Confessions of an ex-hoarder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Too Old to Write a Letter … of Torah

The Jewish Home for the Aging has never had a Torah it could call its own. Since the home first opened in 1912, synagogues or individuals have donated Siferei Torah to the senior-living community, but the scrolls were often old and tarnished, with faded letters or finger smudges on the parchment. These Torahs are considered pasul, or unfit for public reading, but they were the only ones available to the home for religious services.

Now the Reseda-based home, which provides care to about 2,200 seniors through its in-residence housing and community-based programs, is in the process of creating its own kosher Torah — a “Torah for the Ages,” as the project is being called.

“It’s upsetting to this point we haven’t had our own Torah,” said Corey Slavin, vice president of fund development, who with home CEO Molly Forrest conceived the project.

Slavin said the $200,000 raised for the project more than covers its costs, and remaining funds will be dedicated to various programs and services at the home. The home expects its Torah, begun April 13, 2008, to be completed sometime in 2010.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, who has worked locally as a sofer (Torah scribe) for 15 years, was commissioned to write the Torah, which will rotate between the home’s synagogues at the Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village campuses when finished. Officials hope the Torah will inspire its residents and their families to remain or become connected to their faith and community.

The Torah’s production is quite a community effort. In keeping with the 613th and final commandment mentioned in the Torah — “Now write this song for yourself and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19) — residents, family members, sponsors and anyone else who wants to may write a letter in the home’s Torah. Thus far about 100 people have written in the scroll.

Rabbi Sheldon Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said that writing in the Torah is considered the responsibility of each Jew.

During a writing session on Feb. 22, 101-year-old Cedelle Weiner found herself up close and personal with the Torah for only the second time in her life.

The first time was a year ago.

She said she did not feel very Jewish until coming to the home and found she was inspired to study with Rabbi Anthony Elman, who works at the home’s Grancell Village campus.

“This is a completely new life for me,” Weiner said as she underwent the ritual hand washing and said the appropriate blessings.

After sitting down next to Rabbi Miller, the scribe, Weiner put her hand on his and watched as he filled in a silhouetted letter from the word hamoftim (“wonders”) from the Torah’s penultimate sentence: “He had no equal for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants….” (Deuteronomy 34:11).

“The home is fantastic,” Weiner said when she was done. “I have been entertained, and now I’m getting a Jewish religion I have never had. At 101, I’m doing something different, and I am now writing [in the Torah], which I never did before.”

Rose Bentow, 86, almost couldn’t contain her excitement as she fulfilled the commandment. She was one of several Holocaust survivors who were sponsored by family members, community members or total strangers to come and write a letter in the scroll.

The moment harkened her back to her small Polish town, circa 1928. Her grandfather told her to stay out of a particular room because a man was writing the Torah and couldn’t be bothered.

Little Rose’s curiosity got the better of her, so she quietly opened the door.

“I said, ‘He’s playing with a feather. He’s not writing,’” she recalled. “I asked my grandparents, ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘This is how you write the Torah.’”

Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said everyone experiences the moment differently.

“It looks like just someone writing letters on a piece of parchment,” he said. “But it’s a spiritual event. People feel it spiritually, emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.

“Children see it simply. But when you’re older, you appreciate it differently, especially when we recite the Shehecheyanu. The idea of living to this point is amazing. That process heightens sensitivity to the mitzvah that’s about to happen.”

For more information about the Torah for the Ages, visit

Creative Chuppahs Are Labor of Love

Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.

“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.

“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.

They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.

“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”

But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.

Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.

One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.

Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.

“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.

As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.

Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.

How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.

“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.

“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.

Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.

“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.

She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.

“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”

She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.

Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.

The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.

Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.

Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.

“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”

When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”

Good Timing Lands Luck in Director’s Lap

I’m sure that when Greg Pritikin made his first feature film, "Dummy," now in theaters, he had no inkling that he had inadvertently grabbed an indie-film brass ring. But when he cast Adrien Brody as a maladroit but sweet schlemiel who is obsessed with ventriloquism as the way to win a woman’s heart, Pritikin really lucked out. Up to that point in his career, Brody was a well-regarded young actor who had displayed a wide range in American independent films. Then came "The Pianist," the Oscar, the Kiss and, suddenly, Brody is a movie star. Which means that "Dummy," a film that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks, is making its way into theaters, and that is not at all a bad thing.

Pritikin’s film takes place in a sort of every-suburb America of tract houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages, and is utterly devoid of anything to place it in historical time. Even the cars and the music — whether punk, show tunes or klez-punk — could be 20 years old, and the film’s story of a hapless schmo trying to find a way to express himself despite his suffocating Jewish family is a Philip Roth retread from the 1970s.

And yet, on a certain unadventurous level, it works. Steven (Brody) is fired from his job when he tries to give notice after deciding to surrender to a lifelong ambition to take up ventriloquism. He lives at home with his overbearing mother (Jessica Walter), omni-absent father (Ron Liebman) and chronically depressed sister, a failed singer-turned-wedding planner (Illeana Douglas). When he meets his unemployment counselor, Lorraina (Vera Farmiga), he immediately falls madly in love. With his deranged punk-rocker friend Fanny (Milla Jovovich) in a splendid against-the-grain performanc as his wildly inept guide, he tries to woo her, with disastrous results. Only when he begins to express himself through his dummy does the real, warm, sweet Steven emerge.

Although Pritikin seems to be laboring to tie up plot ends almost from the film’s opening shot, the film has a cheerfully dopey quality that can be quite winning. You know that Steven and his dummy are fated to bring happiness to Lorraina, his sister, Fanny and her cataleptic band and everyone else in the state of New Jersey (although Pritikin manages one hilarious and unexpected surprise during the final credits).

But for all its obviousness and the mechanical working-out of plot, "Dummy" has a certain tenderness towards its characters that is satisfying for its sheer unexpectedness. Pritikin starts out unpromisingly with a shrill, cartoonish tone, but once he gets the worst of the exposition out of the way, there is a warmth here that is quite pleasant. Moreover, "Dummy" has at least one really lovely moment of pure silence, a two-shot, held for nearly a minute, of a painfully awkward silence between the perpetually uncertain Steven and an expectant Lorraina; the discomfort in the air is palpable and moving.

It’s pretty hard to tell where a new director will go from the evidence of only one film, but Pritikin bears watching. After all, who could have guessed where Brody would land?

"Dummy" is in theaters now.

The Other Side of the South

When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.

Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions — but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.

His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook’s parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.

Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend’s house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different — not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house — and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."

Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn’t join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.

"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in ‘Ballyhoo,’" he said.

What surprised him was the play’s reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.

He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.

During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters’ behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."

He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).

He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.

Up a Tree Looking for a Home

My family and I are eager to move to Los Angeles from Seattle, but I’ve got a problem: We are Orthodox and we like trees.

Lately, I have been trying to figure out why it is that religious Jewish neighborhoods have to be so much grayer, less green and appealing than other Jewish habitats where more secular folk dwell.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, on the splendidly pretty Palos Verdes Peninsula, where trees and horses and raccoons and skunks seemed to outnumber the people. A few years ago, I transplanted from Manhattan to inescapably green Washington state. But Jewish life in Los Angeles is livelier than in Seattle, so we’d like to relocate.

But to where in Los Angeles, exactly? A frustration of religious observance, among many satisfactions, if you have known the secular life as I have, is that while the people are lovely, Orthodox neighborhoods tend to be not only expensive but gritty in a bland way and treeless.

The quintessential frum ‘hood is Boro Park — ironically named, because there is no park. Few trees grow in that part of Brooklyn.

So let’s get down to it: I am talking here about Pico-Robertson, which would be logical for a modern Orthodox family like us. Recently, we spent a couple of Shabbats in Los Angeles investigating the Jewish areas. There’s Hancock Park, where we stayed with friends on Las Palmas Avenue and admired the gracious, sycamore-draped 1920s homes — one of the most attractive Orthodox neighborhoods I’ve seen, wildly beyond the means of a writer like me.

We even checked out the lone Orthodox outpost in Palos Verdes, a Chabad needless to say, a frum Fort Apache identified by a small sign in an office window over a 7-Eleven. So we were left with Pico-Robertson, where the people are Grade A, the surroundings a C-minus unless you love concrete and undistinguished cracker-box apartment buildings.

Recently, an outfit called Pico Revitalization Project hung some handsome-looking banners from the lampposts between Ogden Street and La Brea Avenue, promising "A NEW LIFE FOR PICO" by means of spiffing up the nondescript storefronts. Pico Boulevard still awaits resurrection.

I’ve visited a lot of Orthodox neighborhoods — Baltimore, suburban Washington, D.C., outer-borough New York City — and I’ve found this to be the rule. When I called up some authorities in your metro area to ask why this should be, I was cast into an interdenominational debate.

Oddly, it was a Conservative rabbi who most staunchly defended the Orthodox Juderias. While allowing that Pico itself may be "kind of a dump," Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, pointed out that "right next door you have Beverlywood, which for aesthetics, I would compare to any neighborhood. The homes are beautiful. The yards are beautiful."

He proceeded to name other Orthodox localities he finds appealing: "I don’t think the Upper West Side of Manhattan is gritty. And the religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn are gorgeous. I’m not kidding! The homes are immaculate, beautiful, well kept."

Next, I talked to an Orthodox rabbi, Nachum Braverman, founder of the Los Angeles branch of the outreach organization Aish HaTorah. While attributing Pico’s condition to poor urban planning, he acknowledged, "I find the appearance of some religious neighborhoods, especially in Israel, with trash thrown around and so on, to be quite off-putting. It can be alienating to people we would like to attract to Judaism if the first impression they have of where we live is one of squalor."

But urging me to look deeper, he reasonably pointed out that it is all a matter of priorities. "The Talmud," he said, "indicates that being surrounded by beautiful things broadens the mind. But in our way of thinking, aesthetics is relativized. We devote less attention to the physical qualities of life than to the spiritual ones."

That should have put me in my place. What am I, a Philistine? Instead, I rang up Andy Lipkis, president of Tree People, which for 15 years has been trying to make Pico greener by planting trees every Tu B’Shevat. He, too, gave me a d’var Torah, from what he called his Jewish renewal perspective.

"It’s in the true spirit of tikkun olam [to heal the world] to take care of the earth," he said. "It is not simply a question of decorating. Trees have a profound healing role."

Lipkis discussed the way they protect us from the sun, thus from skin cancer and from pollution, thus from breathing problems like asthma.

He pointed out, "They also make a neighborhood quiet by absorbing noise from cars, trucks, freeways. The rustle of trees is a kind of white noise, but it’s a noise that doesn’t grate on the spirit."

Ah, now this guy speaks to me. I love quiet.

And yet, how Jewish is it to expect such things? I have been reading the Hebrew prophets lately, who describe, over and over the rigors of exile.

As Jews in America, where we have been more comfortable than anywhere in 2,000 years, we forget one of the great themes of Torah: that the galut (exile), which began with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., is not intended as a vacation, full of quiet contemplation among green, perfumed groves.

Still, I like trees. What’s needed is a rich benefactor to pay Lipkis to speed up his Pico tree-planting project. Or to buy me a house on Las Palmas. Preferably both.

David Klinghoffer is the author of a spiritual memoir, "The Lord Will Gather Me In" (Free Press, 1998). His new book, "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," will be published in April by Doubleday.

Museum Man

Every day for several decades, Irving Belfer has gone into the kitchen of his Burbank home. In what he has dubbed "The Factory," Belfer, with no tools — save for pocket knives and Elmer’s glue — toils away using plywood pieces. After a few months, sometimes up to a year later, he creates houses, synagogues, even the State of Israel.

Well, replicas anyway….

Belfer — a lovably impish man of 88 who speaks in a Polish-tinged English — has been creating such miniatures for about 80 years. An observant member of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, Belfer’s work primarily expresses his Jewish pride. And he has amassed such an oeuvre of Judaica folk art, that he literally turned his house into a museum. Groups of visitors, by appointment, come through the home/museum every month, where Belfer leads them on a tour, free of charge.

"When people come, they tell me unbelievable things," said Belfer, a Holocaust survivor who came to America in the early 1950s. "A lady took my arm and kissed me and said, ‘Mr. Belfer, all the time you’ll be in my heart.’ Unbelievable, the letters I get."

Each room of Belfer’s three-bedroom home is adorned with his handcrafted Judaica — wall hangings and constructions that capture his love of Judaism, Israel and America.

The Holocaust permeates some of Belfer’s work. One of his Holocaust memorials, which took nearly two years to complete, bears 600 hand-affixed stars — each star representing 10,000 Jews — to represent the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Symbolism such as this plays a large part in Belfer’s work. For example, a synagogue replica — call it "Congregation Beit Belfer" — bears 18 (chai, the symbol for life) rows of 13 (bar mitzvah age) stairs. The synagogue features a dome bearing 1,186 hand-grafted shingles, a bimah, pews, chandelier and even a facsimile of Chagall stained windows.

Born in Lodz, Poland, Belfer’s knack for knickknacks goes back to childhood.

"When I was a little boy," Belfer said, "all the time I made things at home."

In 1937, Belfer married his first wife, Eva Sztrauch. The couple had a boy, Baruch. Eva and Baruch died at Treblinka. Belfer survived internment in several concentration camps. In 1947, while recuperating from tuberculosis in a Gauton, Germany, hospital, Belfer reconnected with his creative side; he began making a loom — a project he did not complete for another 15 years.

In 1951, Belfer sailed to New Orleans and took the train to Pasadena, where he had an immigration sponsor. He married Ruth Frank two years later (she passed away in December). While their only daughter, Terry Ellis, can’t remember a time when Belfer wasn’t whittling on something, she unfortunately did not get to enjoy some of her father’s most ambitious creations as a child. She says the playland paradise he created — kid-friendly creations such as enormous dollhouses and wooden animal menageries — were made in the years after her childhood. However, Belfer’s grandson, Ari, 23, who married in June, and granddaughter, Shana, a 21-year-old UCSB student, did grow up with these creations in their midst.

Nevertheless, Ellis grew up in awe of her father’s prolific output.

"He always did something," she said.

To this day, Belfer continues to add new works to the mix. He completed a wall hanging of the American flag in March 2002 using a tweezer, some glue and a lot of patience.

But one of his favorite works lies at the end of the house, in a room that was added on some 20 years ago in order to accommodate his growing collection: Two large memorial tributes to those who died in the camps. One display bears the names of concentration camps and the numbers of Jews that were killed, along with the motto "Remember" inscribed in Hebrew and Yiddish; the other piece bears the Nazi concentration camp slogan Arbeit Macht Frei "Work Makes You Free." When Belfer plugs the cord in, the electric candles on the display light up in reverent remembrance to the 6 million Jews.

"There’s no memorial in the whole world like this one," Belfer said, standing proudly by his creation. "Not in Washington, not at Yad Vashem."

His daughter agrees: "I go home and I cry to think how wonderful the work is. How one man with no tools can make all of this," Ellis said. "It gives him the best satisfaction to open up his home here."

Talk to Me

I owe my life’s work to Ann Landers. And, of course, her sister, Dear Abby. Dr. Rose Franzblau. And Dr. Joyce Brothers.

It happened this way.

In our New York home, my parents subscribed to three daily newspapers. Mom and Dad are enthralled by the tabloids. Even today, they read newspapers in the kitchen or the living room. Each page is like a hit in the ribs. They regale themselves with stories of which politician is on the take, which star is on the make and murders gone unsolved. They got a big kick out of Frank Sinatra and remembered every Jewish charity he supported, and how he cared for his mother.

It’s part of the shtetl mentality that I inherited, that the world is fascinating because people make it so.

I was already following the family tradition of reading and gossiping when I hit what I’m sure my parents still consider "the miserable years." You would think I was the only teen who wanted her own phone or who had a boyfriend taking up her time.

And so the ice age began, when I didn’t talk to them, or they to me. Our dinnertime was frost.

"How was school?" Mom would say. Dad wouldn’t bother asking.

"Why do you need to know?" I would reply. It deteriorated from there, until I’d finished my cherry Jell-O and my brother and I had cleared the table.

An hour later, I’d be in my room studying the American immigrant experience. When I looked up, there on my blue jewelry box was the newspaper clipping of the day, placed there by whichever brave parent had the nerve to come into my sanctum.

Wisdom had arrived. One of the advice columnists had written precisely the words that brought my father and mother comfort, confidence that this phase was not life or death. It would pass.

"Talk to each other," was the gist of it. "Make peace in the home."

Later on, just before the 11 p.m. news, my father would say, "Did you read it?"

And I would grunt, yes. It wasn’t quite a truce, but it was the best we could manage until the next day’s installment.

As the obits this week remind us, Ann Landers, born Esther Pauline Friedman, and her twin sister, Pauline Esther Friedman (Dear Abby) had a running competition in the newspapers my parents read each day. They were Russian Jewish girls from Sioux City, Iowa, where their father sold chickens.

These columnists, in a sense, are the next step after the Bintel brief, a popular feature of the Jewish Daily Forward. The Bintel brief was written (by men) to explain America to a generation of confused immigrants. The advice columnists, writing in English, were naturals in the area that so many children of immigrants shine: common sense. The New York Times said that Ann Landers’ appeal was that she wrote in what has been called a wise-cracking style out of Damon Runyon. These advice columnists took America seriously, but not too seriously. Which is why they appealed across the generations.

Do we still need such bridge-builders? In the Southern California Living section of Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Hax, the Washington Post advice columnist, suggested the answer is "no."

"It’s not that hard for anyone to get expert advice now," she said. "You can get legal advice in a minute on the Internet."

But expertise was never the appeal of these features, though it was nice that Ann Landers buttressed her liberal opinions with religious and legal authorities like Father Theodore Hesburg and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The appeal to my dad was the voice of comfort, as the human dilemma confounded itself again and again.

It’s no small thing to give an audience comfort. A great columnist puts the world in order, finding wisdom merely by an anecdote and a bit of dialogue. I grew up in an age of great columnists, privileged to read on any weekday in the New York Post: Max Lerner, Murray Kempton, James Wechsler, then Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Nora Ephron.

They wrote about which politician is on the take and which star is on the make, and murders gone unsolved. Every now and then they write about their mother’s birthday, a good piece of theater, the death of a friend. It seemed a good way to live.

But it began with the advice columnists. Bless you ladies. Anyone who could get my family to thaw is precious to me.

Doorposts of My House

On the day I came home following lung surgery, I saw God in my front doorway. I have lived in the same two-bedroom, mission-style house in Malibu for 26 years, seeing God mostly in the Passover guise of Elijah. When you’re healthy, you assume God is with you all the time and don’t have to go looking.

But my cancer diagnosis changed everything, including the way I see and what I’m looking for. As I walked up the brick steps, with a broken rib and a fresh 13-inch scar, I eyed with chagrin my weather-beaten door. Yech. I saw spiders in the eves and ruined rain gutters. Nope, no God here.

I could change this, I thought. But how? And that’s when God arrived, wearing sweet sky blue. God was not a person, but a color; not a fact, but a vibration, a Stan Getz solo made visual. If only I could bring a bit of blue into that sullen entryway, the whole place would lift. A grassy green or jade would help, too. Also mauve and bright terra cotta. And a lintel above the entry in deep brown, to define the welcoming space. I imagined my home as it had never been before, dressed up in Spanish tile, featuring budding flowers and wandering vines. I loved it there, and I knew that love was the way I would heal. My heart burst with hope.

What right had I to hope? Cancer is an expensive disease, draining huge chunks of time and money, not to mention enthusiasm. To hire the artist Susan Krieg for my doorway project, I had to dig into capital that would have scared me even during my most productive years.

But God was in this place now. I didn’t care.

Avivah Zornberg, quoting Rashi, talks about the Hebrew concept of mash-heh, the time-stopping moment that comes during a personal crisis. Like a freeze-framed film, this is the moment when a righteous person, terrified and fearing death, can change patterns and live anew.

Perhaps that’s what it was for me. I am an intellectual. I believe in the rational mind and in proof based on verifiable consequence. If painting a doorway could cure cancer, surely oncologists would require it along with updated CT and MRI scans.

But with each visit to my doctors, I face that mash-heh moment in a new way. There’s a limit to what medicine can do if I won’t help it along. Though doctors never write out on a prescription, say, "take up gardening," or "learn piano," the bias is there. They may call it "positive thinking" or "optimism," but every one in medicine knows that health is individual. The passive patient, writes Dr. Bernie Siegel, in his now-classic "Love, Medicine and Miracles," does not help his own case. Visualize yourself as healthy, and you’re halfway there.

It may be rational or intellectual to rely upon lasers and medications for a cure. It’s also foolish. It misunderstands the way that, just as one mitzvah leads to another, one hope leads to the next. This clinging to life in the presence of illness is itself a miracle. In the Passover haggadah we read about the 10 plagues that brought the children of Israel to redemption. Nine of these are given to us gratis, as God toys with Pharaoh into letting the slaves go.

But the 10th plague is different. If the Jews are to be spared the slaying of the first born, they must act to save themselves.

How are the Jewish homes saved? Each Israelite paints his doorpost and lintel with bright red blood. It is a daring act with frightening implications: the Israelites sign up for their own salvation, electing to let God and the neighbors know that even in the darkest times, we insist upon living. The miracle they create is freedom.

Why should it be otherwise for us? Whether we’re fighting cancer or for any form of justice, we have to mean it. We paint our doorposts as a sign that we’re committed, we’ve done our part.

So the doorway is done.

Susan Krieg has painted faux tiles of vines in grassy green and jade. There is bright terra cotta. There is a lintel in deep brown. And there are mauve flowers on a field of sky blue.

Purim All Year

A year after my father’s unexpected death from a kidney transplant, I returned home.

Six months earlier, my mother had sold our house, the one I had lived in my entire life. The synagogue was the same. The family was the same. Their friends were the same.

Only one thing was different. It didn’t feel like home.

“The drawers are different,” I told her.

“I know.”

“Where’s the extra soap?”

“Linen closet.”

“You have a linen closet?”

“I know.”

I had come for the holidays. Ten days. A New Year, then Day of Atonement.

“Tzedakeh in the puskeh,” she reminded me.

“Where’d you put it?” I asked her.

“Don’t be smart,” she said.

Rosh Hashanah passed with apples, challah and honey, and aunts and uncles pressing me to them just a little too hard. “Good Yontov,” they exclaimed so cheerily, their faces pinched with hiding, baring too many teeth.

A sweet new year, they toasted with sticky sweet wine.

“Next year in Byzantium,” echoed Bubbe, “… or wherever.”

He had been her son. The second she lost in as many years.

Four days down.

“Go to the cemetery,” my mother had said, more than half a dozen times since I’d been home. “You should go to the cemetery.”

I didn’t want to. But how could I say that?

“It’s proper. It’s right,” she insisted. “It’s a sign of respect.”

“It smells in here.”

“Do you hear me?”

“Did you just get new carpeting?”


“What else did you throw out?”

“I’m only going to say this one more time.”

“It’s not like he’s there!” I yelled, my first outburst.

She looked at me surprised. You of all people.

“I’ve gone to shul, I’ve said the prayers. I came home. Isn’t it enough?”

“No,” she said, so quietly.

“It’s not like I don’t talk to him anyway. I don’t need a monument to — there’s nothing to do with …”

But she was gone. Finally, she didn’t want to discuss it any longer.

Eight days down.

I visited my grandmothers. We sat with our feet up, talked about nothing, and ate a lot of sugar. Neither suggested I go to the cemetery.

“Do what you want,” Bubbe said.

“Just be nice to your mother,” Nana said.

I wanted to do what was right. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Nothing could have left a larger void in my life than his death. And no one was questioning my love, least of all my mother, who knew best of all.

Nine days.

Friday evening, the night before I left, we broke fast with relatives after our day of starvation and prayer, bitterness and wishing, hoping, cursing and crying. Completely drained, I got into my car and headed back to my mother’s new place alone.

The car took the route it always had under my hands. From Nana’s, off the fork to the right, down the long street and right on —

I stopped. Inches shy of turning up the driveway, I realized. The radio started playing some incredibly sappy song. I looked to my right. My old house.

The driveway where he taught me to pitch a softball. The road he had pushed my two- wheeler along (“peddle, peddle, peddle!”) ’til I could go on my own. A house where we sat together at a piano singing “Fiddler on the Roof” songs, just this much off-key. Graduation photos in the driveway, yelling around the kitchen table and late-night movies after everyone else had gone to sleep. And I realized.

This was the place my father was buried. This was where his spirit lived and reigned, no matter what name was on the mailbox. Twenty-five years in one house. Two sons, one daughter, a wedding, two bar mitzvahs, a basketball net, a mortgage, a life. We had walked around the house after the shiva, we had let his spirit go. But he remained. His final resting spot.

I cried the entire length of the song, and turned around in the driveway to go home, to my mother’s condo.

I had made it to the cemetery after all.

Award-winning Chicago-based playwright, actress, choreographer and educator Jamie Pachino has served on the faculty of Columbia College and the Chicago Academy for the Arts.