ones made for the hanging branches. Tie some fishing line to the string to hang it from the metal poles.

Decorating and crafts expert Jonathan Fong hosts the Web series “Style With a Smile” and DisneyFamily.com’s “He Made, She Made.” He also recently designed the new offices of the Jewish Journal. You can find more of his inspirational ideas at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Save the self-pity, choices abound for Passover meals


For the many who feel overwhelmed by Passover because of the demands of cooking without leaven, a word or two: That should not be an obstacle.

After all, on this most celebrated of Jewish holidays, we are allowed to eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits, most vegetables and fresh herbs.

All of the recipes featured here  are nutritious, attractive, flavorful and easy to prepare. They emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients, fewer complicated techniques, and stylish, elegant dishes. What more would you want for Passover?

The seder meals, when we recount the Exodus story, are the most important events of the holiday.  Most people, like myself, favor their own traditional menu. Each year I repeat the seder menu as a way to hold on to cherished family traditions.

The recipes are from the new cookbook “Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).

BEET SOUP
With their magnificent color, delicious flavor and vitamin richness, beets are one of my favorite vegetables. In the summer I serve this soup at room temperature; in the winter I like it hot.

Ingredients:
1 1/4 pounds (570 g) beets, plus 1 small beet for garnish
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 McIntosh apple, peeled and sliced
4 1/2 cups (1.08 liters) vegetable broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Peel and slice the beets (see note below). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and apple, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beets and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the beets are tender. Cool a little.

While the soup is cooking, wrap the reserved beet tightly in foil. Bake in a toaster oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Cool, slip off the skin, and grate.

Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Season to taste with the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.

To serve, garnish with the grated beet; makes 6 servings.

Note: I always wear thin plastic gloves when I work with beets, as this avoids staining my fingers with beet juice, which can be hard to remove.

CHICKEN SALAD WITH RADICCHIO AND PINE NUTS
This is a colorful and delicious salad with an interesting mixture of textures and tastes. The currants and pine nuts add an unusual Mediterranean piquancy.

Ingredients: 
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for greasing the chicken
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head radicchio, shredded
1 to 2 bunches arugula, leaves torn if they are large
1/2 cup (20 g) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preparation:

Place the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large serving bowl.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and grease with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Place each chicken breast in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap it so that it is completely covered. Place the packages in a steamer, cover and steam over high heat for about 9 minutes. (The inside of the chicken should still be pale pink.) Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 minute.

Remove the chicken and cool, still wrapped. When cool, unwrap the chicken and cut it on the diagonal into thin strips. Place in the bowl with the onions; makes 6 servings.

SWEET AND SOUR DRESSING
Ingredients:
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70 g) pine nuts 
1/2 cup (115 g) raisins or currants
2 tablespoons Marsala wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preparation:
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute over low heat until the pine nuts are lightly golden. Remove from the heat and add the Marsala and vinegar.
Add the radicchio, arugula, and parsley to the chicken and onions; toss with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

MARINATED SALMON
This is a variation on the traditional pickled salmon sold in every Jewish delicatessen. The difference: The salmon is more delicate and less vinegary, and has a richer color. It makes a perfect Sabbath luncheon dish.

Ingredients:
6 skinless center-cut salmon fillets (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for greasing the pan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 200 F (95 C). Grease a glass or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold the fillets in a single layer.

Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and season them lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them in the dish and bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked to your taste.

Remove the baking pan from the oven, cover with foil, and let cool completely. (The fish will continue cooking outside of the oven.)

MARINADE 
Ingredients:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (for Passover, replace with white wine vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced (see note below)
15 dill sprigs, snipped finely with scissors, plus 2 sprigs, snipped, for garnish

Preparation: 
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the salmon, add the onion and sprinkle with the 15 snipped sprigs of dill.
Cover the dish with wax paper, then foil and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days without turning.

To serve: Bring the salmon to room temperature. Place on individual plates along with some of the marinade and onions. Garnish with the fresh snipped dill; makes 6 servings.

Note: I use a mandoline to slice the onion, as it makes the cutting easier.

CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES
I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself — one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites, and because it is so easy to make, I often serve it at Passover. I bake it in an attractive casserole, so it can go directly from the oven to the table.

Ingredients:
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
Kosher salt 
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound (450 g) Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted black olives, quartered

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.

Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.

Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.

Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.

Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute; makes 4 servings.

STIR-FRIED SPINACH
This is a delicious recipe that captures the very essence of spinach. Now that prewashed spinach is available in almost every supermarket, you can prepare this dish in minutes.

Ingredients:
20 ounces (570 g) prewashed spinach
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Break the stems off the spinach leaves and discard.

Roast the pine nuts in a toaster oven on the lowest setting for 1 or 2 minutes, until they are golden. (Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly.)

Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the spinach and stir quickly until it is just wilted, no more than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top; makes 6 servings.

CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES
These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. I often serve them at Passover.

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon (15 g) unsalted margarine for greasing the pan
1/2 pound (225 g) blanched almonds
6 ounces (170 g) good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see notes)
1 cup (200 g) sugar

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch (23-by-33-by-5 cm) baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.

Chop the almonds in a food processor, in two batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine, and combine with the almonds.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.

With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure 8 with the spatula. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out 
almost dry.

Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) squares; makes 3 1/2 dozen squares.

Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.

To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with  wax paper between the layers.

Purim in Israel [SLIDESHOW]


Israelis celebrate Purim in full costume throughout Israel. 

COMMENT BELOW WITH YOUR FAVORITE COSTUME!

Purim: Beyond the playfulness, a time for examination


The central character of Purim is Esther, whose name means hidden. The story is full of things hidden, and waiting for the right time to be revealed. Vashti refuses to expose her sexuality to the drunken men of the King’s court, and chooses instead to be hidden. Esther hides her Jewishness until the time is right to reveal her identity. Haman hides his humanity. The foolish king’s discernment is hidden. Even God is hidden in the story. Only Mordecai is not hidden, making his presence known to save lives. Mordecai is the counterbalance to hiding.  

The characters in the Purim story are archetypes teaching us about ourselves. What do you hide? Are you like Haman who keeps part of himself hidden in response to an old wound, or because it’s too risky to be vulnerable? Are you hiding a part of yourself because you are convinced (incorrectly) that you are not worthy, that your light is not great enough? As Marianne Williamson writes: “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Or, are you hiding that special part of you because you, like Esther, are waiting, strategically, for the right time to serve God? In the first and second scenarios, perhaps it’s time to be revealed. In the third, perhaps it’s better to remain hiding. In the midst of our pain, we ask ourselves, where is God? As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says, “God is where someone lets Him in.” So let Him in.

How can you let God in when you don’t feel so good about yourself? How can you turn what is hidden in you into something that is good and seen by others? The Baal Shem Tov says lift it up to the light. Lift up the things you’re not so proud of to the light, so that you can see that even that which you keep hidden is your desire for being connected to God. Do this in prayer, meditation, or in confidential conversation with a friend.

On Purim we are told to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says this means that in this state of drunkenness we don’t know the difference between arrogance and humility. Haman was arrogant and Mordecai was humble, and we assume that being humble is better. But Shlomo says you need both. “All the emotions are very holy because God made them. You only have to know the right time to use them. The truth is, in order to be a servant of God you need a lot of pride.” Pride is like arrogance that will drive you to do something courageous when no one else will do it.

You must also have humility; not humility that makes you think you’re unworthy, and not humility that makes you feel small in relation to other people. The humility you need is to know your relationship to your Creator, your compass of ethical behavior. The holy humility that we require is knowing that everything we have comes from God. Shlomo says that “If you know exactly where to use your humility then you know exactly where to use your pride.”

When it comes to parenting our children or being a partner in relationship, we need to balance pride with humility. When we find ourselves quick to criticize and ready to make our children or partners or our parents feel small, insignificant, or inadequate, we must realize that this is misplaced pride. We need humility to recognize that the people in our lives are souls in human bodies needing acknowledgement and to be treated as holy.

And here’s one of the hidden secrets in the Purim story. When you feel rage and you want to lash out – like Haman did – with judgment, criticism or worse… stop, walk out of the room, splash cold water on your face. Be like Esther. Fast for three days and ask your community for support. Do teshuvah and search for that which is hidden in you. Do the work of teshuvah, returning to the holy spark of the divine that is in you.

The Tikunei Zohar says that Purim is like Yom Kippur. The Sfat Emet explains this statement saying that teshuvah is the key to meeting God face to face. Like Esther who fasts and does teshuvah, we also fast and do teshuvah before Purim. Only after fasting and teshuvah does she enter the king’s domain, and the decree is removed. It’s the same on Yom Kippur. The process of Teshuvah is (in part) coming out from hiding and returning to your commitment to God.

Like the High Priest in the Temple, who fasted before going into the Holy of Holies, we fast, we do teshuvah, and only then do we enter the “King’s domain”. Then the decree is removed, and we start fresh. It is stated in the Talmud (Megillah 14a): “The removal of the king’s ring [that Haman used to seal his evil decree] was greater than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. For all [of them] were unable to return the Jews to righteousness; whereas removal of the ring returned the Jews to righteousness.” The threat was so real and so severe that the Jews took the responsibility of teshuvah seriously. The Sfat Emet says this teaches the power of teshuvah is so great that it can reverse evil decrees. It can reverse our own decrees.

On this Purim, let us do teshuvah and live lives in which we are all seen rather than hidden. Let us return to living lives that honor the sacred in each other by treating each other ethically and with kindness and patience. Let us be so drunk that we have no fear of bringing God out of hiding and into the stories of our lives.


Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz can be reached at rabbielihu@gmail.com. You can read more at www.rabbielihu.com.

Megillat Esther — The book of the exile


Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar.  It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character that it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source –  Megillat Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Hanuka, the Jewish festival that is closest to it both in time and meaning.  Although the Books of the Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books, in the events that they relate, in the characters of the main figures, and in the religious-national issues looming in their background.  Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus;  the wicked, petty Haman; Esther whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant.  Commentators have also remarked that G-d’s name does not appear in the entire Megilla even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.

The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in one single issue – Purim is the Festival of the Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.  In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life of the Jewish people in exile.  Its  entire story, which looks like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in the years of exile.

Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to  destroy, and kill all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination?  Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another.  He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even  foolish and weak  tyrants can bring about terrible destruction upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales, who somehow becames the de facto ruler of the land, and decided that personal hatred, superstition, or any other kind of nonsense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening.

In Megillat Esther Haman is clearly a comic figure.  However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by so many tears and so much blood.  Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among the peoples of his  kingdom, whose laws are different  from those of every people, who do not  keep the king’s laws; and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly perfected during  the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then.  With minor variations, it is repeated to this day by modern-day  Hamans throughout the world.  We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure.  Today, we are afraid of him.

One can elaborate and illustrate how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther – that could have been funny, had it not been so tragic – has been repeating itself generation after generation, in different parts of the world.  The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures,  Ahasuerus and Haman ”  represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who  grow out of the fundamental evil of the Jewish existence in the exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned – the eternal scapegoat.

Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of thhe Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur during its rescue, stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible.  For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”  The Megilla teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.  Within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews…”, and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will not help even those who sit in the king’s own palace.  And that, despite everything, there is hope.

The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning  with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.”  May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megilla, when we will be able to read it truly frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

A Purim directive: Laugh it up!


Little kids will laugh at anything. The simplest knock-knock joke or a tickle fest — even the threat of one — can so easily end in hysterics. They laugh because they are surprised by something unexpected in a world they are constantly discovering.

If only that kind of laughter came as easily as we got older.

While the laughter of childhood is characterized by the element of surprise, the laughter in adulthood becomes a way of managing stress (filmmakers know this well and skillfully employ any element of comic relief during an action thriller to release some of the tension). Laughter becomes a coping mechanism to get us through difficult times. Paradoxically, many of us are so loaded down with responsibility and worry that we don’t indulge often enough in this emotional and physical release.

It’s a good thing Purim is nearly here.

Purim is a holiday that isn't ripe with laws and ritual obligations save for reading the Megillah, giving mishloach manot (gift packages) to friends, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and having a festive meal. However, there is one directive for observance that is very clear: “they (The Jews) should make [Adar 14 and 15] days of feasting and joy …” (Scroll of Esther 9:22).

We each might experience this commandment on a different level. For 5-year-olds, putting on funny costumes, enjoying bobbing for candied apples at the synagogue carnival and seeing the rabbi dressed as a superhero evokes one kind of joy. For most grown-ups, joy and laughter may be an expression of a different kind. While we appreciate the dark comedy of the Megillah, our laughter also is a collective sigh of relief in having averted near annihilation unscathed.

The storyline of Purim, which this year falls on the evening of Feb. 23, is a dramatic comedy of errors and grand gestures with over-the-top reactions. It is so different in content and style than nearly every other book of the Bible that scholars speculate about the veracity of the story altogether. Drunken parties, political posturing and sexual innuendos weave their way throughout the narrative.

The Megillah begins with a raucous party hosted by King Achashveros, who demands that his wife, Vashti, appears (only! as commentators point out) in her crown. After refusing to appear naked, she is told to never appear before the king again. After his “wise” counselors offer advice, an edict is sent out across the provinces demanding that all wives respect their husbands’ every demand. Not sure what all the wives had to say about that!

It is a story about reversals. The Megillah has Mordechai, the Jewish hero who refuses to bow down to Haman. The act of disobedience ignites the ire of Haman, the recently promoted chief adviser to the king. Haman, in turn, calls for the destruction of all Jewish people.

Esther, who until this point has hidden her identity, then reveals that she also is a member of the doomed people and calls on Achashveros to punish Haman. Achashveros does by bestowing all the raiments and honors that were reserved for Haman to Mordechai. Further, the very gallows that Haman had ordered to be built for the hanging of Mordechai are the ones on which Haman meets his end.

Purim is a story of incongruencies. A people once despised and on the verge of destruction are told that they can defend themselves thanks to Esther’s petitions to the king and suddenly become a force with which to be reckoned. For pragmatic reasons, the text indicates that “many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”  Averted disaster becomes an unusual catalyst for conversion.

While grand gestures, plot reversals and a storyline that doesn’t mesh quite right are elements that are employed by comedy writers and will evoke laughter, our general state of reverie on Purim is born from what the philosopher John Morreall observes about the evolution of laughter. Morreall believes that human laughter became a gesture of shared relief that a dangerous situation had passed. Laughter puts us into a state of relaxation and can build bonds between us.

As the cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte observes further, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group.”

Jews have always used humor as a coping mechanism for Jewish survival and as a common reference point to connect to other Jews. Jewish comedians knew this well. As a people who have been oppressed for so long, we have always appreciated laughing at our situation before others could.

So this Purim, hold the childlike laughter of discovering new things (maybe someone you didn’t expect will give you mishloach manot; maybe you will surprise yourself at your generosity when you give a gift to the poor) and appreciate the narrative of the Purim story itself. But most important, experience the joy that comes from release, knowing that the Jewish people not only survives but continues to thrive.

As you raise your glass at Purim, toast “l’chaim” — to life — and to a life filled with deep laughter.

Ken Elkinson: Holiday sounds of chill


When musician Ken Elkinson began receiving kudos for his Christmas album, he knew it was time to return to his roots. “I started feeling guilty that I was selling my people out,” Elkinson, 40, said, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. While he was in esteemed company among Jews who’d done Christmas albums or written Christmas songs — boldface names like Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks, to name but a few — Elkinson was ready to tackle Chanukah.

This year, Elkinson has become a double threat, releasing a pair of albums, “Chanukah Ambient” and “Christmas Ambient,” for the holidays. Ambient, a style of music popularized by artists like Brian Eno, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, features heavy use of synthesizers to create a very atmospheric, often mellow tone. It may be most recognizable to people who’ve seen 1980s movies like “Legend,” “Blade Runner,” “The Keep” and “Chariots of Fire,” all of which heavily feature ambient pieces in their soundtracks.

For Elkinson, the choice to do ambient music was “more personal than musical.” A longtime pianist whose earlier albums were almost exclusively piano music, Elkinson’s children were a big part of his switch to ambient music — the form allows the composer to lay down one layer of sound, take a break to help out with the kids, and then go back into his studio to work. Elkinson said he also loves the depth of the music. “I like stuff where there’s a lot of complex things going on in the background,” he said. 

Elkinson achieved some fame for his ambient compositions after his boxed set “Music for Commuting” was written up in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on CNN. “I’m still kind of baffled by it,” Elkinson said of the album’s wide appeal, which was heightened due to its release just before Carmageddon, the weekend-long closure of Los Angeles’ hyper-busy 405 freeway in 2011. It was a lot of attention for an album that Elkinson says had its genesis in his own need to calm down while driving. “I can’t stand watching people eat meals and shave and put on makeup and drive [at the same time],” the New Jersey native said. 

Elkinson’s “Chanukah Ambient” album is certainly different from most Chanukah albums on the market, and he’s happy about it. “Some people are probably going to hate it,” he said, adding, “I have really thick skin, I’m totally fine with it. I just got tired of hearing the same songs over and over in the same way.”

Crafting the album became something of a learning process for Elkinson and deepened his understanding of the winter holiday. “I learned through this process that ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ is not a traditional Chanukah song; it’s actually something that was written in the ’80s,” said Elkinson of the song written by Bosnian Flory Jagoda, which people often think is a classic melody. “I feel more proud of the Chanukah music.”

Growing up, he said, he remembers Chanukah being a holiday that brought his family together, in a time before his parents divorced. “We didn’t get fancy presents. I always wanted an Atari and a dog and HBO and sugar cereals; those are the four things I always wanted for Chanukah, and I never got any of that stuff.” Like many former kids, he now remembers the holiday more for its gift of joy than for anything material. “It was a really happy time in my life.”

Today, Elkinson is excited about celebrating the holiday with his own kids. “I like passing the traditions on that I had as a child,” he said. And of course, there’s also the music. “They sing the songs the whole year. It’s funny watching them.”

Elkinson hopes his own album helps “calm people” during a time of holiday stress and brings them a “different perspective” on the familiar celebration. “It’s not like the Chanukah music you know,” Elkinson said. 

“Why just do another boring dreidel song?”

Holiday preview calendar


[FRI | NOV 23]

“BODIES AND SHADOWS: CARAVAGGIO AND HIS LEGACY” 

Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings exhibited a strangeness, beauty and raw emotion that made him one of the most popular artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. The “Bodies and Shadows” exhibition covers the evolution of his style and features eight works by Caravaggio as well as pieces from approximately 20 artists from Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands who carried on Caravaggio’s legacy. Fri. Through Feb. 10. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Friday), 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday), 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday). $15 (general), $10 (seniors, students), free (children under 18). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.


[TUE | NOV 27]

“A PATCHWORK OF CULTURES: THE SEPHARDIC-LATINO CONNECTION”

Buenos Aires native and Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue Cantor Marcelo Gindlin performs Spanish-Jewish melodies during this day of musical education. Organized by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony Educational Outreach Program for fourth- through sixth-graders, the event also features an instrument “petting zoo.” Tue. 11 a.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 436-5260. lajewishsymphony.com.


[FRI | NOV 30]

ISRAELI CHAMBER PROJECT

Winner of the 2011 Israeli Ministry of Culture’s outstanding ensemble award, the Israeli Chamber Project — featuring clarinetist Tibi Cziger, cellist Brook Speltz and pianist Assaff Weisman — perform selections by composers Max Bruch, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Catered artists reception included. Fri. 8 p.m. $65-$85. Doheny Mansion, Pompeian Room, 8 Chester Place, Los Angeles. (213) 477-2929. israelichamberproject.org.


[SAT | DEC 1]

Lewis Black

LEWIS BLACK 

He yells so you don’t have to. Best-known for his curmudgeonly commentaries on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Black returns to SoCal with more social and political rants. Sat. 8 p.m. $39.50-$49.50. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (800) 745-3000. ticketmaster.com.

 


[SUN | DEC 2]

“THE GUYS AND DOLLS OF BROADWAY AND THE SHOWS THAT MADE THEM FAMOUS”

Musical troupe The Great Broadway Sing-Along performs show tunes and trivia from the Great White Way’s biggest shows, including “Gypsy,” “Hair,” “Jersey Boys,” “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Mamma Mia,” “Lion King,” “South Pacific,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sun. 4 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. ajula.edu


[TUE | DEC 4]

GAD ELMALEH

Known as the Jerry Seinfeld of French comedy, Elmaleh appears at Largo for back-to-back nights. Born in Casablanca, the Sephardi comedian was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by France’s minister of culture in 2006, and he was voted the funniest person in France in 2007. As an actor, he’s appeared in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and voiced Ben Salaad in Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” Tue. Through Dec. 5. 8 p.m. $60. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350. largo-la.com.


[THU | DEC 13]

CALVIN TRILLIN

Contributor to The New Yorker, Time and The Nation, Trillin appears in conversation with stand-up comedy icon Paula Poundstone. Renowned for his food writing, political poetry and comic novels, Trillin examines the 2012 presidential campaign in his forthcoming book of political limericks, “Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. writersblocpresents.com.

ZUBIN MEHTA 50th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT

Celebrating 50 years since he was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, world-renowned maestro Mehta conducts the L.A. Phil in a performance of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director for life, Mehta has demonstrated solidarity with the Jewish state throughout his celebrated career. Through Dec. 16. Thu. 8 p.m. $54.50-$187. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.


[FRI | DEC 14]

HARRY SHEARER AND JUDITH OWEN

Actor-satirist Shearer (KCRW’s “Le Show,” “The Simpsons”) and his singer-songwriter wife, Owen, host “An Evening of Holiday Music and Mirth,” which began as an annual gathering for family and friends but soon grew too large to host at the couple’s home. Mixing traditional and nontraditional holiday music, the public performances have drawn such celebrity guests as Jane Lynch (“Glee”), Weird Al Yankovic and Shearer collaborator Christopher Guest. Who knows who will turn up this year? Fri. 8 p.m. $50. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350. largo-la.com.


[SUN | DEC 16]

DAVE KOZ & KENNY LOGGINS

The Grammy-nominated saxophonist appears in concert with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins, whose hits include “Celebrate Me Home,” “This Is It,” “I’m Alright” and “Footloose.” The pair perform holiday standards for 94.7 The Wave’s Christmas Concert. Raised in a household that celebrated Chanukah, Koz embraces Christmas the way many Jewish musicians do — through song. Sun. 7:30 p.m. $49.50-$124.50. Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, downtown. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[SUN | DEC 23]

“CHRISTMAS TIME FOR THE JEWS”

Comedian Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E) performs at Flappers Comedy Club’s night of holiday laughs. Known for high-energy blends of stand-up, music and video, Schwartz puts wacky, Jewy spins on popular hip-hop songs (“Honika Electronica,” “Hanukkah Hey Ya” and “Crank That Kosher Boy”). Sun. 7 p.m. $15. Flappers Comedy Club, 102 E. Magnolia St., Burbank. (818) 845-9721. flapperscomedy.com.


[FRI | DEC 28]

“QUARTET” 

Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this comic film starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly. Set in a home for retired opera singers, an annual charity concert to celebrate composer Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and a resident’s ex-wife. As old grudges re-emerge, it becomes apparent that having four of the finest operatic singers under one roof is no guarantee that the show will go on. Fri. Various times, prices and locations. bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/quartet.


[MON | DEC 31]

NEW YEAR’S EVE WITH IDINA MENZEL 

The Tony Award-winning actress (“Wicked”), singer and songwriter rings in the New Year with two performances of her new live show. A Long Island native, Menzel has come a long way since summers in the Catskills: She performed at the White House for a PBS special and has had a recurring guest spot on the hit television show “Glee.” Mon. 7 p.m., 10:30 p.m. $68.50-$191. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.

PASSOVER AND SHAVUOT: What’s the Question? What’s the Answer?


Unlike other Jewish holidays, the Torah does not specify a date for Shavuot; it is celebrated on the 50th day (seven weeks) after Passover. We moderns celebrate Shavuot on the 6th day of the month of Sivan; in ancient times, when the first day of every month was declared only when the new moon was first seen, the holiday could have been celebrated on the 5th, 6th or 7th day of Sivan.

Equally strange, the actual date on which the Torah was given is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible! We know more or less when it was, but no exact date is given. This is true even though the dates of many other events, all surely of far lesser importance, are written explicitly in the Torah.

And while we consider the focus of Shavuot to be the giving of the Torah, it is never referred to as such in the Bible. The holiday has a few names, but none connected to its most important theme.

We don’t even know the exact place where God gave the Torah; at least for the past two millennia, it has been completely unknown and none of the three contenders we have for Mount Sinai is the right place.  According to Jewish tradition, Mount Sinai was not a high mountain. Those who believe that it was one of the highest spots in the Sinai Peninsula, thinking that a tall mountain is closer to God, seem to have slightly pagan ideas.

So there are three mysteries: why doesn’t Shavuot have a date of its own? Why is it not explicitly connected to the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Law? And why don’t we even know where the Torah was given?  Commemorated by a holiday seemingly disconnected from the event, the Israelites received this most sacred text on a date and on a site that are only vaguely known to us.

One way to understand this phenomenon is to consider the idea that the giving of the Torah is not a moment that belongs to the world in its natural run. It is, instead, a transcendental event and cannot be put within the boundaries, lists and timetables of everyday life.

Possible analogies are the mathematical concepts of irrational and transcendental numbers. Even though one can give an approximate measure of such numbers, they cannot be defined as part of the world of ordinary numbers. In a way, irrational and transcendental numbers pass through the field of ordinary numbers – without ever touching them. Similarly, one may say that the giving of the Torah is not a part of the normal existence of this world; it cannot be treated with the same terms and measurements and one can assume with certainty that no traces of this earthshaking event will be found in the rocks of Sinai or anywhere else. Thus, because the giving of the Torah is an act that does not belong to this world, it does not have a precise time or place. That is why the Torah was given in a desert, in what can be called “no man’s land:” the moment does not belong to the political realm and is not a part of any historical construct. That moment at Sinai is an event completely outside time and space, and from a different dimension altogether.

The counting of fifty days between Passover and Shavuot points to their internal connection. Shavuot can be defined as the conclusion of the holiday of Passover, which is what it indeed is. Passover is the redemption from slavery and the beginning of our formation into a new, national entity. But the identity of the new nation that was formed as it left Egypt was still in question. The Israelites – just like many contemporary Jews – had a fuzzy notion that they were somehow connected with each other, but they had no idea what that connection meant.

The relationship of Passover and Shavuot, then, is like the relationship between a question and an answer. Passover is the question, as reflected in the most famous question asked on the Seder night: now that we have our freedom, what do we do with it? And the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is the answer. Indeed, it is more than an answer: it is also the creation of a nation that becomes the vehicle for holding, safeguarding and transmitting the Torah. Thus these two holidays, which are joined together by the counting of those 50 days, form a full metaphysical sentence that is made up of a question and an answer.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut.  His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese.  Rabbi Steinsaltz completed a monumental 45 volume translation and commentary on the Talmud in Hebrew.  This historic achievement launched the Global Day of Jewish Learning which continues for a 3rd annual international event on November 18.  The Steinsaltz English edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli will also be released on May 22nd.

At Passover, let my people go south


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

Make Yom Kippur national holiday, French presidential candidate says


The Green Party candidate for the French presidency has called for national holidays on Yom Kippur and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Green Party leader Eva Joly said in a speech Wednesday that she wanted, “Jews and Muslims to be able to celebrate Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha during a day off,” so that “every religion is treated equally in the public space.”

Though national holidays are customary for Christian celebrations, the call made waves in France, where religion is expected to be kept private in a strictly secular society intended to be blind to race and religion.

“That is one way to look at secularism,” quipped the French daily Le Figaro in its regular news coverage of the story.  Reader on-line reactions also expressed shock at the idea, and political opponents on the right and left defended the country’s Christian-only holidays out of an “old tradition.”

In a similar vein, Joly, who is Norwegian and French, said she was in favor of the controversial use of national statistics showing standards of living for different ethnic groups.  The French government by law cannot conduct surveys on groups identified by their religion or ethnicity.

However, such surveys are, “a useful instrument to permit equal access to employment, health, housing, even political responsibility,” argued Joly.
“We have a Christian history, that led to a certain number of holidays in our calendar,” said Education Minister Laurent Wauquiez on French BFM TV.  “That doesn’t prevent having the greatest respect for all religions,” he added.

Holiday packages for Jewish service members


Bel-Air may be a long way from Afghanistan, but the distance seemed a little closer on a recent rainy Sunday. At the home of Joan Rimmon, a cadre of volunteers was assembling care packages for Jewish servicemen and -women deployed abroad. Although Thanksgiving was just days away, these packages were geared for Chanukah.

Each box would contain a menorah and chocolate Chanukah gelt, as well as a CD of Jewish music. They would be lovingly filled with handwritten letters of thanks, and hand-knit kippot and scarves. Also jammed into the 8.5-by-11.5-by-5-inch boxes would be a variety of personal care items and snacks — all certified kosher, of course.

The story of how Rimmon’s house was taken over by Project MOT began with her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah in 2004. The child was born on Flag Day and wanted do a patriotic activity for her mitzvah project. The family arranged for guests to help pack 250 care packages for Operation Gratitude, an organization that sends more than 100,000 care packages annually to military personnel around the globe.

Rimmon was impressed and began to volunteer for Operation Gratitude, first completing customs forms for packages and then taking over as supervisor for greeting cards (the group sends blank cards for soldiers to use). She and another volunteer, Marsha Roseman, were asked by the program’s founder, Carolyn Blashek, to reach out to Jewish service members, and Project MOT was born.

“It’s kind of taken over our lives,” Rimmon said.

Project MOT’s first shipment — to 20 recipients — went out for Passover 2008. The group now sends packages three times a year: at Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah. That Sunday’s shipment will reach about 150 individuals in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kosovo and Djibouti. A contact in Germany will disburse boxes to Special Operations personnel.

About 40 volunteers showed up to help assemble the packages. Some, like Susan and Stanley Kolker, had learned about Project MOT after meeting Rimmon at Operation Gratitude. They and other congregants from Valley Outreach Synagogue had volunteered with Operation Gratitude on Mitzvah Day, and the Kolkers continue to volunteer at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, where supplies are gathered year-round. Others were members of TOLA — Tikkun Olam Los Angeles — a new Jewish volunteer group geared to Jews between 18 and 30 years old.

Project MOT receives some items from Operation Gratitude, as well as from individuals and groups. They are always looking for donations including letters and cards of thanks to the troops, kosher snacks and candy, small games and puzzle books, and personal-size hygiene items. Financial donations are also appreciated. Rimmon, who is already starting to collect for the Passover 2012 shipment, asks that people who have Jewish friends or family deployed abroad contact her with names so they can receive packages.

“My uncle was in the Air Force in World War II. My cousin recently retired as an admiral, and his son is a captain in the Navy. I even had a relative who fought in the Civil War,” she said. “I just feel that these guys … whatever their jobs, they’re away from their families, and the least we can do is tell them thank you and that we haven’t forgotten them.”

Judging by a scrapbook filled with thank-you notes, the message has been received.

“Everything was so thoughtful and will ensure the best Passover possible far away from home,” wrote one sergeant serving in Tal Afar, Iraq.

“It is so wonderful to know people care about us as we serve our country far from home,” wrote another service member.

After receiving last year’s Chanukah packages, a rabbi, writing from Afghanistan said, “I cannot begin to tell you how much your generous care packages have raised the morale of our soldiers here in Afghanistan. Everyone who has received something from you has been smiling from ear to ear.”

For more information or to donate to Project MOT, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

Jump start Summer at Winter Expo; More help picking a Jewish summer camp


Jump Start Summer at Winter Expo

More than 40 day camps, overnight camps and Israel youth tours will exhibit their programs Jan. 21 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the second annual Jewish Summer Camp and Israel Program Expo is aimed at helping parents and kids find the right Jewish enrichment for summertime.Families will have a chance to meet the camp staffs, learn about the offerings and accommodations and find out about financial help from camps and Israel tours from around the country. A printed resource guide will be available to attendees, as well as to anyone who requests one (contact information below).

The expo is part of The Federation’s renewed focus on the informal but invaluable education of a Jewish summertime experience, according to Lori Port, senior associate director of planning and allocations at The Federation. A new incentive program for summer camps is working its way through Federation committees, and the last few years has seen an increase in Federation money going toward camps.

For three years, The Federation has allocated $50,000 annually, funded jointly by them and an anonymous donor, to five local Jewish overnight camps for scholarships for first-time campers. A $10,000 grant from the Streisand Foundation enabled The Federation to disburse additional money toward scholarships for Jewish day and residential camps, and immigrant children are eligible to receive scholarships from a pool of $31,000 for day camps from The Federation’s resettlement program.

Camp JCA Shalom, a Federation agency, also receives significant operational money from The Federation.

Jewish camping, particularly overnight camping, has been documented to be one of the most effective ways to build a lasting and active connection to Jewish living. In the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Jewish campers were almost twice as likely as those who attended up to six years of Hebrew school to be married to a Jew, have many Jewish friends, be a synagogue member and feel that being Jewish is very important.

For more information, call (323) 761-8320 or go to www.jewishla.org.

More Help Picking a Camp

The Foundation for Jewish camping is offering parents help in picking from 130 Jewish overnight camps with its find-a-camp search engine (www.Jewishcamping.org ). The feature on the Web site narrows down choices based on geography, Jewish affiliation and special interests and needs.

Among the offerings are a growing number of specialty programs, ranging from basketball to pottery to astronomy. Jewish camps are hoping those programs will pull kids in and expose them to the documented, long-term benefits to Jewish identity that come from spending a summer immersed in Jewish living.

The Foundation for Jewish Camping continues to offer professional assistance to camps across the country. Locally, Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, and Rabbi Daniel Greyber, director of Camp Ramah, are developing their skills as part of the first cohort of the foundation’s Executive Leadership Institute.And counselors from three California camps — Ramah, Tawonga and Newman Swig — are learning leadership and educational skills at the foundation’s Cornerstone Fellowship Program.

For more information and to access the find-a-camp” search engine, go to www.jewishcamping.org.

Israeli Flies to Zionist Camp in California

Itai Rotem, the son of the previous Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, missed his California camp so much after his family went back to Israel that the 13-year-old flew all the way from Israel — alone — last summer to go back to Habonim Dror’s Camp Gilboa near San Bernardino.

“There is a sense of brotherhood and togetherness in Gilboa that Itai wanted to taste once again … so we let him go,” Consul General Yuval Rotem said. “He loved every moment of this experience.”

Camp Gilboa, a Labor Zionist camp founded in 1936, offers a kibbutz-type atmosphere, where Jewish identity and a love for Israel are emphasized.

For information, call (323)653-6772, e-mail info@campgilboa.org or visit www.campgilboa.org.

Social Action Summer

Teens looking for meaning this summer can participate in a service learning program offered by Sulam — the Center for Jewish Service Learning, part of the Bureau of Jewish Education. Teens age 13-18 can participate in two-week sessions in the areas of sports and mentorship, the environment (land or water) and homelessness/home building. Each day the teens will meet onsite for hands-on work, with time set aside for study, discussion and reflection with Jewish educators. The two-week program will take place twice — at the beginning of July and in mid-August.

For information contact Daniel Gold at (323) 761-8607, dgold@bjela.org.

California Dreamin’

Surfing, rock music, filmmaking, science — it doesn’t get more California than this. The Youth Enrichment Summer (YES) at Stephen S. Wise Temple offers seventh- to ninth-graders an opportunity to delve deep into an area of interest, in the context of Jewish learning and the usual summer camp activities such as sports, swimming and field trips.

Campers enrolled in the three-week sessions will meet with professionals to learn their chosen craft. The Life Savers Surf Camp will teach kids to surf and train them as junior life guards, including CPR certification. Campers who choose Behind the Scenes will write, act in, direct and edit their own short films. The musically inclined can opt for the School of Rock, which will include music theory and history, as well as some serious jam time. And proud geeks can break, fix and explore things in the Excelsior Science experience, which includes physics, chemistry and astronomy. All of the specialties will include daily Jewish text study related to the field.

For more information, call (310) 889-2345, e-mail summercamps@wisela.org or visit www.WiseLA.org.

Running Springs Really Running

Organizers are hoping to significantly increase last year’s inaugural summer of 180 kids at Camp Gan Israel in Running Springs.

The camp, a 70-acre site near Big Bear that Chabad purchased for $4.3 million two years ago, recently broke ground on a 10,000-square-foot multipurpose building and has invested another $1.5 million in other improvements, including a newly remodeled synagogue, enlarged dining hall, kitchen improvements, a game room and upgraded air conditioning, bathrooms and carpets.

Fry the latkes, try the gingerbread


In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished, Sarah announced, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights.”

Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn’t fool me. I’ve been there myself, plus I’m a therapist.

Therapists aim to place themselves in their client’s shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?

So let’s be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street.

Her parents, who normally won’t allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door.

For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects.

These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.

This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been “nice”).

He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.

Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.

What is your experience beyond your friend’s house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man’s visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks “The Question.” Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don’t live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, someone will ask, “What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?”

You aren’t sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn’t come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business, but because you don’t celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate “Harmonica.”

For a whole month your life is like the saying, “Don’t think about an elephant.” You can’t help it because the elephants are everywhere.

Now let’s go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil — a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.

As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don’t hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.

You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, “Why don’t we have this every week?” You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly doughnuts.

All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn’t have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you’re doing anyway — “Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” — and one about an old rock.

It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!…. We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!…. We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!

But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn’t looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, “You don’t really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do.”

It’s hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don’t have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.

Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances


They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
 
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
 
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
 
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
 
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, “I Am Jewish,” the title reflecting his son’s last words before his execution.
 
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
 
“I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.”
 
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
 
“My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory,” he said.
 
“Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition.”
 
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
 
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
 
“But you said you were secular,” they said, shaking their heads.
 
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
 
“I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said.
 
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said.
 
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
 
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
 
“I am not like that. I’ll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood,” he said. “But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don’t feel comfortable in organized worship.”
 
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.”
 
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
 
However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he objected. “And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
 
“I don’t like other people praying for me,” he continued. “Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That’s why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”
 
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.”
 
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
 
“They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.”
 
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. “I saw no reason to go back,” he said.
 
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it,” he said.
 
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
 
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
 
“Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.”
 
Rubenstein’s daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B’nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.

Holiday tunes for when you haven’t got a prayer


I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
— Jerome K. Jerome


 
Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.

 
I like to think it’s the music.

 
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.

 
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider “Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B’nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.

 
Alter didn’t write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.

 
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter’s music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
 
The mandolin i
s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.

 
Put those two musicians together with “a collection of timeless Jewish melodies,” as their new CD “New Shabbos Waltz” bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.

 
The set kicks off with a melancholy “Avinu Malkeinu,” with Statman’s plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.

 
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.

 
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records’ series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski (“From the World of My Father”) and David Stock (“A Little Miracle”) have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)

 
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski’s “From the World of My Father,” a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 “Shofar Service” is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.

 
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ (“The Burning Bush”) or full orchestra (“Symphonic Visions for Orchestra”).

 
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, “A Little Miracle,” which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).

 
But his “Yizkor” is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, “Tekiah,” written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don’t imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.

 

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.


 

“Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days,” can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.

 

“New Shabbos Waltz” can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com

“From the World of My Father” and “A Little Miracle” can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.

Shopping for Jews? Clean Up on Aisle 5


Anyone who walked into Albertsons in Los Altos on a recent Sunday would have run right into Margie Pomerantz’s Passover table.

There she sat, next to the kosher food display right inside the supermarket’s front entrance. A big handwritten sign reading “Passover in the Aisles” hung down from her table, on which lay piles of Passover recipe books, haggadahs and other holiday resources.

Pomerantz and her fellow volunteers from Congregation Beth David, a nearby Conservative synagogue, were out looking for Jews. In a supermarket. Unaffiliated Jews, if possible, but they weren’t being picky.

They handed out information and collected names. Someone from the synagogue will call later with an invitation to a Shabbat service or other Jewish program.

Scenes like this, with a nonaggressive method of doing outreach, are being repeated across the United States this week and next, in dozens of communities.

It’s all part of Passover in the Aisles, an initiative conceived of by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI).

Some Jewish groups have been doing this kind of outreach for a decade or more, but the biggest push seems to have come in the past three to five years.

It is based on the idea of “public space Judaism” — taking programs out to where people are instead of waiting for them to walk into a synagogue or JCC.

“If we wait for people to come to programs within the four walls of our communal institutions, we’ll be waiting a long time,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the JOI, which provides guidance for such programs.

Passover is a particularly good time for this kind of outreach, Olitzky says, both because it is one of the most widely celebrated holidays among all Jews, even the unaffiliated, and because it requires people to go to the grocery store to buy matzah and other Passover products.

Olitzky says his outreach model has a lot in common with Chabad’s street outreach, which he admires. But he says, what “makes ours different is we are less intrusive, less discriminating. We don’t ask, are you Jewish?”

“It’s important that Judaism be shared passionately in public spaces,” Olitzky says. “That’s what Chabad does, and that’s what we do.”

Beth David’s assistant rabbi, Aaron Schonbrun, went to a JOI conference last year and says he was astounded at the concept of liberal Jews doing this kind of outreach. It wasn’t what he learned in rabbinical seminary.

“We learned at the conference that you can’t expect people to just write that check to the federation, especially not my generation,” the 29-year-old rabbi says. “We talked about how to engage Jews in Judaism, not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, but Judaism.”

This is the second year Beth David has done Passover in the Aisles. By 3 p.m. on Sunday, after three hours in the store, there are just nine cards filled out at the Los Altos Albertsons, an hour south of San Francisco. But the volunteers have talked to dozens of shoppers.

One young woman who filled out a card was Galit Azulay, newly arrived from Israel with her husband, who is studying for his doctorate in the area.

“We’re here to buy food for the seder,” she says, adding that the couple aren’t affiliated and don’t plan to be.

She didn’t pick up any of the information, but entered the raffle for a seder plate.

Carol Greenberg also stopped by the table. A member of a local Reform congregation, she congratulated the Beth David volunteers on their outreach efforts. “I’m so excited to see you here,” she exclaims. Greenberg picked up a copy of their recipe book.

“I find that congregations’ recipes are much better than books,” she says. She also took one of the children’s haggadahs, which she plans to give to her newborn niece. “It’ll be a nice gift from her aunt, her first haggadah.”

Store manager Aide Garcia says she couldn’t be happier to host the event. “It increases our business a lot,” she confides. “It’s a way to promote our kosher food.”

The JCC in Columbus, Ohio did its first Passover outreach in a Wild Oats supermarket in 2003. They chose a new neighborhood in the northwest part of the city, an area where young, professional Jews have been moving, to improve their chances of reaching the unaffiliated.

“In the core community, we have an affiliation rate of 90 percent, versus 20 percent in the northwest, where most of the growth is happening,” says Lindsay Folkerth, outreach director for the JCC’s J-Link project. J-Link is a community outreach program created two years ago by the local federation following a demographic study of the Columbus Jewish community by JOI.

Seattle Rabbi Dov Gartenberg says his congregants “thought it was a little strange” when he set up a Passover outreach table in a local supermarket more than 10 years ago. That was before he heard about the JOI program.

He now runs food booths at a Whole Foods store before Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and has teamed up with a popular local chef to offer tastes of Jewish holiday foods. This month they’re offering a different charoset each week, along with recipes.

Gartenberg uses the tastings as a teaching opportunity. “As they taste, I say, this is what this food symbolizes, and it becomes a basis for conversation.”

 

PASSOVER FOOD: Treats to Leaven Desire for Dessert


Passover desserts are a challenge to the cook because so many ingredients are forbidden, among them flour, grain, cornstarch, baking powder or baking soda. So we substitute matzah meal, potato starch and versatile fresh egg whites to bake all of those traditional favorites — and lots of new ones, too.

The good news is that it is not difficult — all of these carefully tested delicacies are fairly simple to prepare and will be a welcome addition to your seder dinner, as well as for family meals during Passover.

For all the chocolate lovers, the food processor Cocoa-Pecan Cookies will become a favorite. Just prepare the dough and have the children or grandchildren help by dropping them by the spoonful onto the baking sheets. The batter can be kept in the refrigerator and a fresh batch of cookies can be baked each day.

Something new for the holiday, use the charoset ingredients to make a Passover Fruit Cake filled with nuts and dried fruit that offers a tasty and a crunchy treat. It is similar to the Italian delicacy known as Panforte that originated in Sienna. The mixture is tossed together in a large bowl, spooned into parchment-lined baking pans, and baked for an hour and a half. The good news is that these loaves will easily keep for the eight days of the holiday.

During Passover last year we were invited to the home of Alice and Nahum Lainer, who love to entertain. Alice served a delicious Apricot Torte, and I persuaded her to share her recipe for this wonderful pastry. Because some Jewish households do not use matzah meal or cake meal, the combination of egg whites, apricot puree, spices and a topping of apricot jam make an ideal dessert. It is the perfect after-dinner pastry to serve your guests, accompanied by a glass of sweet wine or hot tea.

For another sweet treat, pass a plate of Rocky Road Clusters, everyone’s favorite. They are made with only three ingredients, chocolate, marshmallows and pecans. Simply melt the chocolate, add marshmallows and nuts, and fill small paper cups with the mixture. This is another great project to do with the children.

Bring a platter of the Cocoa Pecan Cookies or Rocky Road Clusters as an edible gift to share with friends and family at the Passover seder meal.

Alice’s Apricot Torte

1 1/2 cups blanched whole almonds, plus 1/4 cup sliced for garnish
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine for pan (one-quarter)
1 cup sugar, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups diced dried apricots
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
8 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup apricot jam
Passover powdered sugar (recipe follows, optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Place whole nuts in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and sliced nuts in a single layer on another baking sheet. Toast nuts until golden and aromatic, five to eight minutes. Shake the pans halfway through toasting to make sure nuts brown evenly. Set aside to cool.

Brush a 10-inch spring form pan with melted butter or margarine, sprinkle with sugar and tap out excess. Set aside.

Place 1/4 cup sugar, whole almonds and apricots in the bowl of a food processor; process until finely chopped, one to two minutes. Add lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and pulse to blend. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites with salt and lemon juice until frothy. Slowly add 1/4 cup sugar, and continue whisking until peaks are stiff but not dry. Fold beaten whites into egg yolks. Add apricot and almond mixture, and fold in until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. If necessary, cover torte lightly with foil to avoid burning. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the torte, and release from pan. Allow to cool completely on wire rack.

Place apricot jam in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and strain. Brush onto cooked torte. Sprinkle with sliced almonds and powdered sugar.

Makes one 10-inch torte.

Passover Powdered Sugar

1 tablespoon Passover potato starch
1 cup sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, combine potato starch and sugar. Process until very powdery and resembles powdered sugar, about two minutes. Let sugar settle for about one minute before removing processor cover.

Makes about 1 cup.

Passover Fruit Cake

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine
2 cups pitted dates, thinly sliced
2 cups dried apricots, quartered
1 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 cups toasted whole almonds
1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts pieces
3/4 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate, optional
3/4 cup matzah cake meal
1 tablespoon potato starch
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or orange juice

Heat the oven to 300 F. Brush one (5-by-9 inch) loaf pan or two (3-by-7 inch) loaf pans with melted unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine and line with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the dates, apricots, raisins, almonds, walnuts and chocolate, if using. Combine the matzah cake meal, potato starch and sugar and mix well. Add to fruit mixture and mix evenly. Beat eggs and vanilla to blend. Using a rubber spatula or hands, stir into fruit mixture until well blended. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and spread evenly, press into corners of pan.

Bake until golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan. Peel off paper and let cool on rack.

Wrap in plastic wrap and foil. Chill at least one day or up to two months. To serve, place cake on a wooden board, and using a sharp knife, cut in thin slices.

Cocoa-Pecan Cookies

1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 cup matzah cake meal
1/4 cup potato starch
5 large egg whites
1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped semisweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine pecans, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, cocoa powder, matzah cake meal and potato starch in a food processor and pulse on and off until nuts are finely grated. Add 1/2 cup of egg whites and pulse to blend.

Transfer batter to a large bowl and stir in the nuts and chocolate. In a separate bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the remaining egg whites until soft peaks form, add the remaining sugar and beat until a stiff meringue forms. Using a rubber spatula, mix half of the meringue into the pecan/chocolate mixture and then fold in the remaining meringue.

Drop batter by well-rounded teaspoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, leaving 1 inch between cookies.

Bake for eight minutes. Cookies should be dull, but very soft. If not dull, bake for one more minute. Transfer parchment to a rack to cool, before removing.

Makes about two- or three-dozen cookies.

Rocky Road Clusters

1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1 cup miniature marshmallows or large marshmallows cut in quarters
1/2 pound semisweet chocolate, melted

Place small paper candy cups on top of a large tray and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss pecans and marshmallows together. Add melted chocolate and mix well. Spoon chocolate mixture into the candy cups and refrigerate for several hours until firm. Store in refrigerator.

Makes about 24.

 

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

Still Strong in Westchester


In a strong statement that the Jewish presence in Westchester has not disappeared, families of B’nai Tikvah’s nursery school took to the streets in December for the annual Westchester Holiday Parade. Wearing homemade dreidel and menorah headbands, 30 children marched for one mile along Manchester Boulevard handing out chocolate Chanukah gelt and plastic dreidels.

In September, B’nai Tikvah sold the Westchester building it had occupied since 1959 and moved services to Temple Beth Torah in Mar Vista and to a Westchester church, while keeping the nursery and religious schools in Westchester on Sepulveda Eastway.

The expanding airport and white flight had reduced the once thriving synagogue to a skeletal congregation.

At the parade, Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen joined the kids and parents behind a banner, followed by an SUV with a rooftop speaker playing Chanukah music by Doda Mollie Wine, song leader at the nursery school.

For more information, call (310) 649-4051 or visit www.bnaitikvahcongregation.org.

Back to the Beach

College students are invited to a four-day celebration of the strange mix of irreverence and Jewish pride that have combined to create Jewlicious @ The Beach 2, or JTB2, this President’s Day Weekend in Long Beach.

“Other student leadership conferences organize a parade of politicians, funders and scholars to impress participants,” says Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of Beach Hillel and conference coordinator. “But JTB2 welcomes the involvement of grassroots, down-to-earth people who are as passionate about being Jewish as they are about their creativity.”

JTB2 has on its roster artists, writers and performers who will explore fashion, henna tattooing, print and online journalism, improv, activism, wine-making, bronze-casting, podcasting, Indie music, spoken-word, unorganized religion and blogging.

The event is sponsored by Beach Hillel –which serves campuses in Long Beach and Orange County — along with the blog site Jewlicious and SoCal Jewish Student Services. Jewlicious @ The Beach 2 hopes to attract more than double the hundred students who attended the first conference last year.

Jewlicious @ The Beach takes place Feb. 17-20 at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach. Registration before Feb. 3 is $36, including kosher meals and on-site accommodations (bring a sleeping bag). Register at www.JTB2.com, e-mail jewlicious@beachhillel.com or call (866) 539-5474.

Scholar Search

The Milken Family Foundation is looking for graduating high school seniors whose academic performance, community service and triumphs over financial and other obstacles mark their potential to make a difference in the world.

Students will be selected to become Milken Scholars, which entitles them to financial assistance, access to career-related counseling, assistance with internships and opportunities for volunteerism. A scholarship fund also allows recipients to pursue wide-ranging academic and career interests.

All nominations must be made by college advisers in Los Angeles County by Jan. 20.

For specific qualifications and more information, visit www.mff.org/scholars.

Mini Peace Conference

Through art projects, conversation and food, Muslim and Jewish students got to know each other at a daylong program at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School in November.

The sixth-grade class at Temple Israel hosted fourth- and fifth-graders from the New Horizon Islamic center, after sixth-grade teacher Orley Denman at Temple Israel initiated a connection between the two schools. As the children interacted in the library, they discovered who plays basketball, who loves math and who has pets. They exchanged greeting cards and projects they had made in preparation for the meeting.

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, asked the group which countries their families came from. The answers included Turkey, Afghanistan, Israel, India and South America.

Reflecting afterward, the Temple Israel sixth graders said that, above all, they “had fun.” They also were impressed by how much the New Horizon students enjoyed prayer and derived discipline from it. They no longer doubted that the “Muslim kids” were “just like them.”

Musical Pajama Party

Stephen Michael Schwartz of the award-winning children’s recording group, Parachute Express, will appear in concert on Saturday, Jan. 14, for his ninth annual “Musical Pajama Party” to benefit Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, where Schwartz and his family are active members.

Children are invited to come dressed in their pajamas to enjoy Schwartz perform favorites including the theme song from “Jay Jay the Jet Plane.”

The Musical Pajama Party is Sunday, Jan. 14, at Temple Beth Hillel, 12326 Riverside Drive, Valley Village. 5:15 p.m. (pizza), 6 p.m. (concert). $10 (in advance); $12 (at the door). For information, contact Wendei Spale at (818) 769-4844.

Groups Host Shoah Seminar

Educators are invited to attend a four-session seminar on “The Relevance of Teaching the Holocaust in the 21st Century,” presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance and the Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance. The seminar will introduce Echoes and Reflections, a curriculum that integrates eyewitness testimony collected by the Shoah Foundation.

“Teaching the Holocaust” seminar takes place at ADL headquarters, 10495 Santa Monica Blvd. on Thursdays in February, 4:30-8:30 p.m., with an optional fifth session March 2. To R.S.V.P. or for information, call (310) 446-8000 or visit www.adl.org.

 

Holiday Celebration of Arts and Eats


The year-to-year tradition of celebrating Chanukah doesn’t change at our home. It always includes lighting candles, playing dreidel, eating latkes and having the children open gifts. But, the highlight of Chanukah for me is having all of our family together at the same time. It is one of the few holidays when our children and grandchildren arrive from everywhere, so we can celebrate and spend time with each other.

But, for the past 15 years, the festivities have included our special friends, artist Peter Shire and his wife, Donna. It all began when we invited Peter to visit the Skirball Museum, which was then located on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, next to USC. We toured the collection of Judaica in the basement of the museum, and when Peter saw the menorahs, he was intrigued by their design and how the artists had adapted the local culture and architecture into their creations.

Several days later we called Peter and asked if he would be interested in a commission to create a chanukiah for our family, and he was delighted with the idea. He combined contemporary shapes, cactus, the local mountains, and included many colorful symbols that depicted a Southern California theme.

Peter’s chanukiah has a permanent place in our art collection, and is similar to the one that he later created for the Israel Museum and the Skirball. He recently designed several more, some contemporary, with simple architecture elements, others made in the shape of birds or plants.

During the holiday, Peter always lights the candles on his California-inspired Chanukiah at our home. After they are lit, it is time to eat the first batch of crisp and hot latkes, which have been fried in olive oil to commemorate the story of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. I still remember the family Chanukah celebrations from when I was young, consisting of our extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. This was a special time when everyone eagerly awaited the latkes, and later all commented on who had eaten the most.

Of course, while the latkes are served, the children are looking over the wrapped Chanukah gifts, eager to open them, but they have to wait until after dinner when we return to the living room.

The Chanukah meal this year begins with a salad composed of chopped chicken livers, placed on a bed of baby greens and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The main course, ground chicken loaf, everyone’s favorite comfort food, is baked in a tomato-wine sauce and served with homemade cooked apple slices.

For dessert we have a cookie exchange and ask everyone to bring his or her favorite ones to go with the Chocolate Sorbet that I have made. This supersmooth sorbet, made without milk, cream, or eggs, tastes as rich and creamy as ice cream, and I think the addition of Concord grape wine really enhances the sorbet’s intense chocolate flavor. At the end of the evening there are always bags of cookies for the children to take home as a Chanukah treat.

Award-Winning Perfect Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times. “The best we’ve ever eaten,” said their test kitchen and food editors.

4 baking potatoes, peeled

1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

4 extra-large eggs

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Pinch of baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda and salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, three to five minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about two minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes 12 latkes/four servings.

Chocolate Sorbet (nondairy)

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1 cup Concord grape Wine

Combine the cocoa and sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. Add 4 cups of water, a little at a time, in a thin stream, mixing with a wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to a boil and boil for five to 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the melted chocolate and port. Bring to a boil and simmer for about four minutes, or until thick, stirring constantly. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and place in a larger bowl filled with ice and cold water. Mix until cool. Remove bowl from ice. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the sorbet to a covered container and freeze for at least one hour for flavors to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in the refrigerator and beat until smooth and creamy before serving.

Makes about two quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

 

What to Ask a Jew


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

Dear Non-Jewish Friend:

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

Then there are most Jews.

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

It is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That ought to juice things up.

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

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

Ask them if High Holiday services inspired them.

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

Ask them, then, why they go.

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

Ask them how they would improve it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind, skip that question.

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

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

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

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

 

Shticking It to the Classics


My 5-year-old thinks “My Yiddishe Mama,” the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn’t come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called “Meshugeneh Mambo.”

This is not your grandmother’s Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, “Meshugeneh Mambo” carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.

Yiddishe Cup’s album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising “No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo.”

The group’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” throws in homage to James Bond’s “Goldfinger” and the theme song to “The Patty Duke Show.” Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of “Star Trek,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Outer Limits” scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.

Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics “tell a story that is visual and makes you think,” said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. “Using the word ‘shmuck’ doesn’t make it Jewish.”

Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.

One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include “Life Goes On” and “The X-Files,” has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release “A Kosher Christmas,” a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It’s a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations — think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies — as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as “the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.”)

In “Such a Loyal Son Am I,” a take-off on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. “Greensleeves” is re-imagined as “Greenstein,” an ode to the singer’s childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.

And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in “Harvey Weisenberg” (to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”): “[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin’….

Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. “Goys and Dolls,” released in 2002, uses the original melodies of “Guys and Dolls” to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while “Say Oy Vey” re-imagines “Cabaret” as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.

Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, “Almost on Broadway,” transforms “Maria” from “West Side Story” to “Tekia”: “Tekia! I’ve just heard the sound called Tekia!”

Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children’s music to parody. The group’s nine other parody CD’s display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes “49 Days to Count the Omer,” while in another, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin morphs into “Learning to Do the Hora.” And you’ve got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into “Rabbi Akiva”: “Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said.”

While they’re amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he’ll be easy to pick out. He’ll be the one singing “Goys Rule the World.”

 

Cantor Carries on Tennis Tradition


Steven Walfish’s life is ruled by the three Ts: tallit, tefillin and tennis.To illustrate this point, when his son Sam was in first grade, he asked his dad to drop by the school and join other fathers in talking about their professions.

So the elder Walfish appeared in full regalia and talked about what it means to be a cantor in a synagogue.

Then he stripped off his robe, displaying the tennis shorts and shirt underneath, and discussed the job of managing three municipal tennis centers.

Walfish credits one of his professions to his father, the other to his mother.

His Polish-born father and Holocaust survivor, Heshel Walfish, has been the legendary cantor at Beth Israel for 50 years, and at 85 he shows no sign of slowing down.

Located at Beverly and Crescent Heights boulevards, Beth Israel was founded in 1899 as the first Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and was also known as the Olive Street Shul.

When Steven was 5 years old, Cantor Walfish put his son next to him on the bimah on Shabbat, and the boy starting belting out prayers at the Orthodox service.

By the time of his bar mitzvah, Steven had learned his dad’s craft and would pinchhit for him when he was out of town.

At the same time, the boy’s American-born mother, Betty, took over the physical education of the only male heir among her four children.

She took Steven bowling, fishing, and, most importantly, instilled in him a lifelong love of tennis.

Now, at 74, Betty Walfish still plays against her 48-year old son, who describes her as “a really sharp player.”

By stages, Steven Walfish became a full-service cantor the old-fashioned way, by learning from his father rather than through ordination.

For the past nine years, he has conducted one of the High Holiday services at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform congregation, and tutors bar and bat mitzvah students.

(Full disclosure: Walfish tutored and officiated recently at one of my granddaughters’ bat mitzvah, so this report may be biased.)

When The Journal interviewed Walfish last week outside Starbucks on Beverly Glen Circle, a parade of trim-looking women stopped by for cheery hellos.

“All mothers of my b’nai mitzvah kids,” he explained.

On a parallel track, Walfish’s tennis fervor kept growing. “I am an ardent fan,” he said. “If Tom Cruise came by now and sat down at our table, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me. But if it was Pete Sampras or John McEnroe, I’d die.”

In 1994, Walfish got a chance to combine pleasure and business. With partner Lee Ziff, he formed the Beverly Hills Tennis management company, and soon entered into a contract with the City of Beverly Hills to manage its 26 courts at Roxbury Park, La Cienega Park and Beverly Hills High School.

“We supervise all the lessons, leagues, competitions, facilities and special events,” he said. “We have 30 pros, so I can always find somebody to play with.”

Recently, Walfish had the opportunity to fuse his two favorite occupations by conducting a bar mitzvah on a private Beverly Hills tennis court.

In preparing Jewish youngsters for the rite of passage, Walfish takes a special interest in the sons and daughters of Russian immigrants and in children with learning disabilities.

“The Russian kids have practically no Jewish background but they have an intense thirst for Jewish identity,” he said.

Walfish, a divorced father of a girl and two boys, has developed a personal understanding for children with special needs through his 14-year old daughter Emily.

Emily was born with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that prevents her from walking or communicating in any way.

“She is a beautiful girl, she laughs and cries, and living with her — we would never put her in an institution — has made her two younger brothers much more sensitive and empathetic boys,” Walfish said.

A big man, who erupts frequently into hearty laughter, Walfish puts in pretty long days as cantor, manager of tennis facilities, and “full-time dad.” In addition, he “dabbles” in real estate, and hopes to rejuvenate his father’s Beth Israel congregation, which now consists largely of Holocaust survivors.

As a religious person, Walfish says he is somewhat conflicted. “My father is from a Chasidic background and I was educated in Orthodox schools, but I have worked mainly at Conservative and Reform synagogues,” he mused. “I guess theologically I look at life from a Reform perspective, but my heart and soul are still Orthodox.”

 

Give Some Honey to Apples of Your Eye


The High Holiday Hustle. We know the steps well. It starts with a tireless trek to the mall in search of that stylish synagogue suit. Next comes the culinary juggling act, simultaneously preparing Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, Bubbe’s killer kugel and a 22-pound turkey, dressed and trimmed. The last step is grooming an entire family and shuffling the whole gang out the door and into the synagogue in under an hour.

The entire dance sequence — minus the shopping — is generally repeated the following day. Scrambling through the better part of October, it’s easy to forget that the true meaning of the High Holiday season can’t be found in Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s or Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, but in appreciating and giving thanks for life’s sweetest blessings. So steal a few moments from the holiday hoopla to remind the true apples of your eye just how delicious they are. Even the simplest acts can send children a message, as loud and clear as the shofar, that they’re loved and cherished. The following sweet suggestions will help you show your children the honey this Rosh Hashanah and every other day of the brand new year.

Rosh Hashanah Honey for Kids

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• Take them to a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.

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• Leave Hershey’s Kisses on their pillows on erev Rosh Hashanah, along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

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• Celebrate the birthday of the world with a family nature hike.

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• Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree together.

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• Have a honey cake baking party.

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• Let them design the Rosh Hashanah tablecloth and challah cover using fabric crayons or markers.

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• Make a Rosh Hashanah hunt by giving children clues that lead them to different places in your home — i.e., go to the place where you rest your rosh (head) every night. Have a new clue waiting at each stop and a bag of holiday treats at the final destination.

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• Take a family excursion to an orchard for apple picking.

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• Bake a round challah together.

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• Visit ” target=”_blank”>www.babaganewz.com, where little techies can find Rosh Hashanah games and activities.

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• Have a Tashlich ceremony by a lake or river, so children can cast their sins away and start out the year with a fresh, clean slate.

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• Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half to reveal a star in the middle. Dip the fruit in washable paint, and let your little stars stamp away.

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• Steal some time to read a High Holiday picture book together — even if they say that they’re too old to listen to a story. Some noteworthy choices are “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year” by Eric Kimmel (Scholastic, 2000), “The World’s Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Harcourt, 1990), “Sophie and the Shofar” by Fran Manushkin (Urj, 2001) and “How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round” by Sylvia Epstein (Gefen,1999).

Year-Round Sweet Stuff for Kids

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• Flip through photo albums and baby books, and tell them stories about when they were little.

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• Have lunch with them at school (note: disregard in case of preadolescence).

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• Have a campout in the living room. Roast marshmallows over candles and tell ghost stories by flashlight.

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• Give them a coupon that they can redeem for something priceless, like going to a movie with mom or a ballgame with dad.

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• Plan a family game night once a week. TVs, cellphones and computers not invited.

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• Have an unbirthday party — complete with a cake — for everyone in the family who does not have a birthday that day.

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• Take them on a “mystery trip” to a place you rarely go, like an amusement park, sporting event or children’s museum.

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• Proudly display their finest schoolwork.

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• Transform your family room into a movie theater, complete with tickets and popcorn.

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• Send them comic books, baseball cards or other goodies in the mail.

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• Create a new family tradition like a weekly pizza-making night.

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• Do something completely out of character, like starting a pillow fight.

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• Pack dinner up in a picnic basket and eat at the park.

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• Watch cartoons with them.

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• Make up a secret signal together for saying “I love you.” (Little ones will love being sneaky; older children will be thankful to save face in public.)

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• Arrange with the teacher to read a book to their class.

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• Host special dinners to celebrate their every day accomplishments, like losing a tooth, scoring a soccer goal or getting an “A” on a science test.

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• Slip a joke into their backpacks.

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• Ask them for advice about something they know well.

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• Tell them you love them — even if they roll their eyes when they hear it — every morning and every night.

L’Shanah Tovah to you and your honeys.

Sharon Estroff is a syndicated Jewish parenting columnist with graduate degrees in education and child psychology.

525,600 Minutes


I was sitting in the AMC theater in Woodland Hills, a captive of a dull series of pre-movie advertisements, when I started to think about my next column. I considered writing about fasting (argue that a tall Starbucks latte might be an acceptable fasting exception, compared to a venti latte which is clearly a fasting faux pas); sitting with your kids in the adult service (discuss pros and cons of having children with shpilkes join you in the main sanctuary); and High Holiday attire (assert that Macy’s should have a High Holiday clothing department comprised of conservative yet fashionable clothes that come in textures appropriate for 100 F temperatures, but in fabrics that say “fall”).

These thoughts were interrupted by a preview for the movie version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Rent.” A bunch of hip, actors and actresses with soaring voices and dazzling smiles appeared on the screen singing the opening lines to “Seasons of Love”: “525,600 minutes; 525,000 moments so dear; 525,600 minutes; how do you measure, measure a year?”

I mentally deleted my other potential topics and began thinking how as Americans and Jews we take stock of those 525,600 minutes in two very different ways. As Americans, we anticipate the upcoming 525,600 minutes with unbridled optimism, making big, bold resolutions. As Jews, we examine the year that has just passed, searching those 525,600 minutes for wrongs that we may have caused, or mistakes that could have been avoided.

But the differences in the Jewish approach and the secular approach to marking a new year aren’t just philosophical.

On New Year’s Eve 2005, we will make a slew of resolutions that will be kept for a week or two, dress in party clothes that rarely see the light of day, drink like Prohibition might make a comeback and eat like the calories are on hiatus. The most that many of us will contemplate on New Year’s Day, the first day of 2006, are the instructions on the child-proof cap guarding the Tylenol.

For Rosh Hashanah, we will dress conservatively, visit our synagogues in huge numbers, and eat our meals at home. It is a time for introspection, not partying.

What is the best way to move toward a new year? The Jewish method that calls for an intense review of the past year, or the American approach of entering each new year with a sort of reckless optimism oblivious to what has come before? It seems that the answer depends on whether or not one is a parent.

If you have children, you need to approach each and every new year with one eye on the past and the other eye on the future. To look only backward ignores the reality that our children are constantly changing: the baby that was just on our lap is now a toddler painting pictures; the kindergartener who raided our lipstick to play dress up is now a middle-school kid asking for makeup of her own. The child who screamed at us to stay when we dropped them off at preschool now screams at us to leave them alone when their friends are around.

But even though our children are constantly moving forward toward adulthood and a life of their own, we still must look back and consider our past parenting errors, and figure out how to fix them. The punishment for failing to look at our past parenting mistakes is to make them again; the punishment for failing to make plans for our parenting future is to parent a child that no longer exists. We must face each year with the optimism of New Year’s Eve, and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah.

During the Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, I will consider how I spent last year’s 525,600 parenting minutes. Was I too lenient, or too strict? Did I try to shape my child into my image, or was I respectful of my child’s attempts, however shaky, to design her own identity? Did my child spend more time with me, or with his GameBoy? Did I cheer as loud when he did a random act of kindness as when he scored the game-winning point in basketball?

But I will also consider the gift of a new 525,600 minutes, minutes that are fresh and untouched. How will I respond when my daughter begs for a cellphone, asks for a razor to shave her legs or is dumped by a friend? How many minutes a day should she be allowed to IM? What will I do when she finally talks back? How will I make time every day to actively listen to my son and daughter when so many other things seem to get in the way?

The song from “Rent” continues with this verse: “525,600 minutes; 525,600 journeys to plan.”

This year, lets plan our parenting journeys with the exuberance and optimism with which we approach the American New Year, but with the thoughtfulness with which we approach the Jewish New Year. Let’s keep one eye on our parenting past, and the other eye focused on our parenting future so that we may experience 525,600 minutes of Awe.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Wendy Jaffe can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

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