Confessing our sins


Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

In Burmese Chanukah celebration, signs of Myanmar’s openness to the West


In almost any other community from Moscow to Washington, it would have been just another public Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony providing an opportunity for the local government and Jewish community to showcase their strong ties.

But in Myanmar, where the government has been run by a military junta and the Jewish community numbers just a handful of families, the occasion last week of a public Chanukah lighting ceremony involving government officials was remarkable.

On Dec. 27, the last night of Chanukah, Myanmar’s eight Jewish families were joined by government officials, diplomats and former ambassadors at a Chanukah celebration in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. In all, about 100 people were on hand for the party at the Park Royal Hotel.

Earlier, Jewish community leader Moses Samuels visited the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate who until a year ago had been under house arrest for most of the last two decades. At the meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly said that she once had visited the country’s century-old synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua (Hebrew for Instills Hope), which is still open.

Suu Kyi had been invited to the Chanukah event but said she could not attend because it conflicted with a prayer ceremony she was holding at her home for her late mother.

The visits to Suu Kyi and the Yangon Chanukah party were signs of the changes taking place in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the last year has seen significant economic and political reforms and new openness to the West. Last month, in an affirmation of those changes, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country, the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century.

“The United States is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you keep moving in the right direction,” Clinton told Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, during her visit.

Samuels, whose Burmese name is Than Lwin, has been instrumental in keeping alive the Jewish presence in Yangon.  Every morning he opens the well-kept blue-and-white synagogue, even though most of the time there is no official prayer service—unless there is a yahrzeit anniversary for the deceased or a visiting Jewish tourist group. Samuels and his son Sammy, who lives in New York, run a tour company in the country called Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours.

Until this year the community’s Chanukah ceremonies were quiet affairs in the synagogue, according to Samuels. But with Myanmar opening up to the West, the community decided to make the event bigger this year, holding the rite at a hotel and including a photo exhibit of Israel-Burmese relations.

Among the Burmese officials present were Daw Yin Yin Myint, the director general of the Foreign Ministry; U Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of the armed forces who is the vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy party; Maung Maung Swe, chair of the Myanmar Travel Association; and U Hein Latt, vice chairman of the newspaper Popular Journal.

Diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, India, Singapore, Britain, Italy and Israel came, and the celebration involved not just Jews but also Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’i.

Several thousand Jews once lived in Burma. The first known Jew to live in the country was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya, who ruled from 1752 to 1760.

Growing numbers of Jewish merchants came to Burma over the years, and in the mid-19th century a group of Baghdadi Jews led by David Sassoon settled in Burma, India and other lands in the Far East. Burma’s synagogue was built in 1854 and rebuilt in 1896. The community supports a cemetery; its oldest grave is dated 1876.

After the Japanese invasion in 1941, many Burmese Jews fled to India.

Both Burma and Israel achieved independence in 1948, and the two countries enjoyed cordial relations for the first two decades of their existence. That included a warm friendship between prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and U Nu, who was the first head of state to visit Israel. A daughter of U Nu, Than Than Nu, attended last week’s Chanukah party.

When a military junta took over Burma in 1962, installing a repressive regime and nationalizing businesses, most Jews left.

In a recent interview, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yaron Mayer, told JTA that relations between the two countries had “remained good over the years.” He noted that in 2011 a Myanmar delegation attended an energy conference in Israel.

Some of the few Jews left in Myanmar said they hope that with time and a continual opening of Myanmar’s political system, the Jewish community here will grow.

“No matter what religion we practice or what beliefs we value,” Sammy Samuels said at the Chanukah party, “when we light the candles tonight it reminds all of us to rededicate ourselves to improving the lives of those around us, to spread the light of freedom and to believe that miracles are possible even in times of darkness.”

Ben G. Frank is the author of the newly published “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” from Globe Pequot Press.

What young Jews do on Christmas Eve


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Launched with limited marketing, Matzo Ball picked up steam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jews, Christmas and Chinese food


I got a cute e-mail the other day, with a photo of a hand-lettered sign: “The Chinese Rest. Assoc. of the United States would like to extend our thanks to The Jewish People/ we do not completely understand your dietary customs . . ./ But we are proud and grateful that your GOD insist you eat our food on Christmas.”  Followed on the bottom, left to right, by a yin/yang symbol, the words Happy Holidays!, and a Star of David.

Have you seen this one too, by any chance?  It turns out to be a made-up cartoon by the writer David Mamet.  One gets so many Jewishly relevant e-mails these days – appeals for money, dire warnings, soothing sermons, angry agendas, evidence of amazing miracles, denunciations of enemies real and imagined, sage analysis, disingenuous disinformation, newsletters, blogs, and jokes, tasteful and otherwise.  Many, perhaps most, inspire prompt deletion, but this one touches the soul, pierces to the heart of the matter, and also tickles the taste buds, at a critical moment in Jewish history.

I know, of course, that in theory We Are One.  The idea of Jewish peoplehood has been my guiding principle since I was taught as a child that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality.  And yet, there’s nothing quite like Christmas to highlight the profound differences between the Jewish People purportedly thanked by the “Chinese Rest. Assoc.” – to wit, those Jews who dwell in what I have referred to, since I made aliyah, as the “Old Country” – and the Jewish people who dwell in Zion, the sovereign State of Israel.

When I was a young journalist in Manhattan, I would attend Christmas parties and feel like a stranger.  ‘Twas the season to be jolly, but I felt blue.  Christmas was America’s holiday, but not mine.  Thanksgiving was nice, and non-sectarian, but Christmas was the real deal, and I didn’t have a seat at the table.

It was not till I moved to the West Coast – where for a decade I worked in the Hollywood dream factory, before relocating to the other Jewish dream factory on the western edge of Asia – that I discovered the antidote to the Christmas doldrums.  In L.A., I would spend Christmas going to movies (sometimes two or three) with other Jews, followed by Chinese food.  Maybe you, dear reader, do the same, joyously partaking of the fare of Asian folks who, like you, are somehow not quite as all-American as, say, the governor of Texas. 

As the “Rest. Assoc.” observed, our culinary customs as a People are diverse and sometimes bewildering.  Some Jews will eat only in strictly kosher or vegetarian Chinese restaurants.  Some Jews keep kosher only at home and not “out”, other Jews believe that anything is kosher if you put soy sauce on it, and many Jews will eat anything, anytime, anywhere.  That’s pluralism for you.

Israel is different.  Chinese food is less plentiful (and not as good), not least because we don’t have many Chinese people in Israel.  We don’t have Christmas here either, not as a nationwide holiday, because Israel is a Jewish country, in even more ways than America is a Christian country – which it undeniably is, certainly on a cultural level.  There is no Church of America akin to the Church of England, whereas Israel has a Chief Rabbinate, and, in effect, a state religion, namely Orthodox Judaism – even though most of its Jews aren’t Orthodox, and more than 20% of its citizens aren’t Jewish. 

In the Old Country, if a Jewish person is intermarried, the so-called “December dilemma” is whether to have a tree or a menorah in one’s home, or both.  Here in Israel, you don’t see Christmas trees (except in Nazareth, East Jerusalem, the YMCA and the occasional contrarian boutique in secular Tel Aviv), and hardly any intermarriage. One reason for this is that there’s no civil marriage in Israel, and legally binding weddings for Jews may only be performed by Orthodox rabbis.  However, tons of Christmas decorations are imported to Israel from China and are used, even by very Orthodox Jews who would never dream of eating Chinese food, to decorate sukkahs on Sukkot.  Go figure.

In the Old Country, for some Jews, another December dilemma is which Chinese restaurant to choose on Christmas Eve – Szechuan or Hunan?  Cantonese, or that new Mongolian fusion place?  In Israel, on the other hand, if you’re Jewish you may not even notice, on December 25, that it’s Christmas, or conceivably, in certain parochial enclaves, be aware that Christmas exists at all.  The State of Israel was created, among other reasons, so that Jews wouldn’t have to deal with Christmas or any of the other holidays that in Europe made them feel like outsiders, often unwanted ones.  In Israel, in the opinion of quite a few Jews – including too many legislators in the Knesset, in recent days in particular – the Jews as the majority population have the right to use the tools of democracy to make other people feel like outsiders. 

In Israel, the holiday marking the winter solstice is Hanukkah, not Christmas.  Here, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, not like the States, where it needs to be a counterweight to mighty, normative Christmas.  Israeli kids learn the ancient stories of military victory and the eight-day oil lamp miracle, but we don’t have the marketing blitz or gift-giving frenzy you have in the Old Country.  In Israel, the IDF fights hostile gentiles, or prepares to fight them, all year round, day and night; while the diplomatic corps fights Israel’s foes on the battlefield of propaganda.  As for miracles, we take them for granted, though many Israelis feel that we probably shouldn’t, especially when planning for war.

I moved to Israel twenty-three Decembers ago, and for me, the anniversary is an annual occasion to ponder the contrasts between my two homelands.  The biggest difference, even beyond Christmas, is that for an Israeli Jew, his or her Jewishness is a full-time, full-strength concern.  And this is also true for Israeli Jews who would make a point of eating shrimp not on Christmas but on Yom Kippur, with or without soy sauce.  In the State of Israel, everybody lives with the consequences of Jewish history, the ups and downs, the yin and yang – everybody, not just the Jews.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.

Pump up the volume: Music propels the way to a rededicated Jewish life


My 3-year-old son is obsessed with showing people his room, sidling sheepishly over to guests and asking, “Can I show you my room?”

My son reminds me how important our “place” is—“A Room of One’s Own,” in Virginia Wolff’s words. Our rooms make us feel secure and anchors us. (Just ask a teenager how important that is.) A room enables us to recharge before heading out into the world to do our work, and contains the objects, pictures and music that entertain us, occupy and preoccupy us, and evoke memories of another time.

I’ve been thinking about this room metaphor, especially as Chanukah nears. Chanukah means dedication. What we are celebrating is the courage of the Maccabees to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of our Jewish lives, after it was defiled by the Assyrian Greeks in 164 BCE. They re-established the room for the Jews to do their sacred work in the world.

What would it mean for us to dedicate a space and to make room for Judaism in our own lives? More specifically, what does our “Jewish room” (read: Jewish identity) look like? What are the objects and pictures in it? What is the ambiance of our Jewish room?

Is it a place that we feel like ourselves, or do we feel stiff and formal in it? Is our Jewish room more like a closet tucked away, a place that is in desperate need to be organized, the dust cleared away and precious gems of our past revived? Is it a place that we feel a tinge of guilt each time we pass because it has fallen into neglect?

Chanukah is an opportunity to do a little rededication of our Jewish rooms and Jewish lives. But what aspect of Jewish life do we want to rededicate?

Classic and contemporary Chanukah music can help answer the question. We all know how central music is to enlivening a room. (My 3-year-old loves to croon away to his favorite kiddie rock on his new CD while bouncing off his bed and clutching his little ukulele.)

One of my favorite Chanukah songs is “Al Hanisim,” literally “Of the Miracles.” Traditionally inserted into the standing silent prayer, or Amidah, the blessing after meals and sung throughout the holiday, it praises God for the “miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.” It clearly affirms God’s centrality to the story of Chanukah and for the miracle of oil that lasted eight days, and renders less central the military victory of the Maccabees.

Another classic, “Maoz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages,” written around the 13th century in Europe, is a brief recounting of Jewish history and also focuses on God’s centrality: “Rock of ages, let our song/ Praise Your saving power; / You, amid the raging foes, /Were our sheltering tower. /Furious they assailed us, /But Your arm availed us, /And Your word, /Broke their sword, /When our own strength failed us.”

In a world in which we think that our own power/strength and ambition is the cause of our success, how do we let the realm of the spiritual/God/ that which isn’t known/ is out of our control, into our lives when “our own strength fails us”?

A more contemporary Chanukah song, “Mi Y’malel,” or “Who can Retell?” has an opening line that goes, “Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel? … Yes in every generation a hero arises to save the people.” The Russian-born Zionist Menashe Ravina plays here on the words from Psalm 106:2, “Mi y’malel g’vurot Adonai …” (“Who can tell of the mighty acts of God?”). The song places human strength and know-how at center stage. It is not surprising that the Zionist take on the Chanukah story emphasizes human agency over heavenly intervention. After all, the Zionists created the “new Jew,” who left the beit midrash (house of study) to work the land.

This Chanukah, how will you rededicate yourself to understanding Israel and its story better?

Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1983 folk song “Light One Candle” casts the particular story about the Maccabean struggle for religious freedom within a universal context, and links it to other movements of defiance and protest that bring about a more just society. With the closing stanza comes the charge to use the memory of the past as a clarion call to do justice. They sing, “What is the memory that’s valued so highly,/That we keep it alive in that flame?/ What’s the commitment to those who have died?/ We cry out “they’ve not died in vain”,/ We have come this far, always believing,/ That justice will somehow prevail;/ This is the burden and This is the promise,/ This is why we will not fail!”

This Chanukah, how does our particular centuries-old struggle against the Assyrian Greeks to win religious freedom help motivate us to help others with their struggles?

Of course, some contemporary fare is a bit more lighthearted. Debbie Friedman’s “Latke Song” doesn’t let us forget that our holiday celebration would be nothing without traditional foods with lyrics like “I am a latke, I’m a latke, and I am waiting for Chanukah to come!” The song reminds us how important traditional food can be to help us create rich associations (and full bellies) during the holiday.

What traditional recipes will you try this year? How might you spice up your repertoire with some contemporary cuisine – sweet potato and ginger latkes anyone?

Matisyahu takes a different tack. The hip-hopping Chasid’s Chanukah tune “Miracle on Ice” sets up the opposition between Chanukah and Christmas. It confronts us with the threat facing Judaism in a majority culture that seduces us to participate and our need to look heavenward for support. He tells us, “born to struggle and fall but my strength does comes not from man at all … eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right/ Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”

While it is easy to morph December into one big “holiday season” (who doesn’t like the egg nog latte at Starbucks?), what are the ways that you want to draw distinctions between your identity and practice and those of your Christian neighbors? How can you turn the discomfort of “difference” into a source of pride?

Yeshiva University’s a cappella group the Maccabeats with its 2010 YouTube sensation “Candelight” (a take-off of Taio Cruz’s No. 1 song “Dynamite”) and the Israeli group the Fountainheads from Ein Prat with “I Gotta Feelin’ Hanukkah” (a spoof on the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feelin’”) present us with a final challenge: How can we make traditions and stories that we tell from year to year fresh, dynamic and fun?

The Maccabeats in particular retell the story, singing “I’ll tell a tale/ Of Maccabees in Israel/ When the Greeks tried to assail/ But it was all to no avail/ The war went on and on and on/ Until the mighty Greeks were gone/ I flip my latkes in the air sometimes sayin ayy ohh spin the dreidel/ Just wanna celebrate for all eight nights singin ayy oh, light the candles.”

So this Chanukah season, crank up the volume in that Jewish room of yours. Play the music loud, even wake the neighbors and discover the power of rededication.

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year


Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

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.

Originality trumps repetition in the holiday songs battle


I will be frank. I’m tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over. So the best Chanukah present I’ve received this year is a pile of Chanukah-themed CDs with lots of new holiday songs, many of them quite good. Here’s what crossed my desk this December.

The Klezmatics: “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (JMG) and “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). I wasn’t that enthused by the “Matics” Guthrie Chanukah set when it was released last year, but I have to admit I was wrong.

This is a spirited, jaunty and frequently funny set that should be particularly appealing to children (and will give their parents a respite from “The Dreydl Song”). The set adds four instrumental tracks to last year’s release, allowing the band to stretch out and show their chops, but my favorite is a carry-over, “The Many and the Few,” a classic example of Guthrie’s skill at rendering narratives into song lyrics redolent of ballad classics.

“Wonder Wheel” continues the Klezmatics’ collaboration with the Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing indeed. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby “Headdy Down,” from a weirdly Asiatic/alternative-country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.” One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are. One expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.

The LeeVees: “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” (JDub/iTunes). When the LeeVees’ “Hanukkah Rocks” came out on JDub last year, I wrote, “Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own…. The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce (‘Tell your mom to fry, not bake’) and of not getting presents (well, there are ‘six-packs of new socks from each of our moms’).” Now, they have added an EP, mostly of playful acoustic versions of the previous Chanukah tunes and a punchy new tune “Jewish Stars,” downloadable from iTunes. Like the originals, these are amiable, bouncy and witty rockers. Thirteen minutes of pure pleasure.

The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble: “Chanukah Is Freylekh!” (self-distributed). This is a very jolly set of European-style performances — tsimbl and fiddle predominate, no brass — that often feels like a family gathering. And that’s appropriate, because the CD comes with dance directions for kids, as well as the usual translations, bios and such. It is a delightful recording, fueled by Cahan-Simon’s warm, friendly sound. Available from Hatikvah Music, (323) 655-7083 or hatikvahmusic.com.

Poppa’s Kitchen: “A Rockin’ Hanukkah” (self-distributed). A cheerful MOR-rock set of new Chanukah songs from Robert Romanus (who you may recall from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Scott Feldman. The EP (only 21 minutes) has one song for each night, a cheerful blend of California rock and holiday spirit, witty lyrics and some hook-filled tunes. Available from cdbaby.com.

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: “Fli, Mayn Fishlang! Fly, Fly My Kite!” (Yiddishland). It is devoutly to be hoped that casual listeners will not dismiss Schaechter-Gottesman as the “flavor of the month” because she has become so prominent of late; she has more than earned the attention, and I, for one, hope it continues for a long time. The quality of musicians she attracts is one mark of how good she is — this set includes contributions by Lorin Sklamberg, Binumen Schaechter, Matt Darriau and Ben Holmes. This CD features her Yiddish children’s songs, which have a charming wistfulness that reminds me more of a French chanson than anything else. There are also songs for several holidays (including a couple of Chanukah tunes) and, as usual from Schaechter-Gottesman, a lot of yearning lyrics about the changing of the seasons. Available from yiddishlandrecords.com.

Julie Silver: “It’s Chanukah Time” (HyLo). Of course, there is another way to pep up those tired traditional holiday songs — you can reinterpret them, change the lyrics around, make them contemporary. This is often a recipe for disaster, but Silver’s “The Dreidel Song” reworked as a frisky country rocker works wonderfully (almost hilariously) well, and sets a high standard for the rest of this set. A reggae “Al Hanisim” and a Latin-flavored “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” work almost as well. The only problem with this approach, even when it’s done right, is that the focus shifts from the message of the holiday to a guessing game: What’s next, a goth-metal “Mi Yimalel,” “Maoz Tzur” as a morning raga? Silver doesn’t do anything that absurd, so the set doesn’t spiral out of control, but there is an inevitable lingering doubt in the listener’s mind that some of the choices were motivated by the need for the unfamiliar rather than the musical possibilities. Still, it’s a nicely played and sung set. Available from hyloproductions.com and at Barnes & Noble.

In addition to these Chanukah-themed recordings, there are two big-ticket items to keep in mind when doing your year-end gift shopping. The ongoing partnership between Naxos Records and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has resulted in 50 CDs showcasing the remarkable range of Jewish American music; although they will continue to issue new recordings on a regular basis, they are celebrating this milestone by offering a set of those first sets. The deluxe box set of all 50 Milken Archive CDs will be available for $349, a savings of $100 if purchased individually. Available at milkenarchive.org.

If you are feeling less ambitious or less solvent, or if you know an aspiring Jewish musician, you should consider Yale Strom’s latest project, “The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook,” published by Transcontinental Music. This volume boasts more than 300 songs that Strom has collected in his travels through the Old Country, and comes with a CD that features his performances of 36 of them. At $49.95, it is a must for anyone interested in East European Jewish music. Availble wherever music books are sold.

George Robinson, film and music critic for Jewish Week, is the author of “Essential Torah” (Shocken Books, 2006).

Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667


I love Judaism. It’s got answers for everything. If something bothers me, I just ask a million questions; I dig a little and, voila, I’m enlightened.
 
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you’re not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It’s not quite Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
 
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You’ll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it’s the mother of all parties.
 
And please don’t think that I’m trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
 
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
 
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
 
So I decided to do some digging.
 
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
 
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
 
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God’s eternal gift. There’s no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
 
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we’ve liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations?How could we not get even a little rowdy?
 
It’s as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we’re so madly in love, it’s OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate … a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
 
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
 
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
 
On the big night, I’ll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B’nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I’ll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
 
Wherever we end up, though, I don’t think I’ll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Sukkot: the beauty of fragility


Nine years ago, my wife and I returned home from lunch in a friend’s sukkah on the first day of Sukkot. The phone was ringing as we walked in, and since we’d only
just arrived in Los Angeles we didn’t have an answering machine set up yet. Since we don’t use the phone on Shabbat or holidays, I did nothing as it rang four, five, six times.

I had gone to lie down for a nap when the phone started to ring again. Figuring it was a persistent telemarketer, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. The phone stopped again after another five or six rings. But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time I was worried.

I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was my sister, an internist in San Jose.

“Grandma is in the hospital; she is really sick. You should come,” she said.
Since my sister deals in matters of life and death, I knew it was serious.
I don’t travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so after I hung up the phone I walked a few short blocks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s home to discuss my options.

If I waited until the end of the first two days of the festival, and then Shabbat, which followed immediately thereafter, I would likely be too late. We decided that, although we observe the second day of Jewish festivals, since the second day of Sukkot has a different status according to Jewish law than the first day and Shabbat, when the first day of the festival ended that night I would take the last flight out of LAX.

When I arrived that night in San Jose, I went immediately to the hospital to visit my grandma Lillian (z”l), who was in a coma. I made arrangements to spend Shabbat in the hospital, in her room at her side, an intimacy that the stringencies of Jewish law gifted to me.

Friday night, I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat at her side and made Kiddush with her. The next morning I donned my tallit, prayed the morning prayers and studied the weekly portion to the rhythm of a ventilator and heart monitor.

That afternoon, after one of many visits to my grandma’s side, my mother, sister and I, along with other close relatives, walked away from her door toward the waiting room for a few minutes of relief. As we headed past the nurse’s station, a nurse called out, “She is fading — you should come quickly.”

We hustled back to the room. I knelt down, took out my siddur, and began to recite the Vidui — the Jewish deathbed confessional — and concluded with the Shema. Before I finished those words, she had died.

I am grateful for many things from that weekend. I am grateful for the guidance and compassion of a wise teacher and friend in Rabbi Dorff. I am grateful for the gift — as Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a teacher of mine, would describe it a few weeks later — of holding my grandmother’s hand as she slipped from this world into the next. And, as the years have gone by, I am even grateful that she died during this season, on the third day of Sukkot, for through her death she taught me the true essence of what it means to dwell in a sukkah.

Martha Nussbaum, author of a book titled, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” once wrote, “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.”

Part of what gives this world its beauty, its goodness, is its vulnerability. Beauty in this world cannot be made invulnerable. We cannot be invulnerable, even though we try. We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.

On Sukkot, the time tradition tells us is zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, we dwell in a fragile hut, open to the winds and rain and cold of the world, to remind ourselves that our joy is enriched, is deepened, when we glimpse, if only for a moment, how weak and fragile we are.

Rabbi Israel Mayer HaCohen asked why it is that we celebrate Sukkot in autumn. Leviticus 23:42-3 teaches: “You shall live in booths seven days, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”

If Sukkot commemorates what God did after the Exodus from Egypt, let us celebrate Sukkot in the spring. Alternatively, if Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory with which God sheltered us in the wilderness (as Rabbi Akiba argued in the Talmud), let us celebrate Sukkot in the summer when the clouds protected us most from the searing midday summer sun.

Why autumn?

The Chafetz Chaim answers that we were not commanded to make Sukkot during the spring or summer because that was when most people would make sukkot for shade.

Instead, we make them specifically when the rainy season begins and the weather grows colder during the fall to remind others and ourselves that what we are doing is a mitzvah, a commandment from God. This mitzvah asks us to see and feel the world in all our weakness and vulnerability. The sukkah invites us to make our home amid the elements, to experience the chill of autumn, to get damp and wet and cold. After that we can feel the true joy of having lived another year in God’s beautiful world.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.

For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.

Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.

A Tent on the Side of a Hill
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
Fays, Belgium
September 1944

“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”

Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.

But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.

He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.

Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”

Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.

“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.

He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.

Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.

But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.

“God bless that man,” he said.

Above the 38th Parallel, North KoreaAn All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
October 1951

Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.

But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.

“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.

The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.

“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”

After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.

Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.

“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.

Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.

Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.

“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.

A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.

The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.

Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.

Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.

“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”

Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.

“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.

Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.

There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.

Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.

“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.

Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.

Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”

Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.

Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning


Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is myjewishlearning.com, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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.

 

Court Nominee Alito Through Jewish Lens


The long paper trail of hard-hitting conservative opinions that Judge Samuel Alito has left in his wake is perfect fodder for the kind of left vs. right, black-and-white confirmation battle that this town relishes.

For Jewish groups, however, the clarity of Alito’s record fades to gray.

President Bush’s new nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religious freedoms that the entire Jewish community cherishes, on one occasion strongly defending the right of a Jewish employee to Sabbath observance. Yet his views on the establishment of religion as well as abortion hew to a tough conservative line that much of the community repudiates.

“He wrote a very important opinion in expanding what little is left of the free-exercise clause,” Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), said, referring to the constitutional guarantee of free religious practice.

On the other hand, in several cases dealing with the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion, Alito indicated a leaning in favor of religious speakers “to the exclusion of those who might not want to listen,” tern said.

Stern emphasized that the AJCongress had yet to make a decision on where it stands regarding Alito.

Bush announced the nomination of Alito, 55, on Monday, just days after Harriet Miers, his White House counsel, withdrew her name. Miers’ lack of a paper trail failed to satisfy Republican conservatives, who for years have clamored for a nominee who could be trusted to unambiguously issue rulings in supports of a conservative agenda, especially on the issue of abortion.

A corporate lawyer, Miers also drew fire because of her lack of judicial or constitutional experience.

By contrast, Alito’s 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, establishes a strong constitutional and conservative record. Social conservatives who vigorously opposed Miers’ nomination immediately hailed the decision.

“President Bush has hit a home run with this nomination,” Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said in a statement.

Just as predictably, liberal groups mounted an immediate call to arms.

“The judicial philosophy of Samuel Alito is far to the right,” People for the American Way wrote at the start of a 24-page evisceration of Alito’s record, posted on the group’s Web site within minutes of his nomination. “He has demonstrated hostility toward the principles undergirding a woman’s constitutionally protected right to govern her own reproductive choices.”

Liberals already were making much of a nickname Alito earned among some lawyers, “Scalito” – meaning “little Scalia,” a reference to Antonin Scalia, widely regarded as the most conservative judge on the Supreme Court.

National Jewish groups at times have been pivotal in joining liberals in opposing judicial candidates; President Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 stands out as an example. The White House was eager on Monday to get out the message that Alito was safe for the Jews.

“Judge Alito has been a strong defender of religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Jeffrey Berkowitz, White House liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in an e-mail within minutes of the announcement.

Legal scholars say Alito substantially expanded First Amendment rights in 1999, when he ruled that the Newark, N.J., police department violated the rights of Muslim officers by banning them from wearing beards, though it allowed an exception for health reasons.

Another Alito opinion had a more immediate impact on Jewish observance. In Abramson v. William Patterson College in 2001, the court considered the case of Gertrude Abramson, who sued the New Jersey institution in 1995, claiming that it violated an earlier agreement to allow her to take off Jewish holidays. Abramson also alleged a pattern of harassment, including meetings scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

The court ruled in Abramson’s favor, but Alito’s separate concurrence was even stronger, citing favorably an amicus brief filed by the Orthodox Union.

Title VII, the applicable civil rights law, “does not permit an employer to manipulate job requirements for the purpose of putting an employee to the ‘cruel choice’ between religion and employment,” Alito wrote.

Such insights are typical of Alito, his former law clerk, Jeffrey Wasserstein, told JTA.

“He is a Catholic, but his sensitivity to non-majority religions was quite interesting to watch, not what one would expect from someone being tarred by the press as extraordinarily conservative,” said Wasserstein, an observant Jew who served with Alito from 1997-98 and now is a health care attorney.

Despite his tough opinions, Alito has a reputation as a modest, accommodating figure, even among his most strident opponents. People for the American Way noted that — unlike Scalia, whose sarcasm is notorious — Alito’s “tone during oral arguments is probing but always polite.”

Wasserstein agreed: “He is very modest and self-effacing.”

Alito expressed interest in Wasserstein’s own Sabbath observance, and was quite probing when it came to religious cases, he said.

“During the Muslim police case, we spoke about Islam and its precepts,” Wasserstein recalled.

Wasserstein insisted that Alito did not come to cases with preconceptions, but liberal groups and their allies in the Jewish community already were fretting at a body of work that suggests otherwise. Of special concern are two cases in which Alito upheld the right of New Jersey towns to display Christmas-season cr?ches.

In the opinion in the cr?che cases, “he was on the opposite side of much of the Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Alito’s assent in a 1992 abortion-rights decision is perhaps his most controversial. The court upheld a Pennsylvania law that imposed a 24-hour waiting period for women who wanted abortions, required minors to inform their parents and required abortion clinics to publish reports about their operations.

Defeating that case became a rallying cry for pro-choice advocates, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in a landmark decision the same year.

Significantly, however, the appeals court had struck down a portion of the law that required women seeking abortions to inform their husbands. Alito was the lone dissenter from that part of the decision, saying such notification was not an undue burden for women. His willingness to go a step beyond marked him as an “extremist” in liberal circles.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which usually takes the lead in abortion-related announcements, has yet to weigh in, but sources said the group is working on a strategy.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, already has linked Alito to “the radical conservative right.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the Jewish chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must consider Alito’s appointment, was more circumspect, but notably held back the enthusiastic endorsement of other Republican senators.

“We are in the process of assembling his opinions,” said Specter, a Republican moderate who is pro-choice. “It is estimated that he has been involved in about 3,500 cases and has some 300 opinions which he has written.”

That record suggests a clear battle, Pelavin said.

“We’re going to have the kind of debate over judicial philosophy in the Senate that has long been brewing,” he said.

The Jewish lines already were being drawn.

The Orthodox Union does not endorse judicial candidates, and Alito is not an exception, said Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director.

However, Diament said, Alito is “clearly someone who is sensitive to religious minorities.”

Should the left mount a multibarrelled assault on Alito’s church-state record, Diament said, “our role will be making his record clear, trying to prevent it from being distorted.”

Pelavin suggested the Reform Movement also would have a role to play — probably not one particularly sympathetic to Alito.

“It’s not just about competence, it’s about the court shifting on fundamental issues, including reproductive rights and religious liberty,” he said.

 

Hey Kids!


It’s Your World

Welcome to your page in The Jewish Journal. The last Friday of every month belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles. In honor of the New Year and new look of this page, we want you to come up with a new name for it. Please send your ideas to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line New Name. We’ll pick the best one and make it the new name for the kids page (and you’ll get all the credit).

Kein v’ Lo

The Kein Side:

Many children use the evening to collect tzedakah for different charities instead of asking for candy — or they donate the candy to a food bank. For most people, the holiday has nothing to do with religion or real witches or saints. It’s more of a chance to go out with friends, have fun and decorate. Besides, it’s a great way to meet your neighbors.

The Lo Side:

It is a pagan holiday (a night when people believed the spirits of the dead would contact the living) and a Catholic holiday (candles are lit Nov. 1 on All Saints’ Day to honor the dead), but Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. Asking strangers for candy is rude; and tricks are mean. Jewish children have Purim as a day to dress up.

What do you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line

Kein V’Lo: Halloween. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Stump Your Parents

Enjoy these facts about autumn — test your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see who gets the right answers first.

1) Which Hebrew month do we welcome in November?

2) How many weeks of autumn are there?

3) What is the full moon that follows the beginning of autumn?

4) What were the first jack-o-lanterns made from?

5) Who first suggested using Daylight Saving Time?

6) Why do the leaves change color?

7) In the Torah Portion Noach (which we read Nov. 5), God put up what object to show that everything was OK after the flood?

Answers: 1) Cheshvan; 2) Thirteen; 3) Harvest Moon; 4) Turnips; 5) Ben Franklin; 6) As the leaves lose chlorophyll (which makes them green) their other pigments
are exposed.; 7) A Rainbow

New Year, New Orleans


“I think of Pompeii,” wrote Anne Brener in a September article for The Jewish Journal. “New Orleans was so beautiful.”

She wrote of her beloved New Orleans in the past tense, but during the High Holidays, she helped restore a measure of present hope. L.A. transplant Brener, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, conducted Rosh Hashanah services at Shir Chadash, a Conservative synagogue in Metairie, La., for congregants who braved a return. The challah came from Dallas.

The main auditorium was unusable, so some 80 congregants gathered in a smaller prayer room, according to a report by Associated Press. While their Torahs had been safely evacuated, hundreds of religious texts were damaged beyond repair and buried in a nearby cemetery last week, as per Jewish tradition.

“We’re being given a fresh start, a new beginning,” 19-year-old David Weber said. — Staff Report

Lack of Jewish Life in Greece Just Myth


When twilight descends on mountain villages and sun-kissed beaches, sociable Greeks make their way to tiny sidewalk cafes. They toast the end of the workday with anise-flavored ouzo, accompanied by plates of broiled octopus and green olives.

Dinner in the taverna is a long, lingering affair filled with an array of garlicky salads, fish, meat and maybe a slice of phylo-wrapped kasseri. As the night winds down, life moves to the cafeneion, where sweet and potent Greek coffee and perhaps a nibble of baklava serve as the perfect nightcap.

Poets have been known to wax lyrical about “the glory that was Greece.” Yet a visitor to Greece today quickly finds that the glory’s not only in the past tense. While those who built the shrines to Zeus and Apollo are long gone, the people who inhabit modern Greece are unquestionably alive.

The nation’s once-proud Jewish population, which dates back to Alexander the Great, was largely decimated during World War II. But from Rhodes to Athens, Greece’s rich Judaic history and culture are being preserved, and the seeds of the Jewish community are beginning to take root again.

Athens, a megalopolis whose population tops 3 million, has all the hallmarks of a major city: museums, theaters, office towers, the occasional Starbucks. Still, it remains quintessentially Greek.

Armed guards in short, pleated skirts; tasseled caps, and shoes with floppy pompoms keep watch in front of Parliament, across the street from Athens’ Syntagma (Constitution) Square. At regular intervals, they solemnly perform an oddly lopsided strut, complete with high kicks and sustained balletic poses. It’s a hint that the impulse to break out the dance moves is deeply rooted in the Greek soul.

Part of the thrill of Athens is that history is everywhere. A shady café in Plaka borders the delightful Tower of the Winds, dating from the time when Julius Caesar’s Romans ruled Greece. On a shopping expedition to the Athens Flea Market, tourists find themselves skirting the Ancient Agora, where Socrates and Plato once strolled. The city’s main bus lines terminate not far from the massive, horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. Built in the fourth century CE on the ruins of an earlier stadium, it was restored for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and played a dramatic role in the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad of 2004.

But what makes Athens most special is the large flat hill in its center — the fabled Acropolis. Visitors must wend their way on foot, past the charming restaurants and shops of the old Plaka district, to reach one of the world’s most dazzling sights. The Parthenon, along with the other ruined temples that gleam in the bright Greek sun, dates from the fifth century BCE. In ancient times this was the center of community worship, and it’s easy to imagine throngs of pilgrims bearing offerings for the goddess Athena here.

But not every ancient Greek worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the marketplace under the Acropolis are the remains of a fifth century BCE synagogue, which still feature carvings of lulavs and a menorah. Happily, Athens can also boast Jewish sites of much more recent vintage. The city is home to the handsome Jewish Museum of Greece, built in 1997, which gives eloquent testimony to the lost glories of Greek-style Judaism. Today Athens’ small but vibrant Jewish community — comprising more than 3,000 of Greece’s 5,000 Jews — supports a day school, a youth center and a functioning synagogue.

Beth Jacob, founded in the 1930s, occupies an austere neoclassical building on a quiet street that was once the heart of a bustling Jewish quarter. It is open for Sephardic services throughout the year. Directly across Melidoni Street, one can also spot the historic (and well-guarded) Ioannina Synagogue, dating from 1903. Once the headquarters for Athenian Jews who embraced Greece’s ancient and unique Romaniote tradition, it is used on the High Holidays, but can also be viewed by special arrangement with the Jewish Community of Athens organization, which shares its premises.

Further afield, the traveler can find traces of Jewish life both on the Greek mainland and on many of Greece’s most romantic islands. One prime destination is Thessaloniki, also known as Salonika, where Jews who had fled from Spain in the 15th century found a safe haven under Ottoman rule. As late as 1900, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish. Now the 1,300 Jews still remaining in the area enjoy a community center, a school, and a kosher butcher, as well as a daily minyan. It’s possible to visit several charming Thessaloniki synagogues, along with a newly enhanced Jewish history museum that stands in the heart of the picturesque Modiano Market.

Jews planning to cruise the Greek islands can explore their heritage when they tire of beachcombing. In Corfu, a 300-year-old synagogue displaying a collection of Torah crowns is open every Saturday and by appointment. Remnants of Jewish life dating back to antiquity are found on Delos, Naxos and Zakynthos, among others. Chalkis, on the island of Euboea, claims to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe: today a 19th-century synagogue is a reminder of past glories. In Hania, Crete, an international archaeological effort led to the recent restoration of a Romaniote synagogue built in the middle ages. And a similar venture, spearheaded by Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, has helped preserve the Jewish historic sites of Rhodes. (See accompanying story.) The island’s 16th century Kahal Shalom, Greek’s oldest-functioning synagogue, now also plays host to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. This informative museum makes an excellent jumping-off point for tours of the ancient Sephardic quarter known as “La Juderia.”

Most Hellenic vacations prove unforgettable because of the hospitality of the Greek populace, the beauty of the Greek landscape and the antiquity of the Greek culture. It’s no surprise that Jews lived contentedly on Greek soil for more than 2,000 years. Today’s visitor can revel in the splendors of Greece, while still pausing to remember the Jewish people who once made this land of sun and sea their home.

 

Teshuvah for Tots Sets Right Tone


The concept of repentance is hard enough for grown-ups to get, so how do educators make the central themes of the High Holidays real for children?

While projects like tempera-painted honey dishes and party-whistle shofars are de rigueur, preschool and elementary school teachers take seriously the idea of having the High Holiday message of personal accountability set the tone for the whole year.

The Jewish Journal spoke with a few educators to get their thoughts.

Preschool

Nettie Lerner, director of Chabad’s Garden School preschool on Pico Boulevard, teaches about God’s closeness during this time of year through analogy:

“We teach them the story of the king in the field. The king is in his palace the entire year, and once a year he comes out of his palace to meet with all the different people, to get to know them and see how they are doing. He does this for a month all around the kingdom and then goes back to his palace and feels like he knows how to be a more effective king,” she said.

The Garden School also uses the High Holidays to establish rules of engagement among the kids.

The school practices conflict resolution, where a teacher stops the offending action and has each child articulate feelings and establishes empathy. Then, together the children and teacher come up with a resolution.

“We do this over and over, and that’s how we’re able to bring this concept of teshuvah to a preschooler,” Lerner said.

Kindergarten-Second Grade

At Stephen S. Wise elementary school, director of education Metuka Benjamin encourages teachers to use project-based activities around the High Holidays to emphasize Jewish peoplehood.

“First and foremost, we want to help children understand that being Jewish means they are part of a community,” she said. “This community has a shared history, ancestry and value system. We want them to understand that there are Jews all over the world, yet there is a connected spirit that ties us together. At this early age, understanding community is critical to helping them acquire a sense of pride about their backgrounds, while also feeling tied to Jewish friends and family here and around the world.”

Third-Fifth Grade

Rivka Ben-Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Heschel West in Agoura, has the whole school — and parents — blowing shofar every morning leading up to the High Holidays.

She concentrates on the idea of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. The word “chet,” Hebrew for sin, comes from the root of deviate — indicating that someone has missed a goal they set.

Ben-Daniel has students break into small groups to write a personal and communal “Ashamnu” confessional prayer, focusing on wrongdoings the class may have done as a group, and, privately, what they have done as individuals.

“We put them on paper and then we go to Malibu Creek Canyon, one grade at a time, and we read out loud the class sins, and we say goodbye to the sins and promise to start anew and welcome a new year by promising to strive to be better for the coming year,” Ben-Daniel said.

Teachers

Ben-Daniel goes through a similar exercise with teachers, asking them to account for their wrongdoings with students, teachers and parents.

“We ask the teachers to acknowledge what they have done wrong and to ask for forgiveness, to forgive other people, and to forgive yourself for what you have done wrong,” she said.

In addition, teachers are asked to write goals for themselves “in an area where they want to improve in their educational lives.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, October 1

Ditch the stuffy fundraising dinners in favor of two benefits this weekend that actually sound fun. Today’s “Hugs for Ari” is a carnival-style dinner-dance at the Santa Monica Pier. Huge auction prizes like tickets to Pearl Jam in Buenos Aires, plus roaming magicians and clowns and free rides on the giant carousel make the event adult and kid-friendly, all while helping the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. (See Sunday’s listing for our other benefit “pick.”)

6:30 p.m. $125 (adults), $50 (children). Santa Monica Pier Carousel, Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8525.

Sunday, October 2

The Los Angeles Conservancy makes the bold attempt of “turning Los Angeles into a living museum,” starting today with “Curating the City: Wilshire Boulevard.” The one-day, self-guided architectural tour of L.A.’s historic street includes docent-led tour sites along the route, including one at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

$12.50-$35. (213) 623-2849. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, October 3

A timely CD for the High Holidays recently released by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music is an all-Leonard Bernstein recording of “Kaddish, Symphony No. 3,” a deeply personal and reflective work that is the last version of several Bernstein rewrote over the years, and “Chichester Psalms,” a setting of Psalm texts performed by chorus, boy soloist and orchestra.

$5.99. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, October 4

Your favorite red-headed “hard-knock life” orphan returns to Los Angeles for just two weeks beginning tonight. “Annie” runs through Oct. 16 at the Pantages, starring the miraculously still ticking and working Mackenzie Phillips as Lily St. Regis. The show also features a new song by original songwriters Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse, “Why Should I Change a Thing?”

$25-$68. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500.

Wednesday, October 5

For those who never quite got what all the fuss was about with classical music, Robert Kapilow is here to answer, “What Makes It Great?” Hallowed for his Leonard Bernstein-esque ability to make classical music accessible to the masses, Kapilow dissects Mozart this evening at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, with the help of the New Hollywood String Quartet.

7:30 p.m. $18. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 916-8510. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, October 6

Jew and Latino find a meeting place at the Casa del Mexicano, a Boyle Heights synagogue-cum-Latino community center, thanks to Collage Dance Theatre’s latest production, “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The site-specific dance performance explores the history of the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

$40. Oct. 6-9, and 21-23. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, October 7

Her name is Allois+. (Yep, there’s a plus sign in there.) And as intriguing as the plus sign, for which we’ve been given no explanation, is her art, for which we have. To quote the quixotic artist on her figurative paintings, “Painting is like breathing to me, an escape from reality to my own private world. I imagine this world like a small submarine, my Nautilus, where I am captain. I stake everything on the unusual and on surpassing the real,…” “Allois, Works on Metal, Canvas and Paper” runs through Oct. 15 at Lev Moross Gallery.

962 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 512-0151.

A Smile Can Be Key to Temple Security


Will you feel safe going to synagogue this New Year?

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

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

Can synagogues protect and serve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face It: Judaism Is Not Hip


This Rosh Hashanah I am praying to escape the tyranny of hip. Hip is infiltrating Jewish life like a migrating plume of acrid smoke meandering its way through our collective body and soul.

I know hip well. I know its insidious nature. I have seen its effect and its damage. I was surrounded by hip. I was taken in by hip. I yearned for hip. I searched for hip. I saw people’s lives and identities consumed by hip. Twenty years of my professional life were spent in the palaces of hip.

I was an advertising agency copywriter and creative director. I was trained to be one of the manufacturers of hip. I would sit in offices and create hip, and then watch all those people lust after the creations. I reveled in hip.

And then one day, it all came crashing down.

There was no earth-shattering event. It was just a moment of realization.

In the ad biz, you win awards for creating hip images. That’s all hip is. An image. A fleeting image. You can’t really describe hip. You can’t put your finger on what it is. What’s hip today is not hip tomorrow. You often here people say, “She’s the hippest person around.”

What does that mean? Nothing.

Absolutely nothing. When I happily left the ad agency business, I used to tell people, “It’s the ultimate liberation. I no longer have to direct my energies into the shallow, ridiculous waters of hip.”

I found salvation from hip in the Jewish world. It was a world of content. Meaning. Real connections to people, the earth, the heavens. It gave me roots into the universe in a way hip could never do.

It was such a refreshing departure from where I had been that I was determined to bring my professional skills into the Jewish world — as well as into other nonprofit organizations.

For years, it allowed me to escape even hearing the word “hip.” Then, hip began to seep out into a few Jewish crevices and corners.

Today, hip is everywhere in the Jewish organizational world. Federations want to be hip. Hillels want to be hip. Israel wants to be hip. Chabad wants to be hip. Aish HaTorah wants to be hip. Synagogues want to be hip. Day schools want to be hip. Jewish publications want to be hip. And the Jewish foundation world is clamoring to create and fund hip.

It used to be that Hollywood was going to be the magic bullet that would save the Jewish organizational world. Now Hollywood has been replaced by hip. At least Hollywood was concrete. It meant a person. Spielberg. Streisand. Seinfeld. But can someone please define or concretize hip?

What is this all about? If Judaism’s image — its brand — has become tarnished, is hip going to save it? Is this the point to which we involved Jews have arrived?

Hip is powerful. As a marketer of Jewish life, I am watching our leaders grapple and bow down to its power.

I am not denying that we have a problem in Jewish life with the products we offer and the images we create. Most are lackluster at best.

But if we think that hip is the solution, we are demeaning the essence of Judaism. We are trivializing its soul. We are convoluting Judaism as much as “haimish” has convoluted it for the past few generations.

Haimish was always an excuse for not being professional. As long as the organization was haimish, it believed it had fulfilled its mission.

Much the same mistake is happening with hip. If the organization is hip, if the offering is perceived as hip, then today the organization believes it is fulfilling its mission.

Hip is not about meaning. Hip is not about depth. Hip is not about the soul. Hip is not about connection to human beings and the world.

Hip is about shallow. Hip is about self-absorption. Hip is about today, this minute. Hip is not about the past and it is certainly not about the future.

This Rosh Hashanah, Jewish organizations need to realize that Judaism is not hip. It’s never going to be hip. It is not supposed to be hip. Judaism has too much depth to ever be hip. Judaism must be perceived as the antidote to hip. The products Judaism offers must be the escape from shallow hip. They must be the refuge, the other road, the real thing.

If we believe that the Jewish masses are looking for hip, there are plenty of places they can fill that need. They can go to the Gap. Now, that’s hip.

During the coming High Holidays, grant us justice and kindness. V’hoshiyainu — save us … from the tyranny of hip.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

In the Seats Around You


I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.

The shul I grew up in had assigned seats — the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah — so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the “lady doctor” who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we’ve never learned her name because we didn’t have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a “Good yontif.” I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.

I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.

Funnily, I can’t remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them — the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.

I’ve watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents’ friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.

The High Holidays make your mind wander — wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting “Kaddish.”

The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn’t feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.

We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn’t just some synagogue anymore — it was my shul.

Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial), runs

Sacred Sounds All Over Town


There’s an inescapable irony in vocalist Vanessa Paloma performing Ladino songs at the San Gabriel Mission, which was founded by Spanish Catholics. It was, of course, Spanish Roman Catholics who expelled Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain in 1492. Paloma called the venue “emotionally charged,” but she hopes the music and ambiance will prove to be healing as well as musically appealing.

“Just the fact of sitting in that room and listening to that music will be an interesting experience, and hopefully a powerful one,” she said.

Paloma’s performance at the 200-year-old mission is one highlight of the 2005 World Festival of Sacred Music, which will be spread out among many Los Angeles locations over a two-week period beginning Saturday.

The festival, directed by Judy Mitoma, will show Angelenos how cultures from around the world find spiritual sustenance through music. Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are well represented. Here are some of the notable events:

Wed., Sept. 21 — Yuval Ron Ensemble. 7 p.m., Alfred Newman Recital Hall at USC; $20. For tickets, call (213) 740-2167 or visit www.usc.edu/spectrum

Ron, an Israeli composer and record producer, pulls together traditions of Judaism, Islam, and the Armenian Church in music and dance. In this program, Ron’s troupe, which includes artists from Israel, Lebanon, Armenia, Iran, France, and the United States, explore the mystical teachings of different Middle Eastern cultures and the deep connections among them.

Thurs., Sept. 22 — Flor de Serena, with vocalist Vanessa Paloma and guitarist Jordan Charnofsky. Noon, San Fernando Mission, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; free. For tickets, call (818) 361-0186 or visit www.flordeserena.com.

The ensemble, which includes percussion and bass, will play music composed and performed by Sephardim after arriving in the Americas as well as tunes originating in Spain and Portugal. Historian Arthur Benveniste will narrate the musical journey of Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Iberia in the 1490s.

Paloma, who grew up in Colombia, traces her Sephardic heritage to the north of Spain. She formed Flor de Serena with Charnofsky after a trip to Israel, where she discovered music for many obscure Ladino songs.

Sephardic music, she told The Journal, “integrates the Spanish-speaking and Jewish aspects of my life.”

Charnofsky, who began playing with klezmer bands in the early 1990s, isn’t Sephardic but describes Sephardic music as a natural bridge between his instrument, the guitar, which was developed on the Iberian peninsula, and his growing involvement with Jewish music.

Sun., Sept. 25 — Cantori Domino. 7:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; $25. For tickets, call (323) 461-3673 or visit www.fordamphitheater.org.

This 50-voice choir, will sing Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” accompanied by musicians on harp, timpani and two pianos. The selection of psalms encompass themes of joy, innocence, war, trust, hope and unity.

Conductor Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh, though not Jewish, has been music director for the High Holidays at Stephen S. Wise Temple for 14 years.

“I don’t know of a time when this [work] wouldn’t be timely, but it seems particularly timely now,” she said.

Mon., Sept. 26 — The Psalms of Ra. 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Alchemy Building, 5209 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; $25. For tickets: (323) 769-5069 or visit www.psalmsofra.com

Jim Berenholtz, who has traveled widely in the Middle East, uses his “neo-ancient” music to illustrate the creative and spiritual cross-fertilization he says existed between the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Jews who lived in Egypt for centuries. He sets ancient Egyptian and Hebrew texts to contemporary sacred music, according to the billing. Some of his works interweave mystical Hebrew incantations with Egyptian mantras; his settings of Hebrew texts include Psalm 116, which speaks of being lifted up after hitting life’s bottom.

Oct. 1 — World Jewish Music Fest. Noon, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica; free. Information: (310) 434-3431 or www.smc.edu/madison.

Westsider Stefani Valadez will perform Ladino songs from Spain and North Africa, and Russian clarinetist Leo Chelyapov will appear with his Hollywood Klezmer Trio. The family-oriented afternoon will also feature Israeli dancing.

The Moscow-born Chelyapov, who first heard klezmer music when his grandfather took him to Jewish weddings in Kiev, had made playing it his “calling” by the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1992.

“It touches my Jewishness, and it feels natural to me,” he told The Journal. Not only is klezmer music historically identified with weddings, which Chelyapov called “a mystical point of life,” but it often employs liturgical texts and, most importantly, he said, “it’s supposed to elevate your spirit.”

For a complete schedule, visit www.festivalofsacredmusic.org or call (310) 825-0507.

 

Between the Pages for Young, Young-at-Heart


Let’s face it. Many people go to synagogue on the High Holidays because they have to. A feeling of poorly understood and unappreciated obligation can pervade this time of year. But it doesn’t have to. You can put yourself or your children in the spirit and in the know with help from this by-no-means-comprehensive list of titles that elucidate the prayers and customs of the holiday.

For Young Children:

“My First Book of Jewish Holidays”
by Shmuel Blitz, illustrated by Tova Katz, (Artscroll Mesorah, 2004)

“My First Book,” which is beautifully illustrated, explains the historical significance of the holidays (i.e., the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, as well as the laws). In addition to their regular text, the pages have “Did you know?” boxes. It is not a storybook, but it is written clearly and its pictures are mesmerizing.

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah”
by Yaffa Ganz
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1990)

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah” is one in a series of books about Jewish holidays, in which two young children and their talking dove go on a learning mission. In this pleasantly illustrated book, children can learn about holiday customs, such as dipping an apple into honey, and different names of Rosh Hashanah. For example, Yom Hakeseh is called the Day of Concealment, because the moon is concealed on that day — just a sliver in the sky. And metaphorically, the outcome of the new year, too, is concealed from us.

For Teenagers:

“Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” by Shimon Apisdorf
(Leviathan Press, 1997)

The “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” is aimed at those who

would really rather be elsewhere during the services — sound like any teenager you know? The book gives tips about how to make the service meaningful, without being bogged down with effort. (Sample tip: “Five minutes of prayer said with understanding [and] feeling … means far more than five hours of lip service.”)

It also offers cute factoids about Rosh Hashana, presenting an easy and fun-to-read overview of the prayer service and Torah readings.

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity — “Survival Kit” does not shy away from the weightier matters; it offers compelling expositions on teshuva (repentance) and personal development.

For College Students:

“60 Days, a Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays”
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
(Kiyum Press, 2003)

In “60 Days,” Jacobson looks at the months of Elul (the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays) and Tishrei (the Hebrew month in which the High Holidays occur) as a period for self-improvement. Basing many of his teaching on Kabbalah, Jacobson goes through each day of the two months, explaining the historical significance of the day well beyond the obvious holidays. For example, the 18th of Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

But he also describes exercises to enable the reader to use the 60 days for introspection. Jacobson wants us to be our better selves, and to use that improvement for an enhanced relationship with God.

For the Prayerfully Challenged:

“Pathway to Prayer: A Translation and Explanation of All the Amidah Prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”
by Rabbi Meir Birnbaum
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1997)

Even for those familiar with the daily prayers, the Rosh Hashanah service can seem formidable. It is long, different and should ideally be infused with enough kavannah (concentration and devotion) to change the destiny of the upcoming year for the better.

In “Pathway to Prayer,” Birnbaum explains the prayers line by line — often word by word. He is not merely content with translating. Rather, he explains what the thought process should be when each word is said. For example, in the musaf prayer, the repeatedly used word. “Hagadol [the Great One], referring to God, really means God who is great “in exercising the attribute of kindness.”

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer”
by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
(Schocken Books, 2000)

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer” provides great background reading for those interested in the history and development of prayer in Judaism. The chapter on Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known, provides a brief overview of the holiday and the origins of the prayers that developed in conjunction with it.

This book will not necessarily help you navigate a machzor (special prayer book for the holidays), but it does outline what we will be saying on Rosh Hashanah (i.e., which prayer comes after which, when the shofar is blown, etc.) as well as explanations and customs of shofar blowing. Steinsaltz also explains differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic nusachs (the order of the prayers).

For Meaning Searchers:

“Days of Awe: Sfas Emes, Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes on the High Holy Days”
by Rabbi Yosef Stern
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1996)

The Sfas Emes, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger, became leader of the great Gerer Chasidic dynasty in Poland in 1870, when he was only 23. Under his guidance, Ger became one of the biggest Chasidic groups in Poland.

In this volume, Stern distills the Sfas Emes’ Chasidic teachings into illuminating essays on topics such as “The Omission of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah” to the “Symbolism and Significance” of Shofar blowing.

“This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation”
by Alan Lew
(Little Brown and Company, 2003)

“This Is Real” follows no ordinary Rosh Hashanah book path, because it encompasses so many different elements. Part memoir, part Zen mediation, part rumination on life in general, interspersed with Torah readings, Jewish teachings and Zen parables (Lew considers himself a Buddhist rabbi), this is a book that describes a soul’s journey from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, as it “heads home.”

Lew sees the High Holidays as a metaphor for life itself, and he wants us to experience “oneness with everything.” Rosh Hashanah is a time that we can “experience the truth of our lives.”

Though the title is ominous, the book is ultimately uplifting, about a person’s power to transform sadness to joy.

For General Background:
“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days”
by Shmuel Yosef Agnon
(Schocken, 1995)

This is a collection of writings on the Days of Awe culled from traditional sources, such as the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. Agnon lets the writings speak for themselves, but he compiles them in a way that tells the history of the holidays.

In the section on Rosh Hashanah, he starts with the commandment from Leviticus to observe Rosh Hashanah (“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns”).

He then moves on to descriptions from Ezra in Chronicles of the Jewish people bringing sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, and then quotes from the Mishna and Talmud about what Rosh Hashanah means.

The book is a fascinating compilation, perfect for those who want to understand the meaning of the holiday from original sources.

For Contemporary Approaches:

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays: Poems, Stories, Essays.”
edited by Steven J. Rubin
(Brandeis University Press, 2003)

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays” is not a book for those who simply want laws or traditions laid out for them. Rather it’s for those seeking creative or artistic musings on the holidays.

Gathering verse from poets as diverse as Solomon Ibn Gabirol (an 11th-century Jewish Spanish scholar) and Emma Lazarus, the poems convey a range of experience, from the spiritually awesome to the skeptically modern. The stories and memoirs are evocative. Eli Weisel tells of Rosh Hashanah in the concentration camp, others of Rosh Hashanah in the shtetl.

“The Jewish Way, Living the Holidays”
By Rabbi Irving Greenberg
(Simon and Schuster, 1988)

In “The Jewish Way,” Greenberg explains the holidays as “the quintessential Jewish religious expression, because the main teachings of Judaism are incorporated in their messages.”

In his essay on Rosh Hashanah, he explains that it is a somber time when we must confront our own mortality, since one’s life “is placed on balance scales.” In addition, Greenberg gives a summary of the prayers and customs of Rosh Hashanah.

 

New ‘Design’ Adds Flair to the Holidays


 

“Kosher By Design Entertains” by Susie Fishbein (Mesorah Publications, $34.99).

It’s probably already too late. Dishes from Susie Fishbein’s new “Kosher By Design Entertains” are probably gracing Shabbat tables and brunches all over the country. Recipes from her first two books, “The Kosher Palette” and “Kosher by Design,” became ubiquitous, and I fear that when I proudly escort my Glazed Chicken Breasts with Strawberry Salsa to the table, someone will inevitably say, “Oh, page 124, I tried that last week.”

But if you are willing to forego the glow of originality, this fresh and fearless cookbook — which includes a guide for how to make the recipes kosher for Passover — can turn your borscht into Yellow Tomato Basil Bisque.

With flavorful and fun recipes that use ingredients and combinations far from what used to be considered traditional Jewish cooking — think Juniper Berry and Peppercorn Crusted Skirt Steak with Spiced Onions — this book can add flare to a tired repertoire for both connoisseurs and amateurs.

The first “Kosher By Design” (Mesorah 2003), which sold more than 70,000 copies, centered around holiday and Shabbat menus, while “Entertains” tackles lifecycle events or other entertaining opportunities, such as a romantic dinner for two or a housewarming party.

Entertains is a confection of a cookbook, from its frilly fuchsia dust jacket to the polka dots and floral brocades and masculine plaids that frame many of the pages. Flip through the pages of nine sample parties and feel the crisp air at an autumnal picnic spread on a patchwork quilt, or hear the cooing and giggling at a pastel dessert buffet to welcome a new baby, where 4-foot-tall martini glasses filled with jelly beans frolic across the table.

The book is organized by courses or types of food — appetizers to desserts — which makes it easy to use. In between each section are a menu, party plan and set up for different occasions. As always, Fishbein is as concerned with presentation as with taste, so she takes several pages and lots of pictures to describe her techniques for things like creating an heirloom anniversary tablecloth using silk fabric and old photos converted into irons-ons.

While you may not have the time to use colorful clothes pins to clip your Coconut Chicken Strips to disposable wine cups filled with mango and apricot dipping sauces, the selection of recipes offers a wide variety of doable, contemporary dishes that will impress your guests both with the taste and with how great they look on the plate.

Fishbein, a mother of four, has clearly spent a lot of time in a family kitchen, and while some of the recipes are a little involved, enough of them meet my acceptable patschkie (messing around) level, with only three or four steps per recipe. She also favors some time-saving ingredients, like prepared dressing packets or frozen vegetables.

Fishbein also throws in a resource guide that includes Web sites or 800 numbers for unusual kosher ingredients or kitchen tools; a buying guide for the housewares on the book’s tables; a Passover conversion table; and suggested holiday and Shabbat menus using recipes from this book and her previous one.

But you better work fast. I can already smell that Caramelized Apple Cheesecake baking — in my neighbor’s oven.

Cornish Hen With Pistachio Paste
4 (1 pound) baby Cornish hens, butterflied, backbone removed, pressed flat with your palm
2 cups shelled raw unsalted pistachio nuts, finely chopped, divided salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
6 shallots
2 tablespoons fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
12 ounces chicken stock, plus a little extra
4 basil or other brightly colored flat leaves for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Stuff 1/4 cup of the chopped pistachio nuts under the skin of each of the hens. Massage the nuts under the skin to help spread them out evenly. Salt and pepper both sides of each hen.
Heat the olive oil in two large sauté pans (or plan to sear in batches). Sear the hens, skin side down until golden brown. Remove the hens from the pan and place in roasting pans in a single layer. Set aside. Add the shallots to the pan with the hen drippings. Sauté six to seven minutes. Sprinkle in the thyme. Deglaze pan with the chicken stock, use a wooden spoon to unstick any nuts.
Meanwhile, place the hens, uncovered, in the oven. Roast for 30 minutes or until done.
Prepare the pistachio paste. In a deep container, or in the bowl of a food processor, place 1/2 cup chopped pistachio nuts. Add the shallots and pan drippings. Using an immersion blender or food processor blend into a paste. Thin with a little stock if needed.
Dollop 1 or 2 tablespoons of the pistachio paste on a basil or other flat lettuce leaf, place on the side of the hen. Sprinkle all with the remaining chopped pistachios.

Makes four servings.

Balsamic Braised Brisket with Shallots and Potatoes
1 3-pound beef brisket
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
10 cloves garlic, peeled, divided
3 tablespoons margarine, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
6 whole shallots, peeled
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
1 14-1/2 ounce can crushed tomatoes

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Season the brisket on both sides with salt and pepper. Using the tip of a sharp knife, make sliver cuts all along the brisket. Cut five of the garlic gloves in half. Place a piece of garlic into each slit. Place 2 tablespoons of the margarine and the oil into a large skillet or pot set over medium heat. When the margarine is melted and hot, add the meat. You should hear it sear on contact. Let it cook for eight minutes, don’t move it around. After eight minutes, lift the meat up, add 1 tablespoon of margarine to the pan and turn the meat over. Sear on the second side for eight minutes. Remove the brisket to a baking pan. Surround the brisket with the potatoes, shallots and five whole garlic cloves.
Add balsamic vinegar and wine to the skillet or pan. Add the tomatoes. Turn the heat down to medium and cook for five minutes stirring to combine. While the mixture cooks down, scrape up the browned bits from the pan; a wooden spoon works well here. Pour balsamic mixture over the brisket and vegetables. Add water to just cover the brisket.
Place in the oven and bake for two to two and a half hours, covered. Allow to cool before slicing.

Makes six to eight servings.

Sweet Potato Wedges With Vanilla Rum Sauce
6 medium sweet potatoes, unpeeled
1/2 cup margarine or butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher for Passover vanilla extract
1 tablespoon dark rum

Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Cover a large jelly roll pan with parchment paper.
Cut the sweet potatoes in half lengthwise. Cut each half in half again lengthwise. You will have long wedges. Place in a bowl.
In a small saucepan melt the margarine or butter and brown sugar. Stir in the vanilla and rum. Simmer for one minute. Pour over the sweet potatoes and toss to combine.
Arrange the wedges in a single layer on the prepared pan.
Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes to one hour, checking at the 45-minute mark, until potatoes are soft and caramelized.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

 

A Minor Holiday’s Major Following


 

It’s not a religious holiday per se, it appears nowhere in the Torah, God’s name isn’t even mentioned and it’s considered one of Judaism’s minor festivals. Yet over the years, celebrating the holiday of Purim has become a major event on the Jewish calendar. Why?

It’s easy to understand why getting dressed up, eating lots of candy and hamentaschen, drinking the night away and partaking in a festive meal appeals to many. But it’s only really in the post-war era that Purim has become a major player in the Jewish calendar.

Purim was a far more significant holiday in the 19th century, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale, 2004). However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the popularity of Purim gave way to Chanukah and its concept of gift-giving because of the abundant gift-giving at Christmas.

“Purim had the misfortune of not falling at the same time as an equivalent Christian holiday,” Sarna said. “And with Halloween being stripped of any religious significance, Jews preferred to participate in Halloween, leaving Purim without a lot of energy.”

The only real equivalent to Purim is Mardi Gras, but with that holiday focused in New Orleans, it wasn’t enough to put Purim on the map.

So when did the tide turn back toward Purim?

Purim began to enjoy renewed vigor in the post-war era, Sarna said, for a variety of reasons.

“Part of it is because it’s a naturally appealing holiday,” he said.

Particularly with the emphasis on rebelliousness.

“Jews are rebels and the idea of turning a structure on its head is very appealing to us,” Sarna added.

And part of that appeal came from Jews ceasing to worry less about what their neighbors thought and having the freedom to dress up and violate various taboos without fear of repercussions.

Purim has also become more and more centered on children, with a strong focus on carnivals and dressing up.

“As a rule, child-centered holidays in the U.S. are much more likely to gain popular support,” he said, adding that in the post-war period, there was a rise in suburban synagogues in response to the baby boom. As such, synagogues were able to mount large carnivals, which was part of the whole movement back to child-centered Judaism.

It has certainly taken hold. This Purim, Los Angeles synagogues and schools, as in previous years, will be holding large carnivals aimed primarily at children but with incentives thrown in for the adults, too.

Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica has been holding a carnival in one form or another since 1942.

“It’s a huge communal event,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels. “We usually have around 500-600 people show up.”

Temple Beth Am has been holding its annual carnival for 10 years, with the carnival attracting around 1,000 people each year.

“We’re creating memories for kids,” said carnival organizer Susan Leider. “And being connected Jewishly is about being able to call upon this bank of Jewish memories, and a fun Purim experience for kids is an important part of that.”

But it’s not just children who are reaping the rewards of the holiday — in recent years it’s also been widely embraced by women. In an ever-evolving religion where women are looking to play more significant roles, seizing on Purim was a natural choice, and it’s no longer strange to see women’s megillah readings.

“Some women have also turned Vashti into a type of pro-feminist,” Sarna said, referring to the one-time queen of Persia who is often simplistically considered a villain in the Book of Esther for refusing to show up naked to a party given by her husband, King Ahasveraus, forcing him to find a new queen (Esther).

Women and children are not the only ones who have benefited from the Purim renaissance. Part of the holiday’s success is its appeal to Jews of all religious affiliations.

“With the renaissance of Jewish life in this country, there has become a stronger desire to celebrate our own holidays, particularly when they have resonance on the larger culture,” said David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “And ethnicity now has a respectability that it did not previously possess.”

Jews today are much happier to embrace Purim than Halloween, Ellenson said, because both offer similar elements (the parties, eating candy, dressing up), but Purim is an authentic Jewish holiday that is specifically connected to Jewish pride, survival and continuity.

Once, the whole issue of vengeance against Haman and his sons was deemed problematic by earlier generations of Reform Jews, Ellenson said.

“But with the rise of ethnic pride, concerns with Jewish continuity and the universal themes of escape from prejudice and destruction, Purim has found a ready audience among Jews of all types,” he added.

It’s something that Rabbi Sharon Brous, of the newly founded IKAR synagogue in West Los Angeles, has incorporated into the shul’s first Purim celebrations.

Founded 10 months ago with the vision to “create a community of intellectual and spiritual life and the pursuit of Justice,” IKAR’s Purim carnival for adults and children is a “Justice Carnival.” Every fun carnival booth will be accompanied by a social justice or human rights booth so people can still enjoy the Moon Bounce or the bean bag throw but read about the fight against AIDS in Africa or efforts to help tsunami relief.

“The idea is that the kids understand that by being Jewish and celebrating Purim, it’s also connected to other things,” Brous said. “That performing mitzvot for other needy people is a critical part of being Jewish.”

Whatever the rationale behind each individual organization’s celebration of this “minor” Jewish holiday, celebrating Purim looks like it’s here to stay.

“It doesn’t yet vie with Chanukah …,” Sarna said. “But the appeal is certainly growing.”

 

Lighten Up on Christmas and Christians


 

Even in relatively tolerant and officially secular America, Jews long have had to do a dance around the holidays of the majority population. There’s a national party going on and, let’s face it, we are not invited.

The issue then is how to deal with it. There seems to be three basic responses.

One, give in “to the spirit,” even if that means elevating Chanukah into an ersatz version of Christmas, with excessive gift-giving and demands for equal time with the bigger holiday.

Two, rail against the persuasiveness of the holiday and of Christianity in our core culture. For some, that means waging a kind of secularist jihad to remove all spiritual aspects from the season.

Third, just keep a respectful distance and let the Christians enjoy their holiday to the fullest including allowing trees, mangers and reindeer in the parks. Use the time to reconfirm to yourself and, more importantly, your children our status as proud and very separate minority.

In some ways, the first approach seems akin to giving in to the majority faith. We boost Chanukah, a relatively minor holiday, into megastatus and turn our children into Yuletide wannabes. Let’s face it, most of our kids don’t need more excuses for presents.

More serious, and immediately damaging, is the opposite tendency, which amounts to driving religious Christmas out of the public sphere. This is something not exclusively supported by Jews, but it’s no big secret that Jews are prominent in many of the organizations — like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — that spearhead the anti-Christmas secular jihad.

To a large extent, this approach seeks to eliminate everything that is Christian about Christmas from the public sphere — from trees, green lights and mangers to the singing of Christmas carols. It reached the point of ludicrous when our former, illustrious governor, Gray Davis always craven in the service of his heavily Jewish donors, renamed the state Christmas Tree into a Holiday Tree.

This kind of idiocy, which was reversed this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, comes out of a mistaken belief that to ensure a secular state, we need to eliminate any hint of Christian belief from the public sphere. In the words of Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL, furious efforts must be made to maintain “a wall of separation between the pubic realm and religious tradition.

In theory, this is a fine idea. I certainly would not like to see public school students forced to sing Christmas carols or listen to a Billy Graham lecture. Yet Susskind is talking about circumscribing all manner of spiritually tainted behavior. They have even issued a somewhat silly pronunciamento called, “The December Dilemma, ” to supply guidelines so schools don’t dip their toes into even vaguely religious waters at this time of year.

Behind these efforts lies what I suspect is a more elaborate agenda. Susskind, for example, expresses “sympathy” for the French government’s decision to ban crosses, head scarves and yarmulkes from public schools. She isn’t ready to take this on in America, but more zealous secularists, like the ACLU, might be sorely tempted.

Such efforts, in my mind, turn the state from neutral toward religion to advocate for what may be called the secularist faith. Instead of admitting that religious ideas, primarily derived from Jewish and Christian roots, stand at the root of our constitutional republic, the ADL and the even more secularist ACLU seem to see any acknowledgement of religion — from the singing of “Jingle Bells” at schools to discussions of the religious roots of Christmas — as a grave threat to civil liberties.

Perhaps, the most egregious local example of this can be seen in the ACLU’s so far successful attempt, with full backing from the ADL, to get the Board of Supervisors to excise the mission cross from the Los Angeles County Seal. This effort grew out of the notion that having a cross on the seal for the past half century represented, in the ADL’s words, and affront to the “diversity of the people of the community.” Zev Yaroslavsky, easily the most influential Jewish politician in the county even called the cross a “symbol that divides us.”

David Hernandez, one of the leaders of a broad-based effort to overturn the country’s decision, considers this decision an example of legislative arrogance. It was taken without considering the idea that many church-going Christians, as well as Hispanics proud of their historic role in the City of Angeles, might object to having their heritage expunged from the seal.

After all, Catholic missionaries built the first schools, brought medicine and many other elements of European civilization (not all positive, to be sure) to this part of the word. Reducing the mission symbol to a kind of jumped-up Taco Bell is not only an affront to L.A.’s Hispanic Catholic heritage but to the critical role faith has played in the evolution of the city since then.

Nor can anyone but a total paranoid compare people like Hernandez to the kind of bigoted Christians who have tormented us in the past.

“People are surprised I am not a Bible-Belt, right wing Christian fanatic,” explains the middle-of-the-road Republican insurance adjuster from Valley Village, who is a member of such dangerous groups as the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council and the Executives support group for the Jewish Homes fro the Aging.

This guy is about as close to Father Coughlin as, well, Kris Kringle.

Rather than wage silly battles with such well-meaning people over Christmas carols, of a mission cross, Jews need to lighten up. Christmas and traditional Christianity today simply do no represent serious threats to the existence of Jews in the contemporary world; outside of the Islamicists, our mortal enemies and those of Israel, can more likely be found among the most hip, pro-Palestinian Churches, some of which back a boycott of Israel, as well as among the longtime anti-Zionists in the secular intellectual left.

In 2004, we have more to fear from Micheal Moore and the archbishop of Canterbury than we do from Graham and ex-urban megachurches. It’s long since time to admit that the political and social landscape has changed greatly from the time our grandparents fled the czarist shtetl.

Finally, we should also recognize that the attempt to drive all religious thought (except perhaps pagan ideas) from the schools also represents a threat to the intelligent understanding of our republic. The founding fathers, many themselves steeped in the traditions of the Torah, would have found it ludicrous that our kids are expected to learn about the roots of American republicanism without some notion of the role played by basic Jewish, as well as Christian, moral principles.

For these reasons, learning about our faith, along with Muslims, Buddhist and Christian traditions, should not be verboten within public education. Indeed, the study of history has convinced me that you can’t understand the past, and how we got to be who we are, without a full comprehension of the religious past.

By removing religion from the public realm entirely, evicting the ecclesiastical role from our histories, plays and pageants, we essentially end up embracing in its place another theology, one that sees human history in exclusively economic class or biological terms.

Given these realties, it’s time for Jews to realize that traditional Christianity — and its symbols — represent less a threat than an important potential ally. By showing respect, and keeping our distance at this time of year, we can build on this historically miraculous development, instead of creating the basis for yet another season of discord.

 

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


 

Q: When does a Christmas tree become a Tu B’Shevat tree?

 

A: When a Westwood church and a Santa Monica synagogue decide that having one tree do double duty is good both for the environment and the spiritual awareness of their congregants.

 

After the hard-working tree has done its dual job, it will be planted in a public park for everyone to enjoy.

Fifty Jewish families from Beth Shir Sholom and 50 Christian families from the Westwood Hills Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ are each contributing $36 to jointly purchase one tree, for a total of 50 trees.

The trees, in planters, were delivered to the church on Dec. 12, during a joint celebration with temple members.

After the Christmas season, on Jan. 9, the trees will be delivered to Beth Shir Sholom families, who will care for them for the next three weeks.

Although Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, falls on Jan. 25 this year, the actual tree planting will be delayed until Sunday, Jan. 30.

On the morning of Jan. 30, the Christian and Jewish families will meet at the temple and nosh on the fruits symbolic of the holiday, after blessings by the rabbi.

Immediately afterward, the trees will be transported to the Ed Edelman Park in Topanga Canyon and planted there with the help of the TreePeople, Malibu Creek State Park and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“This project marks the convergence of two traditions, without detracting from the integrity of either one,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, the “Progressive Reform” congregation long active in interfaith relations. “In both traditions, trees symbolize new life and hope.”

“We tend to link Christmas and Chanukah because they happen around the same time,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld of the church. Linford-Steinfeld, who is married to a Jewish man, warmly endorsed the project. “I think it’s a neat idea to connect two of our holidays in a different way, especially since Tu B’Shevat comes exactly one month after Christmas this year.”

The project was the brainchild of Nurit Ze’evi, who thought of the idea when she remembered her childhood in Israel and the Tu B’Shevat holiday.

This year, the project will be on a trial run, but Ze’evi already has more ambitious plans for the future.

In a poem she wrote for the occasion, Ze’evi envisions that in the years to come, hundreds and then thousands of Christians and Jews will join hands in planting Christmas/Tu B’Shevat trees in Los Angeles, the United States and across the world.

 

It’s All About the Olive Oil


 

“I like to have fun in the kitchen,” said Susie Fishbein, a stay-at-home mother of four — three girls and a boy — who became an overnight success with the publication of her cookbook, “Kosher by Design: Picture-perfect food for the holidays & every day” (Mesorah, 2003).

While some food writers automatically push the same old latke and brisket menu at Chanukah, Fishbein offers a lighter touch by mixing in Mediterranean fare. And although she tweaks culinary tradition, she honors it. Fishbein believes in presenting beautiful food in unique ways.

Because Fishbein never attended culinary school, she has empathy for the home cook who is working blindly from a stranger’s instructions and, maybe, a picture. Her recipes are easy to follow; even novices can achieve professional results.

Although she is playful and adventurous, Fishbein is serious about finding inspiration.

She talks to lots of people, asking them about their favorite foods. She reads restaurant menus the way some people study the stock market. She’s never just eating; she’s figuring out what ingredients she’s tasting and which flavors compliment each other. Her aim is to keep ahead of the kosher curve.

“Creating recipes is my forte,” she said. To invent novel ways of preparing food, she spends huge amounts of time experimenting in the kitchen. She asks her husband and children to test her creations.

“Through trial and error, I attempted a new dish several months ago,” she said with a laugh. “It went through three phases before my family said: ‘Give it up! It just isn’t any good.'”

With a bubbly personality, Fishbein describes a recent December when a Hadassah chapter on Long Island invited her to demonstrate how to make beignets, a type of French fritter.

“Beignets are fresh and exciting at Chanukah,” she said. “A change of pace from jelly doughnuts.”

Because she expected 200 Hadassah women at the demonstration, Fishbein asked her mother for assistance.

“Ironically, I don’t come from a long line of good cooks,” she said. “My ancestors were amazing women, bold beyond their time. But we gagged on their food.”

Watching Fishbein whipping up the beignet batter and frying fritters, her mother said: “Those aren’t beignets, they’re punchkis!” She then claimed that Fishbein’s grandmother used to make an Ashkenazi rendition of this French confection. “It’s the one thing that Bubbe made well!”

Fishbein found this hiliarious, because she had searched long and hard for this upscale idea. Then, through a series of missteps followed by corrections, she perfected her version of the recipe, only to find something similar had been in the family for decades.

Every Chanukah, Fishbein throws a block party and includes all of her neighbors. Inviting 18 adults and 14 children, she serves many of the recipes from “Kosher by Design,” especially the ones calling for olive oil.

Olive oil, a precious commodity in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, is at the heart of Chanukah cooking. After the Maccabees prevailed in a series of bitter battles, there was only a 24-hour supply of oil left to light the Temple menorah.

This created a crisis, because it took eight days to replenish lamp oil. But, miracle of miracles, one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days. Paying homage to this joyous event, no Chanukah menu would be complete without food fried in oil.

True to this theme, Fishbein serves family and friends Rigatoni ala Norma, a scrumptious Italian dish made with red sauce riddled with fried eggplant and basil. Her Parmesan Crusted Grouper is a remarkably easy recipe that yields amazingly delicious results.

A perennial favorite, Greek Tomato-Spinach Pizza is surrounded by phyllo dough and layered with fried veggies and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. Fishbein likes these two dairy recipes because of the role cheese plays in the Chanukah story.

Aware that food is mightier than the sword, Judith, an unsung heroine, entertained an enemy general and plied him with salty cheese. To quench his thirst, he consumed far too much wine. After he fell asleep from the wine, Judith cut off his head with his sword, helping her people prevail against the enemy forces.

Today, the Festival of Lights remains a joyous occasion. In accordance with the holiday’s spirit, there’s a photo of a glittering table flooded with glowing candles and blue and gold accouterments in the Chanukah chapter of “Kosher by Design.”

Fishbein knows how to turn an ordinary dining room into a dazzling scene that impresses guests. She has become the doyenne of Jewish entertaining. As a matter of fact, she’s publishing “Kosher by Design Entertains” in time for Passover.

No matter what your home looks like, Fishbein suggests firing up your imagination when setting holiday tables (see page 50). Last Chanukah, her house was under construction. “We had bare walls down to the studs,” she said. “The place was a disaster zone.” Yet at her annual Chanukah party, she overshadowed chaos with extravagance.

“Would you believe the photo from my cookbook was actually my table — taken during the demolition,” she said. “It goes to show, you can create ambiance anywhere.”

But how do the creatively challenged get started? Fishbein suggests beginning with the best food. Yet, she says, it’s not only what you serve, but how you serve it.

A simple garnish creating contrast, an offbeat tablecloth such as a quilt, an Oriental pot filled with flowering plants — these things elevate the mundane to the magnificent. Search your house for lovely objects long forgotten. Mix and match things representing different styles and adapt them when you entertain.

“Above all, enjoy yourself,” Fishbein said. “Let each meal be a wonderful journey — the sharing of something special with people you care about and love.”

Rigatoni Ala Norma

6 medium Asian eggplants, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices crosswise

Salt to taste

1 1/4 cups or more olive oil

Freshly ground pepper to taste

4 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 (28-ounce or 32-ounce) cans whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 tablespoon sugar

3-4 fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus ex

tra for garnishing

1 pound rigatoni, uncooked

Paper towels

Lay eggplant slices in a single layer. Lightly salt both sides. Cover with paper towels. Let sit for 20 minutes. Press on paper towels occasionally to soak up water that will come from eggplants.

In a large frying pan, heat 1 cup, or more, of olive oil over medium high heat. Make sure you have at least an inch of oil, so it will cover the slices and eliminate the need for flipping each piece over. When oil is hot, carefully add the eggplant in batches and fry until golden on both sides. Add more oil, if necessary. Transfer to clean paper towels and drain. Season generously with salt and black pepper.

Place 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot. Add the garlic and sauté until golden. Add the tomatoes and any accumulated juices. Add the sugar and simmer about 15 minutes. The sauce will thicken. Add the chopped basil leaves and simmer three to four minutes longer.

While the sauce simmers, prepare the pasta according to package directions until al dente (chewy). Drain, reserving one cup of the pasta water in case sauce needs thinning.

Toss the pasta with the eggplant and sauce. Garnish with fresh basil leaves.

Makes six to eight servings.

Greek Tomato-Spinach Pizza

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups chopped onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 (10-ounce) boxes frozen chopped

spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

2 teaspoons dry oregano

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

15 ounces ricotta cheese

10 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed

1/4 cup butter, melted

4-6 fresh tomatoes, evenly sliced

1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 400 F.

In a skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Sauté about five minutes, or until onion is transparent.

Add spinach and saute until all excess moisture has evaporated. Add oregano, basil and pepper. Mix well. Remove from heat. Mix in ricotta cheese. Set aside.

Grease a large jelly roll pan (the kind with a small rim). Lay one sheet of phyllo in it. The phyllo may be just a little bigger than the pan. Brush phyllo with melted butter. Top with a second phyllo sheet and brush with melted butter.

Repeat process until all ten sheets are buttered. Roll the ends of phyllo into themselves to form the “pizza crust.” NOTE: Phyllo dough dries out quickly, so keep sheets covered with a damp cloth until use.

Using a spatula, spread the spinach ricotta mixture in an even layer over the phyllo. Arrange tomatoes over this layer. Sprinkle with mozzarella. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. When cool enough to handle, cut into squares.

Makes 12 servings.

Parmesan Crusted Grouper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup butter, softened but not melted

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 scallions, thinly sliced

4 small (1-inch thick) grouper fillets

1 lemon

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat broiler to high.

In a small bowl, combine Parmesan, butter, mayonnaise and scallions. Reserve.

Place grouper fillets on a lightly greased boiler pan. Squeeze juice from lemon over fillets. Sprinkle with black pepper.

Broil 6 inches from heat for 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Spread tops of the fillets with cheese mixture. Return to oven and broil for two minutes longer, or until topping is lightly browned and bubbly. Remove fillets to platter.

Makes four servings.

Beignets

4-6 cups vegetable oil

1 cup milk

1 cup water

1 large egg

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons sugar

confectioners’ sugar

Pour oil into a deep pot to a depth of 3-4 inches. Heat oil to 370 F.

In a large bowl with the mixer at medium-high speed, combine the milk, water and egg. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix until batter is smooth.

Using a 1/8 cup measure, drop the batter into the hot oil and fry about 3-4 minutes. Don’t make them much bigger or the inside won’t cook properly. The beignets will float to the surface. Turn them a few times, until the beignets are golden on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towels. Use a strainer to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on all sides. Serve hot.

Makes 20-24 beignets.

Recipes from “Kosher by Design: Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays & Every Day,” by Susie Fishbein (Mesorah).